|Sex Trafficking Survivor Offers Cleveland Kidnap Victims Advice|
|By CYNTHIA McFADDEN, JON MEYERSOHN and ERIC M. STRAUSS (@ericmstrauss)||May 10, 2013, 1:46 PM|
Cheers rang out through a Cleveland neighborhood this week when three young women held captive in a house of horrors for years were finally returned home.
But what happens when the cheers die down and the harsh reality of starting over after a life filled with terror begins?
Sharon Richard of Toledo, Ohio, just 90 miles from Cleveland, knows too well the burden of living through sex abuse in horrendous captivity and then struggling with the after-effects.
Today, Sharon is 23, and she is a sex trafficking survivor.
"Seeing that, [the Cleveland missing women case], it brought back some of the memories, some of the things that I went through," Sharon said this week in an interview with "Nightline."
"I couldn't imagine going through what I went through for 10 years," she continued. "I mean, that's just torture and I couldn't even imagine what they went through."
Both Sharon and her first cousin were kidnapped as young teenagers and forced into prostitution for nearly two weeks before they were rescued. They first talked to ABC News about their ordeal in 2008. At the time, they were still teenagers so ABC News changed their names and disguised them in wigs for their own protection during the interview.
The girls said their nightmare started innocently enough with walking to a Wendy's located on a corner near their home.
"It was just getting dark because it was raining," Sharon said at the time. "Then, a white Lincoln pulled up beside us."
Sitting in the passenger seat was a man Sharon said she thought was the father of one of her classmates. At the wheel was an attractive woman she didn't recognize, but thought looked harmless. The two offered the girls a ride to the Wendy's. All of a sudden, all those warnings they had heard so many times were ignored and they got in the car.
"My mom has told me a million times, 'No, don't get into the car with strangers,' but I thought I knew the guy," Sharon said. "So, it was stupid."
After they got in the car, the couple drove past the Wendy's, saying they wanted to get Chinese food instead. But there would be no Chinese food. The cousins were taken against their will to a house in Toledo and held prisoner. Once inside the house, the terrified girls said they were separated by two women who called themselves Envy and Kashmir.
"Envy takes me downstairs, and Kashmir takes my cousin upstairs," Sharon said. "She explained to me what I had to do, that I had to sleep with men for money and stuff."
"She just came out and said it," she continued. "She was just like, she was so comfortable with it. She was just like, 'yeah, you know, you have to sleep with men for money.' And I'm like, 'what?' She was like, 'you'll be a prostitute for Daddy.' That's what she called him, and she's like, 'and you have to call him Daddy.'"
It was the first of many nights of terror. The cousins were forced into a world where sex was bought and sold. The day after they were kidnapped, Sharon said she, her cousin and the two women went to a hotel, where a male stranger got to pick which one he wanted to have perform oral sex on him.
"And he picked me," Sharon said.
Prior to that day, Sharon said she had only had sex one time with a boyfriend, but she would go on to be forced to perform sexual acts with multiple strangers for money.
University of Toledo sociologist Celia Williamson studies the sexual exploitation of teenagers and started a program that helps rescue victims. According to Williamson, young girls who are snatched and forced into prostitution often are too scared to escape or cry for help.
"Because that pimp says to her, 'I will hurt your family. I'll hurt your siblings. You better not say anything to anybody,'" Williamson said.
After a week, the girls were taken to a Michigan truck stop and again forced to have sex. A trucker recognized Sharon as underage and called police. She was rescued, but her cousin was whisked away back to that Toledo house. Sharon's mother figured out where Sharon's younger cousin was and called 911. When police finally arrived, the girls' abductors were arrested and their nightmare was over.
Sharon said she has watched the terror in Cleveland this week unfold and has been thinking about what lies ahead for the three freed kidnap victims. She herself has spent years recovering, suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress. She has also had run-ins with the law for shoplifting and served jail time.
"Some days I just don't know how I'm going to get through it," Sharon said. "I just pray and I say, just get me through this day, because I can't. I can't do it myself."
Sharon still lives in Toledo. She has two children who live with her mother and she is separated from her husband.
She offered some hard-earned words of wisdom for the survivors in Cleveland, who are just beginning their long road to recovery.
"I know what they went through was hard, OK? And I know they don't want to talk about it because it's embarrassing, what you've done, but it's not your fault. I just want to say that," she said. "No matter what happened, even if you're brainwashed to think that you wanted to do it, you didn't want to do it, and it's not your fault. You need counseling, you need professional help, and there's nothing wrong with that ... get the help you need, and use your support system, your family, and just use the things around you, and stuff. So, it gets better."
Sometimes to escape what happened to her, Sharon said she tries to surround herself with people who love her.
"When I go to the park with my children or I go with friends or family, or go to the movies," she said. "Just getting out and getting away from things that remind me of it, so it's not all bad, but it definitely is a big load to carry."