NEW YORK (PIX11) – While football fans scour Super Bowl Boulevard looking for fun, law enforcement is searching for dozens of area teenagers who may have been forced into the sex trade.
Lexie Smith is a survivor of human trafficking who grew up in the Chicago suburbs — part of a lively, Italian-American family. She is speaking out in the run-up to the Super Bowl to tell her difficult story and warn others of the often difficult-to-spot, nefarious practice.
None of the trappings of what many would consider the American Dream could save her from being raped for the first time at the age of six.
Lexie’s rapist was one of her stepfather’s young relatives – a boy, her cousin by marriage.
It was that same boy, who later introduced Lexie to an older neighbor, another teenage boy when she was just ten years old.
“We wanted to play a particular game, but the batteries were missing. And this guy said he had them at his house. He lived right in the cul de sac. So we walked over to his house. And when I got there, it was just me and him,” said Lexie.
It was the beginning of journey into hell — a two year nightmare that began for Lexie, not on an urban street corner, but in the suburbs.
“From what I can remember that night, because it was so traumatic, he raped me at least six times. And in between each time I would try to get away. I would try to fight, and get back across the street to my family where I knew it was safe,” said Lexie. “He told me if I didn’t shut up, that he was going to do the same thing to my sister,” said Lexie.
With that threat – Lexie’s teenage attacker forced her into vicious cycle of silence.
He then trafficked a ten-year-old Lexie into the hands of one of his own friends for sexual pleasure, like she was a piece a property.
“Looking back, a lot of the times my family was often just across the street, or even upstairs – the next floor, and I remember thinking, ‘why isn’t someone looking for me?'” she said. “People want to think that trafficking is being chained to a bed, basement, or locked in a cage, but it’s not. The chains are mental. And they know when you’re broken and you don’t have a voice, that you’re not going to say anything. They pick up on that, and they know that. And he knew that.”
While some traffickers indeed end up in handcuffs – the result of undercover police busts — too many of their victims are often forced to hide in plain sight where they often avoid detection because society fails to take a closer look.
Sex trafficking is estimated to be a $32B criminal industry.
“It’s more common in America for domestic trafficking to look like something going on in the neighborhood, rather than your downtown strip,” said Lexie.
That scenario poses a significant challenge for law enforcement officials trying to crack down on sex trafficking in this year’s “Suburban Super Bowl,” which will be played, not in Midtown, but East Rutherford New Jersey.
New Jersey Assistant Attorney General Tracy Thomson has been crisscrossing the Garden State, counseling the first line of defense – hotel and motel employees, along with members of the community on what to look out for.
“Pay more attention to the fact that a number of women are with one single guy. Pay particular attention if he’s the only person talking and making reservations for everyone else. No one single factor is a telltale sign. But these are the types of indicators,” said Thompson.
Just days before the Super Bowl, Lexie Smith’s story of missed signs and ignored indicators continues to resonate with audiences across the region.
“During these school assemblies, I usually at least have one student – at least have one student that comes up and says that happened to me, that happened to my friend, that happened to my aunt – it’s happening to my sister, my brother,” said Lexie.
So for this 22-year-old college graduate with a degree in psychology, sharing her ordeal has not been easy.
Making matters worse, she says the teenage sex predator and trafficker who turned her life into a living hell, simply left the neighborhood one day — not for jail, but college – and escaped justice.
“It’s definitely hard to deal with, knowing he’s still out there,” said Lexie.
As Super Bowl weekend nears – while hopefully keeping a vigilant eye out for potential sex trafficking activity – Lexie wants to remind everyone that sex trafficking victims are often – for whatever reason – unable or willing to speak up for themselves.
She now draws strength from words that once described an intense fear — a poem she wrote for a therapist.
“Just a little girl I haven’t got a clue. Angry and alone. If only they knew. People pass by, I wish they could see all the pain inside. I wish it was a dream, something I could forget. These images are too real. Memories are too familiar. Sometimes I wish I were as invisible as I feel. Maybe men would leave me alone if I was never here,” said Lexie.