The bruises have faded and the bones fused back together, but the pain still lingers as a constant companion.
It’s been five years since Nicole escaped a Lakewood man who, when she was a teenager, used love to pressure her into prostitution and brutal beatings to control her for four years.
Hers is a relative success story in the dark world of human trafficking.
“I don’t really think of myself as a victim,” she said last week. “I’m a survivor.”
Nicole completed her associate degree, is holding down a 9-to-5 job, owns her own car and is studying to be a paralegal. But she can’t escape her past, and so she struggles.
Potential employers shake their heads after learning of her prostitution arrests. Her credit is shot because of the hospital bills accumulated by the severe assaults she suffered at the hands of her abuser. She finds it hard to build relationships, even with family members, and doesn’t believe people who say they love her.
The cops and federal prosecutors who put her pimp behind bars describe Nicole as strong and courageous, which she is starting to believe. That courage made her want to tell her story, to be a voice for the multitude of underage girls being forced to sell their bodies.
She wants people to know many are lonely, scared girls looking for love, not dirty criminals out for a good time. She says they often don’t have a choice to leave once in the clutches of the pimps.
“Every time I ran away, I had nothing to run to,” Nicole said. “My abuser was really manipulative. He actually had me believing it was a real relationship.”
She met Juan Vianez, then 26, a week after she turned 17 and began dating him. He used coercion and threats to lure her into prostitution, claiming he would blow up her mother’s house if she didn’t cooperate.
Yet she believed he loved her, that they were starting a future together.
In her first three hours on the street, Nicole made $750, which she turned over to Vianez. He treated her nice at first, said the things she longed to hear and took her on elaborate shopping sprees.
He bought Nicole her first pair of high heels, which she practiced wearing around the house. It wasn’t long before she was sporting a tattoo with his street name, something she initially thought was a privilege until he began branding other girls as well.
He trafficked her around the country but she spent most of her time in Tacoma, Las Vegas and Hawaii. It was a year before she became his head girl and was made responsible for four other underage girls he was prostituting.
It was Nicole’s job to post online ads and run interference between them and Vianez. A self-described tomboy standing 6-feet-2, Nicole took the beatings for some of the smaller girls and tried to run off the youngest ones Vianez brought home.
When she was 18, Nicole tried to run. She worked a “regular job” for a month before Vianez found her and brought her back. She said that without a house or anyone to help her, she had no choice but to return.
The beatings worsened, sometimes for nothing more than fixing a sandwich wrong. He punched her, kicked her, covered her with pepper spray, locked her in a closet and forced her to stand in freezing showers for up to eight hours.
“It was difficult I wanted to leave so bad,” Nicole said.
Vianez began sending her to travel alone, an arrangement that suited her fine because it meant a reprieve from his fists. She would wire him some money earned by prostituting and visit monthly to hand over the rest. She estimates she gave him $4,000 to $5,000 each week.
The turning point came in August 2007 while she was staying with Vianez at his father’s house in Tacoma.
Vianez got mad at Nicole and attacked, hitting, kicking and choking her. He hit her in the back with a 2-by-4 board and repeatedly threatened to kill her.
Still, she didn’t turn him in.
Twice more that week, he doled out physical abuse that led to her friend insisting she go to the emergency room.
Nicole was covered in bruises. Her face was swollen, and one of her eyes swelled shut. She had a broken nose, a broken bone in her eye socket, a broken hand, broken ribs and a hole in her ear drum.
“I don’t know if you know who Quasimodo is, but I looked worse than him,” she said. “I probably have more iron in me than Iron Man.”
She had reconstructive surgery on her face and has to wear glasses because she has double vision from the damage to her eye.
Still, when police officers questioned her in the hospital, Nicole referred to Vianez as her boyfriend.
Vianez was charged with first-degree assault but was bailed out of jail and found Nicole in Portland. He convinced her to go on the run so the charges would be dropped.
She went into hiding for 11 months and the charges were dropped. She returned to Washington in October 2008, was arrested on a material witness warrant and kept safe from Vianez, who was arrested the same day.
Federal prosecutors ultimately charged Vianez with sex trafficking, interstate transportation of a minor in furtherance of prostitution, interstate transportation in furtherance of prostitution and witness tampering.
He was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison, nearly double the sentencing term guidelines. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Bryan said he chose a long term because of the “terribly abusive situation.”
We are “not here on a murder charge by luck of the (victim’s) strength and medical intervention,” the judge said at the sentencing.
Nicole said she now sleeps easier at night but still lives with fear. Vianez’s fellow pimps still write her threatening letters. She has bouts of depression and battles waves of hatred for Vianez that overtake her.
She thinks of him sitting in a jail cell, being fed three square meals a day, being clothed and housed. She thinks of herself, struggling to live a normal life, to forget the pain and abuse embedded in her mind.
“Sometimes I don’t think it’s fair,” she said. “There’s still a lot of things that come with the past I have that make it where I want to give up.”
It’s those moments she summons her strength, and moves forward.
After all, she has a life.Editor’s note: Information in this story came from court records and Nicole, whom The News Tribune is not naming because she is a victim of a sex crime. Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653 stacia.glenn@ thenewstribune.com