The state of Ohio vs. a sex-trafficked teenager

The criminal justice system mishandled 15-year-old Alexis Martin’s case. Now she’s living with the consequences.

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The paperwork was signed, her belongings were stuffed into a plastic bag, and then, finally, it was time. She was guided down a long hallway. She stepped through a metal detector. A heavy door was pushed open, and Alexis Martin walked out of prison.

“Where am I going?” she asked her lawyers, hesitating on the sidewalk. It was April of 2020, the pandemic’s early days, when Ohio’s governor was going on television every afternoon to talk about shutdowns and masks and case counts — until the news conference when he had something else to announce. He was granting the release of a 22-year-old incarcerated woman.

“She was 15 years of age when she committed the crime,” Mike DeWine explained. “She is a child sex trafficking survivor.”

He was echoing what Alexis’s defenders had been arguing since the night in 2013 when the biracial 10th-grader was involved in a robbery that turned into a murder.

Alexis Martin as a teenager, before she was imprisoned for her role in a robbery that led to the death of her alleged sex trafficker.
Alexis Martin as a teenager, before she was imprisoned for her role in a robbery that led to the death of her alleged sex trafficker.
Alexis, now 23, was called a child sex trafficking survivor by the governor.
Alexis, now 23, was called a child sex trafficking survivor by the governor.

LEFT: Alexis Martin as a teenager, before she was imprisoned for her role in a robbery that led to the death of her alleged sex trafficker. (Courtesty of Alexis Martin) RIGHT: Alexis, now 23, was called a child sex trafficking survivor by the governor. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Prosecutors knew Alexis wasn’t in the room when the shots were fired, maiming one man and killing another. They still charged her with murder and demanded that she be tried as an adult, saying she was the one who led the robbers into the house of Angelo Kerney.

But as her case moved through the criminal justice system, little attention was paid to how the 15-year-old girl knew the 36-year-old man in the first place. Or what witnesses said he was doing to her. Or why she called him “Dad.”

A judge said Alexis was “working” for Kerney’s “escort” business and sentenced her to decades in prison.

Black teenagers like her had historically been treated as “child prostitutes” rather than victims of rape by adults. While Alexis spent the rest of her teenage years behind bars, that was changing, as judges, prosecutors and police officers were educated on what sex trafficking in the United States almost always looks like: not parking lot kidnappings or smuggling over borders, but the vulnerable being groomed by someone they trust. Just as Alexis had described.

Across the country, courts are grappling with whether to punish or protect children who are both perpetrators of serious crimes and victims of sex trafficking. In Alexis’s case, the abuse was disregarded — and she would always live with the consequences.

Now, after Kim Kardashian visited Alexis in prison, after a Republican governor acknowledged what she’d endured, after six years, five months and 13 days, she was crossing the parking lot, getting into a car and making sure she didn’t look back at the Ohio Reformatory for Women.

The car stopped outside the electrified fence, where the people who wanted to witness this moment were waiting. Her little sister, her childhood best friend, the advocates who had fought for her, all of them envisioning the life Alexis could have.

In her commissary-issued sweatpants, she started to run, threw her hands up and launched herself forward. Her fingers met the grass, her curls gave way to gravity and her legs spiraled over her head, exposing the ankle where, soon, a GPS monitor would be latched.

The state would be tracking her every second. The prosecutors were trying to put her on a registry of violent offenders. After she finished a five-month transition program, she would be on parole, being checked on and tested for drugs until at least 2034. Her record would always show a murder conviction, and all the limitations it would bring.

Her teenage plan to escape from the man she said controlled her had landed her in a cell for nearly a third of her life. Now Alexis’s freedom came with more controls.

Outside the prison, she landed in a split, and her supporters clapped for her.

“You are free,” they told her. “You are free.”

She stopped doing cartwheels. She covered her face with her hands and started to cry.

‘I set my dad up’

From the moment the Akron detectives walked into the interrogation room on the evening of Nov. 7, 2013, they were disturbed by what they saw.

Sgt. Scott Lietke and Detective John Ross thought the girl handcuffed to the table looked far older than their own daughters had at 15. Alexis’s 5-foot-3 frame was squeezed into tight jeans and a tighter tank top. She was wearing high heels. But when she spoke, she asked a child’s question:

“Is my mom coming?”

“No,” Lietke answered.

When she asked for a lawyer, the detectives talked her into continuing the interview without one.

They’d been on the case since 4:10 that morning, when police were called to a run-down house on the city’s north side. It was home to a man who was known to police and neighbors as “A.K.”

Angelo Kerney had returned home from his latest stint in prison, six months for drug possession, back in the summer. He was a member of a large Akron family and father of two teenage boys. Lietke found him naked on the carpet in an upstairs bedroom with two gunshot wounds in his head.

A photo of Angelo Kerney logged by police in the investigation of his death.
A photo of Angelo Kerney logged by police in the investigation of his death. (Summit County (Ohio) Clerk of Courts)

In the living room, there was a chrome stripper pole and, beside it, more bloodstains. Kerney’s 18-year-old brother Alecio had survived being shot through his hand and into his head. He told detectives that he and Kerney were with two women when a pair of masked, gloved and armed men appeared.

A month earlier, Lietke had investigated a nearly identical robbery. While two women distracted a guy they knew, two masked men burst in. Lietke hadn’t been able to prove who the robbers were, even though he had a key suspect: Travaski Jackson. But before Jackson could be tracked down this time, witnesses told the detectives about “Alexis Love.” One described her as “a neighborhood girl who sleeps around and is a prostitute.”

Police found her picture on Facebook and quickly realized their suspect was just a kid — and one the juvenile division already knew. Alexis was on probation for a fistfight with her sister. Her records showed she was a regular runaway from a home life that appeared to Lietke, and later to court psychologists, to be one of the most traumatic they had ever encountered.

A teenage Alexis kisses her mother, Crystal.
A teenage Alexis kisses her mother, Crystal.
Alexis, left, was fiercely protective of her sister Ciara from a young age.
Alexis, left, was fiercely protective of her sister Ciara from a young age.

LEFT: A teenage Alexis kisses her mother, Crystal. (Courtesy of Alexis Martin) RIGHT: Alexis, left, was fiercely protective of her sister Ciara from a young age. (Courtesy of Alexis Martin)

There were the circumstances that kids in trouble too often had: Addicted parents. Bouts of homelessness. Foster care while Alexis’s mother was incarcerated. Allegations of sexual abuse by her stepfather. Thirteen schools in 10 years.

But then, there were the sexual assaults by a 21-year-old that started when Alexis was 10. At 12, she was impregnated by a 16-year-old, who was convicted of statutory rape. She lost the baby, a boy she’d named Jaly’near, at 4½ months. After his death, Alexis tried to kill herself by drinking bleach.

Her court reports noted that in the past few months, the girl who used to buy groceries for her younger siblings and ride the bus alone to her probation check-ins had seemingly disappeared. She wasn’t at home or in school. She left a voice mail for her probation officer saying she’d been kidnapped and taken to Cincinnati.

No one looked for her.

Alexis had shown up for just one check-in recently, during which the court staff noted that she was wearing far more makeup and far less clothing than she used to.

Now she was in Lietke’s interrogation room, listening to him explain, “You’re in some serious, serious, serious trouble.”

At first, Alexis said she left Kerney’s house before the shooting. But as she spoke, she revealed where she had disappeared to in the past few months. She called Kerney’s house “my dad’s.”

“I called him my dad because he was a pimp,” she said in the recorded conversation. “My dad was running an escort business.”

Ohio already had a law for this moment, when minors charged with crimes disclose they have been sold for sex. The purpose of the “Safe Harbor” law was to ensure that trafficked children are connected to services before any legal proceedings against them. When advocates today train police, prosecutors and judges on how the law works, they point to a case of what not to do. The girl at the center of that case was sitting across from Lietke and Ross.

They carried on with the interview, ignoring what Alexis had revealed.

“I know that you and that girl were dancing around either half-naked or naked or somewhere in the middle,” Ross told Alexis. “One of you girls texted the two guys and let them know when the coast was clear.”

The detectives suspected Alexis didn’t shoot anyone but saw her as key to finding who did. Lietke promised to help her if she helped him. So for the next two hours, beside a box of tissues and a camera recording her every word, Alexis confessed, telling the detectives, “I set my dad up.”

She said she brought a young woman into the house and introduced her as a recruit. The woman was upstairs with Kerney. Alexis was downstairs with Kerney’s brother Alecio, already through one condom.

The two robbers came through a door the girls left unlocked. While one man held Alecio at gunpoint, shots went off upstairs.

“I’m panicking, I’m looking for my clothes,” she said. “When I grabbed my keys, they were like, ‘Hold on, ain’t nobody going out this motherf----- until we done.”

She wiped her fingerprints off the stripper pole. She was in the kitchen when she heard more gunshots. Then she fled the house with the others, who split up the money and drugs they’d stolen.

Alexis told the story using only nicknames for the others she said were involved. Again and again, the detectives asked for their real names, asked her to point to pictures of who did it.

“They know where my sister is,” Alexis said. “What if they get some of their dudes to …”

“Then we will move your sister, okay?” Ross assured her.

“You promise?” she asked. “Whatever I say, you’re not going to let them hurt my sister?”

“Absolutely not,” Ross said.

They didn’t have a clear answer to the other question she kept asking: “Am I ever going to be able to do anything with my life?”

They reminded her that she was young. They offered her snacks. She told them she couldn’t keep food down.

“Can we please give you something to eat?” Lietke asked, softer now. “I’d feel better if we did. We’ve got muffins. Would you like a muffin? I’m going to get you a muffin.”

Alexis ate the muffin, and after a few minutes pointed to one of the pictures.

When the detectives left the room, she flopped onto the metal table and closed her eyes.

She hadn’t told the whole story. She would come to understand that she didn’t actually know the whole story, had never heard the words that could explain it.

It would be weeks before a social worker in the juvenile jail would introduce Alexis to the phrase “human trafficking” after Alexis began confiding what she had been through.

She really had been taken to Cincinnati, she said, by a drug dealer she hadn’t been able to pay back. He drove her to a strip club, and that was the first time she was forced to use her body to make money. After that, she started spending time with the father of a friend. A.K. had always seemed to her like the kind of parent she wanted.

There were steak dinners. And talks about how intelligent she was. She met the women who worked for Kerney, who she assumed sold heroin, too. He got her a job at Tops and Bottoms strip club in Cleveland, she said, and made sure no one touched her when she came off the stage. She remembered him paying her mom’s bills and taking her and her sister shopping.

The social worker would explain that this was called “grooming.” Alexis thought it was called “love.”

But she didn’t know what to call the new bruises on her hips shaped like his thumbs. The grunts of the men who showed up not to buy drugs, but to buy her. The taste of tequila, of molly, of anything to make her feel less. The cash she handed right to him. The cash she tried to hide in the lid of the toilet.

“He beat and raped me more times than I can count," she would write while she was incarcerated. "Angelo made me quit school so I could make money for him. ... I told him ‘no’ and that I was going to leave. As a consequence, he beat me severely and locked me in the basement for 2 days without food or water — to teach me that I could never leave.”

She tried turning herself in at her probation check-in, hoping she would be arrested because she had been missing so long. The court released her.

Alexis took this mirror selfie shortly before she began spending time with Angelo Kerney.
Alexis took this mirror selfie shortly before she began spending time with Angelo Kerney. (Courtesy of Alexis Martin)

Soon, she found someone to help her escape. Deshaun Spear was three years older than she was, but they’d dated before. The day she confided in him, she said, he’d been hanging out with Travaski Jackson, who had scored $3,500 on his last robbery and gotten away with it.

“Deshaun privately told me that we would use his share of the money to run away together, with my siblings, to another state,” Alexis later wrote.

She never told the detectives what her motive was for stealing from Kerney.

They never asked.

Alone in the interrogation room, she suddenly knew what was about to happen. She raised her hand, waving to the camera, trying to get someone’s attention. And then her vomit splattered onto the table.

When no one came in to help her, she pulled out tissue after tissue and tried to clean up the mess by herself.

‘The worst case’

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Alexis, 23, outside her new home in April 2020. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

By disclosing that she had a pimp, Alexis had reported a crime.

“It’s hard to shock a couple of veteran homicide detectives,” Lietke said in a recent interview. “We walked out of that room like, ‘Is this real?’ ”

But in the days that followed, the Akron police did nothing to follow up on allegations of sex trafficking and abuse of a 15-year-old, though the detectives now acknowledge that is what should have happened.

Instead, Lietke handed his report over to the Summit County Prosecutor’s Office, the next step in Alexis’s journey through a system where all the major decision-makers in her case — the lead investigator, defense attorney, prosecutor and judges — were White. Alexis, the prosecutors argued, deserved consequences as severe as her adult co-defendants.

Travaski Jackson, 23, would be sentenced to a minimum of 31 years for Kerney’s death, and 27 more for the robbery the month before. DeShaun Spear, 18, would receive 41 years to life for being the triggerman. The woman who helped distract Kerney, 22-year-old Janae Jones, would get 15 years to life.

Prosecutors said Alexis deserved a life sentence, too, and pushed for her case to be sent to adult court, a move the detectives had not told her was possible.

“You don’t want to say the system failed her,” said Ross, who now oversees juvenile trafficking investigations, “because I don’t think the system, at that point, even realized what was out there and what it could offer.”

But in reality, the Safe Harbor law had been on the books for 17 months, mandating that children accused of crimes related to being trafficked have their charges paused while they received services, including a guardian ad litem to advocate on their behalf. Today, children who qualify for Safe Harbor in Akron are also provided with therapists, mentors, drug treatment and lawyers trained on the traumatic impacts of trafficking.

Alexis received none of those.

Defense attorney Noah Munyer, left, represented Alexis Martin. 
The office of Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh, center, pushed for Alexis to receive a life sentence. Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio, right, decided whether 15-year-old Alexis should be tried as an adult. (Danny Thomas/Transmit Identity, Karen Schiely/Akron Beacon Journal, Courtesy of Judge Teodosio)
Defense attorney Noah Munyer, left, represented Alexis Martin. The office of Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh, center, pushed for Alexis to receive a life sentence. Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio, right, decided whether 15-year-old Alexis should be tried as an adult. (Danny Thomas/Transmit Identity, Karen Schiely/Akron Beacon Journal, Courtesy of Judge Teodosio)

She had only a defense attorney three years out of law school. Noah Munyer juggled 200 cases a year and had just once represented a juvenile facing murder charges. He didn’t know he could seek the Safe Harbor protections for Alexis. He didn’t call the witnesses, including her parents, who offered to testify that Alexis had told them Kerney would hurt her family if she disobeyed him. He didn’t argue that Alexis’s motive for robbing Kerney was to escape from him. He didn’t describe what Alexis said Kerney had been doing to her, calling their relationship only “highly suspicious.”

“It was and is the worst case of my career,” Munyer says now.

His goal was to keep her in the juvenile justice system, where she could serve her time in a youth detention center until the age of 21, and be left with only a juvenile record.

He thought that defaming a dead man would only hurt Alexis’s case. And Munyer was certain the psychologist’s report about Alexis’s traumatic past would be enough for the judge, a renowned progressive, to keep her case in juvenile court. Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio’s motto was “Turning lives around one child at a time.”

In court, Teodosio said Alexis had a “very clear history” of being trafficked and asked the prosecutors what should be done about it.

But the attorneys who represented Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh claimed there was no evidence Kerney had been trafficking Alexis. They focused on the statements of Alexis’s co-defendants, who said the robbery was her idea. (The other woman involved would later testify that Alexis said that if they robbed Kerney, they would have to kill him too — a comment Alexis denies.) The 10th-grader, the prosecutors told the judge, was a “manipulator.”

Alexis never spoke at the hearing held to determine her fate. When it was over, the judge decided: Alexis would be tried as an adult.

Teodosio, who said judicial ethics rules bar her from commenting on previous cases, started a specialized court program for trafficked children the following year.

By then, an author of Ohio’s Safe Harbor law had intervened in Alexis’s case to try to get it sent back to juvenile court. It didn’t work. Following the advice of her attorney, Alexis agreed to plead guilty to murder and felonious assault.

When she spoke at her sentencing hearing, it was to tell Kerney’s family how sorry she was. His mother, Marjorie Rumph, was in the courtroom. She told the judge she’d met Alexis before, when Kerney introduced her as his “daughter.”

“My son could still be alive if she had not introduced those boys or took those boys to my son’s home,” Rumph testified.

Kerney’s two sons were now without a father. And Alecio, Kerney’s brother, had a bullet wound in the back of his head that would cause seizures and memory problems for the rest of his life. The nightmares — a gun to his head, pleading for his life, the whole night on repeat — wouldn’t go away, either.

Kerney’s mother and brother would always deny that he had been a trafficker. They said that Alexis told people she was 18, and that she was always free to come and go as she pleased.

“If anything happened to her in the past,” Alecio says now, “it wasn’t with me and it wasn’t with my brother.”

When it was time for Alexis to be sentenced, then-Common Pleas Court Judge Tom Parker shared that he had been the one to grant Kerney an early release from prison for his drug conviction, persuaded he had turned his life around. Parker, who declined to comment for this story, described Alexis as “working” for Kerney’s drug-dealing and escort business.

“It is almost beyond comprehension,” the judge said at the time, “to think that a 15-year-old child would be involved in that kind of work.”

Then he sentenced her to 21 years to life.

‘I had to keep breathing’

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While in juvenile detention at 15, Alexis began to plan the community center for vulnerable kids she hopes to open one day. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

The poems said what she couldn’t.

If I stay up all night

My mind loses memories

I'm too sleepy to hold a thought.

Finally in the daytime I can start sleeping,

I lose the feelings of weeping

the feelings of their hands seeking,

No don’t judge me now

keep reading

I had to keep breathing.

They were Alexis’s personal record of her 2,356 days incarcerated, a moment to herself on a metal bunk bed. The writing broke up the monotony at the juvenile jail, the Dayton Correctional Institution and the Ohio Reformatory for Women, facilities that kept their own records of her progress: her skittishness about loud noises, her fights with other prisoners, her quickly recanted accusation that another inmate groped her, her suicide attempt.

But within four months of arriving in adult prison, Alexis earned her GED. Then came her dog obedience instructor certification. Drum line. Anger management class. Healthy relationships class. Three levels of education in heating and cooling, until she was doing maintenance on the prison’s air conditioning.

The busted lips,

the swollen tongues

are all hidden parts of my character that was built being young.

Part of my heart hates you,

the other forgives and replaces you.

Forever on my heart I’ll have a trace of you.

I’m promised to the cost paid,

but watch the girl it made.

She helped turn a class about trafficking into a mentoring program for women who were learning, as she had, how to explain what had happened to them. Adults were always telling Alexis that one day she could help other victims for a living. But during her business classes, she planned a nonprofit focused instead on kids at risk of being trafficked, before the abuse began.

“Pimps aren’t trafficking girls out of safe houses,” she’d say.

Alexis spent part of her prison time at the Dayton Correctional Institution.
Alexis spent part of her prison time at the Dayton Correctional Institution. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Outside the prison, trafficking was quickly becoming the subject of training and task forces, billboards and bus ads, prayer groups and policy changes. In the time Alexis was incarcerated, at least 10 states passed measures similar to Ohio’s Safe Harbor law. The U.S. Justice Department nearly quadrupled the number of federal grants for trafficking survivors. Ivanka Trump hosted a human-trafficking summit at the White House. And a woman with a story similar to Alexis’s was freed from prison. In the midst of the #MeToo movement, Kardashian and thousands of others advocated for the release of Cyntoia Brown, who was serving a 51-year minimum sentence for killing a man who paid her for sex while she was being trafficked at the age of 16.

After Kardashian heard about Alexis’s story, she requested a visit to the Dayton Correctional Institution. With a documentary crew filming, Alexis tried to explain to one of the world’s most famous women what her life had been like while she was being trafficked. She described being instructed to put her hair in pigtails and wear a Hannah Montana nightgown for the next customer, who wanted to be scratched.

Kim Kardashian with Alexis at the Dayton Correctional Institution in August 2019.
Kim Kardashian with Alexis at the Dayton Correctional Institution in August 2019. (Jennifer Kinsley)

With new lawyers and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center working on her case, Alexis daydreamed about getting out and moving in with a trafficking survivor who regularly visited her in prison. She could get an HVAC job to pay for business school at Ohio State University, where she could learn to run the nonprofit she’d been planning. She wanted a driver’s license. Maybe even a boyfriend — the real kind.

But when Alexis’s case went before an appeals judge in 2016 and the Ohio Supreme Court in 2018, she lost. To be sent back to juvenile court, the law required that her crime be “related to” her victimization. Her first lawyer didn’t present enough evidence to prove that, the rulings said.

Across the country, courts were learning how to recognize when children facing charges were victims of sex trafficking. But in every case, prosecutors and judges were the ones to decide how much the abuse mattered.

[He was sexually abusing underage girls. Then, police said, one of them killed him.]

In Wisconsin, 17-year-old Chrystul Kizer was charged as an adult in the death of a man who filmed his sexual abuse of her and other underage Black girls. Prosecutors argued that Chrystul wanted to steal the man’s car. A judge ruled that she did not have access to the state’s defense law for victims of trafficking.

In Texas, 16-year-old Zephaniah Trevino was involved in a robbery that turned into a murder. She says the 18-year-old who pulled the trigger was selling her for sex to the man who was killed. As “Zephi” became the next hashtag, actress Jamie Lee Curtis bought a full-page ad in the Dallas Morning News advocating for her. Prosecutors argued that Zephi should be sent to adult court, where she is now facing five to 99 years in prison.

And in Ohio, when Alexis went before the parole board in 2019, a lawyer from the office of Summit County Prosecutor Walsh argued that Alexis didn’t deserve to go free.

“If not for her, the crime would not have happened,” Rick Raley said.

He listened to Alexis and her new attorneys, Jennifer Kinsley and Sasha Naiman, describe the abuse and the evidence her first lawyer had failed to present.

The prosecutor was not swayed. In a recent interview, Raley, along with Walsh’s chief counsel, Brad Gessner, said Alexis’s story of being trafficked was a “new narrative” she didn’t disclose “until she saw that she could get a benefit from it.”

But the prosecutors’ account of how the case unfolded misrepresents what happened after Alexis’s arrest.

The prosecutors said that Alexis did not confess in her first interview with police and that only in later interviews did she admit her involvement in the robbery. But no additional interviews ever occurred.

Prosecutors said Alexis did not tell detectives she was being trafficked. But video shows she disclosed that Kerney was her pimp five minutes after being read her rights.

Prosecutors said Alexis did not mention trafficking to the court psychologist, either. But the doctor’s report said she worked as an “escort” and at a strip club Kerney had connected her to.

When asked about these inaccuracies, the prosecutors dismissed them, saying they did not see the connection between Alexis’s disclosures and the crime.

“You know, the Safe Harbor law is not ‘well, just say you have a pimp and you get out of any sort of criminal responsibility,’ ” Raley said.

Two parole board members sided with him. Eight voted that Alexis should go free.

Alexis must charge her GPS ankle monitor on a near-daily basis. She cannot go swimming or take a bath.
Alexis must charge her GPS ankle monitor on a near-daily basis. She cannot go swimming or take a bath. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

They recommended that she receive five years’ parole. But Gov. DeWine, a spokesman explained later, believed that to aid in the transition period and protect the public, released prisoners should remain on state supervision for the rest of the years they were originally sentenced to serve.

Before Alexis cartwheeled outside the prison, she signed a document stating that she agreed to be monitored electronically and by a parole officer until she was 36 years old in 2034.

And if the state’s parole authority deemed it necessary, the paperwork said, she could remain under their control “for the rest of her natural life.”

‘Mental prison’

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Alexis gets ready for work in April. She struggled to find an employer that would hire someone with a murder conviction. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Her eyes were closed. She was trying not to be too nervous. She heard the command: “Don’t move.”

Alexis tensed.

Then she felt the eyeliner pencil move across her lids, held steady by a friend who had come to make sure she could handle this day. It was the first anniversary of her release from prison. In the Cincinnati suburb where Alexis now lived with her mentor, there was going to be a party at a nearby church to celebrate the person she had become.

The invitations featured the name she’d started going by: Kee, a shortened version of her middle name, Ke’Erica.

Alexis, who now goes by Kee, lives in the basement of another trafficking survivor’s house, where her room is filled with fuzzy blankets and stuffed animals.

Her life after incarceration has taken place entirely during the pandemic.

She has been spending time with her newfound family,

and saving money to buy a car and go to college.

If she violates any of her parole conditions, she could be sent back to prison. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Alexis, she said, was her past. Kee was the person who cooked tater tot casserole for her newfound family and splurged on Christmas presents for the people who’d never stopped answering her calls. Kee passed her driver’s test on the first try and went on dates to Dave & Buster’s with a boyfriend her age. Between therapy and check-ins with her parole officer, Kee worked as many hours as she could to save for business school.

She’d applied to an HVAC apprenticeship program but said she was turned down after her background check. The same thing happened at two temp agencies, two delivery services and a manufacturing job, where the hiring manager offered to refer her to a company where most of the workforce had once been incarcerated.

Kee works six days a week at a chain restaurant and a gas station.
Kee works six days a week at a chain restaurant and a gas station. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

She packed boxes there until she found jobs at a restaurant and a gas station. She wore loose men’s trousers so her co-workers wouldn’t see her ankle monitor.

And that, too, was the person she had become: She was afraid to meet new friends, because the conditions of her parole stated she wasn’t allowed to have contact with anyone else on parole, and how do you ask someone that when you first meet them?

She was invited to speak at a Kentucky university 10 minutes from Ohio but had to get permission weeks in advance to cross state lines.

She’d gotten a boyfriend, but any time he made a comment that felt like he was telling her what to do, she started to panic. Once, she found herself gagging, unable to shake the feeling that she was being choked. Now they were just friends.

Kee says the Bible she keeps beneath her TV makes her feel safer when she watches scary movies.
Kee says the Bible she keeps beneath her TV makes her feel safer when she watches scary movies. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

“I’m free from my trafficker. I’m free from prison. But I am still in a mental prison,” she said. “And I’m trying to figure out if I am ever going to get out.”

Her makeup done, Kee looked at herself in the mirror one more time. On this night, she’d traded the baggy pants for a dress that showed her calves, ankle monitor and all. She slid her feet into strappy sandals and looked again.

“5:47, we gotta hurry up!” her friend Dezaray called.

Kee grabbed her car keys.

“I’m going to be late,” she said. She already had one speeding ticket and was determined to avoid another. It was the only blemish on a year of following the rules, of trying to make her parole officer proud, of listening to her lawyers promise that all of it would matter.

They were working to keep her off the state’s registry of violent offenders and get her record cleared with the help of her first attorney, who was willing to testify to how badly he’d botched her case. But Kee had no idea how long that would take or if the new judge, Joy Malek Oldfield, would rule in her favor.

Kee hugs one of her attorneys, Jennifer Kinsley, as she celebrates the first anniversary of her release from prison on April 20 in Mason, Ohio.
Kee hugs one of her attorneys, Jennifer Kinsley, as she celebrates the first anniversary of her release from prison on April 20 in Mason, Ohio. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

At the church, there was a sheet cake with her name on it and a slide show of her smiling.

“How do you feel?” Kee was asked again and again.

How did she feel? She never pulled a trigger, but she was still considered a murderer. She was told she was a victim, but she was still being tracked. Unless DeWine or the parole board decided to modify her parole conditions, she wasn’t expecting any of that to change.

“I’m grateful,” she answered.

She recognized a woman who had come to visit her in prison: state Sen. Teresa Fedor, who had written Ohio’s Safe Harbor legislation and believed the law had been broken in Kee’s case. She’d recently invited Kee to speak to other lawmakers at a virtual event on human-trafficking awareness. Now the senator pointed to her ankle monitor.

“We’re going to tell the governor,” Fedor said, “we don’t shackle victims.”

Kee nodded, smiled and said thank you, not wanting her doubt to show.

When the cake had been wrapped in plastic and her guests had hugged goodbye, her lawyers helped her take the party balloons outside. She held the strings tightly, waiting to release them until after she had given instructions.

“On three,” Kee said, “we’re going to say ‘Freedom.’ ”

She was one year closer to getting hers. She had 13 more to go.

“Ready?” she asked, and then she began to count.

Kee releases balloons at the end of the party thrown in her honor.
Kee releases balloons at the end of the party thrown in her honor. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
About this story

Story editing by Lynda Robinson. Copy editing by Gilbert Dunkley. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Video editing by Amber Ferguson. Design and development by Emily Wright. Additional design and development by Jake Crump and Allison Mann.

Jessica Contrera is a reporter on The Washington Post's local enterprise team. She writes about people whose lives are being transformed by the major events and issues in the news.