“I was like the prisoner and he was like a warden,” Zeferjohn, now 21, told KCUR. “Coming to prison, it’s not … a big adjustment to me, which is pretty bad. I had no choice but to obey him.”
Zeferjohn later pleaded guilty to an aggravated human trafficking charge for allegedly helping Long find other girls. Two years into her nearly six-year prison sentence, Zeferjohn is seeking a pardon from Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D) — a controversial request that highlights the complicated dynamics of holding a trafficking victim responsible for helping to victimize others.
Sex traffickers commonly use violence to compel one of their victims to serve as a “bottom” who recruits other girls to the operation, said Bradley Myles, chief executive of Polaris, a nonprofit that fights human trafficking and modern-day slavery. Financier Jeffrey Epstein, who died by suicide in August after being indicted on sex-trafficking charges, allegedly used girls and women to draw potential victims into his sphere.
By pitting the victims against one another, Myles said, traffickers try to prevent them from directing their anger toward the pimps. Traffickers also know they are more likely to catch girls if their peers are recruiting them, Myles said. So they use force, fraud and coercion to make the bottoms into their lieutenants.
“I think the lens to view that behavior is through the lens of control — something that they were put up to do by somebody else, not something they were volitionally doing on their own, because they face such severe consequences if they don’t do that,” Myles said.
The so-called bottoms are frequently charged with trafficking crimes, but Myles believes all or most of the blame should fall on the trafficker — the one who created the power dynamic that led to the girls’ actions. Bottoms should only face prosecution in rare circumstances in which the coercion had ended and they kept recruiting new victims, Myles said.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline reported receiving calls for 95 instances of human trafficking in Kansas last year. Nearly 11,000 cases were reported nationwide.
Zeferjohn was 14 when her older sister first brought Long, then 24, to their family’s house and welcomed him into the fold. Their father treated him as a friend, according to KCUR. By the time Long found Zeferjohn again, she had lived in foster care, graduated from high school and given birth to a son.
Under Long’s thumb, Zeferjohn worked as a prostitute and brought her earnings home to Long, Stacey Kelly, an ex-girlfriend of Zeferjohn’s father, told KCUR. Long allegedly beat Zeferjohn so hard that she had two miscarriages and threatened to hurt her son if she disobeyed him.
“He destroyed my life,” Zeferjohn told KCUR. “He tried to kill me twice, and I tried to think about it like ‘I need to go, I need to get out,’ but I’m stuck in this whole situation.”
Zeferjohn was charged in 2016 with aggravated human trafficking and nine related felonies, court records show. She pleaded guilty to the trafficking charge the next year, and the other charges were dismissed.
The charges stemmed from accusations that Zeferjohn had introduced to Long a 14-year-old girl she had met in a foster home, KCUR reported, citing court documents. Long is accused of telling the girl she could live with them in exchange for sex and said he would kill her if she reported him to police, according to KCUR. Zeferjohn allegedly told the girl she had to go along with Long’s demands.
Zeferjohn was also accused of offering drugs to a 15-year-old girl. When Long supplied the drugs, he allegedly made both girls repay him with sex, KCUR reported. The 15-year-old told police what had happened, and Long and Zeferjohn allegedly retaliated against her by selling her to a man for a weekend, according to KCUR.
Long is serving a 35-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to attempted aggravated human trafficking and related charges, court records show.
Shawnee County District Attorney Michael Kagay did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post. He told KCUR that Zeferjohn was at “the right hand of the organization” that Long ran and had to be held accountable.
“How do you deal with somebody like Hope Zeferjohn?” Kagay told KCUR. “If you give a pass to everyone who does the sort of things Miss Zeferjohn did, I don’t know that society actually wants that to happen.”
Vicki Smith, Zeferjohn’s attorney, told The Post that although her client pleaded guilty to trafficking, she denies recruiting other girls for prostitution. Even if Zeferjohn had done so, Smith said, justice requires reversing her conviction because she would have been under duress when she roped in other girls.
“Let’s posit a hypothetical that you are 16 years old and someone’s beating you up, choking you, threatening to kill your infant, threatening to kill your family,” Smith said. “Do you think that person has the volition and the thought process to be able to do anything but survive?”
In a statement, the governor said she would consider Zeferjohn’s request for a pardon and seek to work with the Kansas legislature to focus more on rehabilitative programs, instead of punitive ones.
“The story of Hope Zeferjohn is a sad one,” Kelly said. “I will consider every clemency request I receive after a full process of developing facts and with input from those affected, but more importantly, our state has a structural criminal justice problem that needs to be addressed.”