When Leneka Pendergrass' seventeen-year-old daughter called out of the blue two years ago and pleaded for help, she immediately knew what was wrong. "Mom, I'm in somebody's backyard and he's looking for me. He has a gun." The teenager, who frequently ran away from home — and who'd struggled since age thirteen as an exploited child in Oakland's violent underworld of human sex trafficking — had escaped the clutches of a pimp. And now, that pimp was out to kill her.
Pendergrass drove to 64th Avenue on January 7, 2014, and rescued her daughter from a stranger's house. They sped to the Oakland Police Department's Eastmont Substation, seeking protection. "The pimp knew where I lived, and he was definitely looking for her," Pendergrass recalled during an interview last week. But the Eastmont station was closed, so they drove to OPD's downtown headquarters and filed a report. The family then fled straight to Hayward and hid at a friend's house.
Her daughter's trafficker had used violence and intimidation to dominate their lives. "I realized we couldn't just go home," Pendergrass explained. She worried that Oakland police would not prioritize the capture of her pimp, and that he would return to their apartment and kill them both.
In desperation, Pendergrass turned to an organization that had previously helped. She called Patrick Mims, a community leader and coordinator of the Sexually Exploited Minors program at Bay Area Women Against Rape, an Oakland-based nonprofit that counsels trafficking survivors and their parents. Pendergrass had interacted with Mims and BAWAR several times before, and she felt that the organization, plus the police and the district attorney, would make a difference for her daughter (the Express is not using her name because she was a minor during this time of abuse).
Now, however, Pendergrass alleges that she was sexually exploited and betrayed by one of the very people who was supposed to protect her family.
Making a Sex-Trafficking Survivor
Pendergrass' daughter was a runaway who regularly went missing. But during the final months of 2012 and beginning of 2013, she began disappearing for extended periods.
Her mother tried to stage an intervention. She took her daughter to BAWAR's offices in the Alameda County Family Justice Center on 27th Street in Oakland. She met Mims, who agreed to try to mediate between the two, she says. But the conversations were difficult. During one session, her daughter stormed out of the room.
Around this time, Pendergrass felt like her life was falling apart. She explained to the Express how her friends and family were growing distant. She rarely saw her daughter and constantly worried for her safety. And a 2007 conviction for forging Department of Motor Vehicle documents for undocumented immigrants made it difficult for Pendergrass to find work and housing.
"There was a period when I didn't want to live," Pendergrass admitted.
She started having problems at work, as well. So, she asked Mims if he would help by writing a letter to her managers, explaining what kind of psychological stress she was under due to her daughter's plight.
This letter demonstrated that BAWAR and Mims considered Pendergrass a client, just like her daughter.
"Over the course of the last two months Ms. Pendergrass has spent countless hours attempting to retrieve her daughter from being trafficked and exploited for money," Mims wrote in the letter. "Ms. Pendergrass has also participated in individual counseling on a weekly basis in order to help her cope with the fact that she has a missing child. Please consider this when making any decision in regards to her employment." His letter helped Pendergrass keep her job.
But the trauma of having a daughter on the streets persisted.
In May 2013, her daughter called saying she had been kidnapped. "She said she didn't know where she was. She hadn't eaten in three days, and they kept her naked in a house," Pendergrass explained. "I was terrified."
Somehow, the girl escaped. But another pimp met her on the streets of Oakland in July of that year: Marcus Brown.
According to court records, Brown promised her money and a home in Los Angeles if she worked for him. He trafficked her in Stockton, Salinas, and as far away as Las Vegas, making $500 off her body a day. He took all the money and controlled her with violence. When she said she didn't want to work, Brown would hold her captive. If she tried to escape, he threatened that he would make her "go missing," that her corpse would be found in an alleyway. Brown kept Pendergrass' daughter isolated from friends and family.
When they were in Oakland, Brown would drive the girl to International Boulevard, or across the Bay to Polk Street in San Francisco, where he would force her work in the "tracks," areas known for street prostitution. Some days, the daughter would be able to leave Brown's house and go to her mother's home, seeking shelter. But the pimp would send text messages threatening to kill her and her mother. He had brutalized Pendergrass' daughter in a bid to physically and psychologically dominate her.
Once, he choked her until she blacked out. Another time, he told her he would break her ribs, kill her, and hide her body.
The abuse climaxed in January 2014, when on the fifth day of that year the girl snuck out a window of the pimp's home and escaped to her mom's apartment, where she hid for several days. Brown threatened to kill her if she didn't return.