This is the first in a five-part Channel 2 series on teen prostitution and its toll in Alaska. Reporter Rhonda McBride begins with a look at a prostitution ring in Anchorage, provided by a woman who was a part of it.
Prostitution is not an easy subject to talk about, especially for those who have engaged in it -- but Heather McMenamin-Bozart, a recovering drug addict who spent 10 years enslaved to a sex trafficker named Don Webster, wants to change that.
McMenamin-Bozart was one of 40 witnesses who put Webster behind bars in February 2008. Webster was convicted of exploiting women and girls between the ages of 13 and 30.
McMenamin-Bozart believes childhood trauma made it easy for Webster to lure her into the sex trade. Presented with a pile of stones alongside a backpack on a table and asked to think of each one as a bad experience growing up, she quickly began to list a litany of woes.
“Growing up without a father,” McMenamin-Bozart said, putting the first stone into the backpack. She said the next stone she put in represented child molestation; then she picked up another, and another.
“The drugs and alcohol inside my family,” McMenamin-Bozart said. “Feeling like an outcast at home. Or not having and food or clothing or being picked up at school.”
Before long, the backpack was filled with about 20 stones.
“It just becomes one big bag,” she said as she tried to lift it up. “That’s what you’re carrying around on you. It’s a lot of weight, a lot of weight on a child’s shoulder.”
When McMenamin-Bozart first crossed paths with Webster, she was 22. When they met at an Anchorage strip club, she believes he instantly recognized that she had grown up emotionally needy. At that time, she says Webster went by the name of Jerry Starr.
“(He) portrayed himself as a man who was interested in meeting me as a boyfriend,” she said. “He introduced me to crack cocaine and he got me hooked that way.”
She was soon to discover that she wasn’t alone, that she was one of many girls Starr had seduced with drugs and charm.
“He could have sold you ocean-front property in Arizona,” McMenamin-Bozart said. “He was that good.”
As part of his prostitution ring, Starr maintained several houses of women, hooked on drugs and turning tricks.
“It was a smooth operation, if you want to look at that way,” McMenamin-Bozart said.
Several of his houses were in middle-class neighborhoods, where McMenamin-Bozart was also was expected to help groom younger girls to work in the trade.
“When the young girls are first introduced to this, they latch on -- they’ll find one of the older girls to latch onto, kind of maybe a big sister role, or a mother role,” she said.
Starr wanted the women to think of him as the family patriarch.
“He would have us call him Daddy. So he was like our lover, our father, our supporter, our everything,” McMenamin-Bozart said.
She says Starr was always on the look-out for broken girls.
“Then he builds them up by lavishing them with gifts, telling them how much he wants to take care of them, putting them in nice places and giving them nice homes and clothes,” McMenamin-Bozart said.
Starr also treated girls to getting their hair and nails done -- but he expected the girls to turn over every dollar they earned, and if he felt he was being shorted he would turn violent.
“We had what we call the box,” McMenamin-Bozart said.
Starr would punish his girls by locking them up in small spaces. In the house McMenamin-Bozart stayed at in East Anchorage, Starr used a crawl space under the house to punish her.
“There was a time I got locked into the box and I was stripped down naked, hog-tied and thrown into the box and held down there for three days,” she said.
The FBI salvaged a closet from a trailer that Starr used to house another group of prostitutes. It was used in his trial as evidence of his cruelty.
“He had a box no matter where he went; that was his punishment,” McMenamin-Bozart said. “There was never lights. We never had lights in them.”
When girls were released from the box, Starr would tell them that their Daddy still loved them.
The FBI and the Anchorage Police Department say Starr typified an underground culture of pimping. Like other prostitution kingpins, he would take away driver’s licenses and other forms of identification from his women, to break their connection to the outside world and increase their dependence on him.
Special Agent Jolene Goeden says Starr would form what is called a “trauma bond” with his women, similar to the Stockholm Syndrome in which hostages become emotionally attached to their captors.
“Breaking them down, building them back up: that loyalty is created out of that, because that young girl or young woman becomes so dependent on him, they think he literally controls their lives,” Goeden said.
Starr liked young girls because they were easier to control.
“Their minds are more moldable, like Play-Doh,” McMenamin-Bozart said.
Starr would often cruise Spenard or troll the People Mover bus service’s Downtown Transit Center, keeping an eye out for broken girls.
McMenamin-Bozart says she wanted to warn the girls, but was afraid. She also recognized that like her, they carried a lot of stones in their backpack.
“It was sickening, it was sad,” she said. “I wanted to scream out, ‘Hey, this isn’t what you want! Trust me.’”
Once a svelte, aristocratic blonde who had first caught Starr’s eye, McMenamin-Bozart found herself in need of cosmetic surgery after a drug dealer hit her in the face with a hammer.
“You’ve got friends dying from drug addiction; you’ve got the addiction itself,” she said.
McMenamin-Bozart said during her time with Starr, she only added more stones to her backpack.
“The stones are just unbelievable – unbelievable,” she said.
In 2003 McMenamin-Bozart was devastated when a close friend, who also worked the streets, was identified as one of two headless torsos that had washed up on the shores of Cook Inlet that year.
McMenamin-Bozart hopes that by speaking out she will educate Alaskans about the true nature of the sex trade and the women who engage in it.
“We all have our stories,” she said. “It’s not like we were little girls sitting in our rooms, playing with our Barbie dolls, talking about one day how I’ll wanna grow up and be controlled by a pimp.”
McMenamin-Bozart is now 35 and a stay-at-home mom. In March she will celebrate two years of being drug-free.
As for Don Webster, aka Jerry Starr, he is serving a 30-year sentence at a federal prison in Beaumont, Texas. His case is on appeal, and a federal judge has ordered him to pay $3.6 million in restitution to compensate 11 victims.
Investigators arrived at that figure by calculating the amount of money Webster collected through exploitation. Prosecutors say it’s not likely that money will ever be paid, because Webster claims he doesn’t have it.
Watch the NewsHour Tuesday for Part 2 of “Stones in a Backpack,” in which we take a look at how the Internet has changed the face of prostitution in Alaska.
Contact Rhonda McBride at firstname.lastname@example.org