For someone who’s only 18, Shauna Newell is remarkably composed as she describes being kidnapped, drugged, gang-raped and savagely beaten.
It is only when she talks about seeing one of the men who sexually assaulted her — free and unafraid of being prosecuted — that she starts to break down.
“I went out to the beach a few weeks ago and I saw the dude who raped me, and he just looked at me,” Newell told NBC News, her voice choking. “Like, hey … you ruined my whole life. You have scarred me for the rest of my life and you're just sitting there going on with your life like nothing is wrong.”
As shocking as Newell’s story is, it is not unique, TODAY’s Natalie Morales said Thursday in a special report entitled “Sex Slaves in the Suburbs.” Advocates for girls and young women who are forced into prostitution by people who approach them in various ways, including on the Internet, claim that thousands of American youths are victims of human traffickers.
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Like Newell, many are treated by law enforcement authorities as runaways, said Marc Klaas, who founded the advocacy group KlaasKids after his own 12-year-old daughter was abducted, raped and killed. When they are forced into prostitution, the young people are the ones who are prosecuted, Klaas told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Thursday in New York.
“It turns upside down,” Klaas explained. “First of all, many of these kids are missing children. But what happens is when they’re trafficked, they’re turned into hookers; they’re turned into prostitutes. So we find this situation where we find these young victims, these young girls that all of a sudden are being treated and looked upon as criminals.”
At least in that regard, Newell was fortunate when she was abducted two years ago. Thanks to her mother and Klaas’ organization, which organized a search for her, she was rescued after three days. She’s gone public to warn other girls about how easy it is to be kidnapped and trafficked.
A typical 16-year-old in a middle-class home in suburban Pensacola, Fla., Newell’s nightmare began innocently enough: A new friend she had met in high school asked her to come to her home for a sleepover.
Newell’s mother, Lisa Brant, didn’t like the idea, but after weeks of lobbying by her daughter, Brant met with the girl and the man she said was her father to make sure her daughter would be safe.
But the girl’s “father” was really a convicted felon, and the girl, who had a record of prostitution in Texas, was an accomplice in the abduction. “Her dad took us to this house and said he'd be right back and he left us there,” Newell recounted in a taped interview. “And I asked for some water because I was thirsty. And I drank the water and I blacked out.”
The water had been laced with a drug. When she woke up, Newell was groggy and couldn’t move.
Left alone for a moment, Newell managed to call her mother.
“My cell phone rang. And all I heard was, ‘Mommy, help me,’ ” Brant said. “And the phone went dead. And I freaked!”
She called police, but they told her that Newell had probably run away from home, and they wouldn’t be able to treat it as a missing-person case until 72 hours had elapsed.
“He was like, 'Oh, well, you know, there's nothing I can do. You know teenagers,’ ” Brant said.
A stroke of luck
With law enforcement unwilling to act, Brant and Newell’s siblings started their own search. They were fortunate in that Brad Dennis, an investigator for KlaasKids, was based in the area because the Florida Panhandle is an epicenter of human trafficking.
By sheer luck, one search party stopped at a convenience store for something to drink, and Newell’s 14-year-old brother spotted his sister in the back seat of another car that had stopped at the same store. She was rescued, but her abductors managed to flee.
After three days of being raped and beaten and drugged, Newell was dirty, bloody, bruised and barely alive. She was airlifted to a hospital and had to be resuscitated twice. In addition to her serious injuries, she had been infected with an STD.
Newell said that her captor told her she had been sold on the Internet for $300,000 to a man in Texas. Fortunately, she was rescued before delivery could be made. During Newell’s ordeal in Florida, her captor took money from a number of men who raped her. When she screamed, he held a gun to her head and threatened to blow her brains out.
Vieira asked Lisa Brant what advice she has for other girls.
“Listen to your parents. Just don’t stop believing. Be strong,” she said. “Follow what your parents say fully, fully. There are people out there who will help you. Speak up. Everybody needs to speak up. Girls that have gone through this, they’re scared.”
Tune in to “Sex Slaves in the Suburbs” at 6 p.m. ET Nov. 15 on MSNBC.
For more information about the KlaasKids Foundation, visit klaaskids.org. If you have been a victim of an experience like Shauna Newell’s, you can e-mail the makers of “Sex Slaves in the Suburbs” at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints