Shared from the 5/5/2019 Houston Chronicle eEdition

HC INVESTIGATION

THE TRACK

OPEN-AIR SEX TRADE PERMEATES DAILY LIFE ON HOUSTON’S OUTSKIRTS

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Godofreo A. Vásquez / Staff photographer

A Houston area known as the Bissonnet Track has become a notorious hot spot for sex trafficking and prostitution.

THE TRACK

TODAY Life on the Bissonnet Track

MONDAY Getting out of “the game”

TUESDAY Cracking down

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Godofredo A. Vásquez / Staff photographer

Kathryn Griffin, center, leads a support group for former prostitutes and sex-trafficking victims.

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Photos by Godofredo A. Vásquez / Staff photographer

A pair of stilettos hangs from an electrical wire on Plainfield Street. Houston police run regular undercover vice operations on the Bissonnet Track to address rampant street prostitution.

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Maylela Lucas, 42, who was born Jeremy, said she contracted HIV at 16 after her father raped her.

A dozen miles from downtown Houston, cars inch down an industrial side street and drivers idle by a cluster of young women bathed in streetlight, brokering primal transactions.

A middle-aged woman in stilettos and a tight-fitting shirt stretched down to her thighs crosses a feeder road on a weekday morning, flicking her tongue suggestively at commuters stopped at the light.

A few blocks away, tenants tell the building manager they’ve seen strangers having sex outside their doorways, in their complex’s laundry room and inside Range Rovers in the gated parking lot.

A kindergartner and first grader wonder aloud on their walk to school about the ladies standing around with their privates showing.

“They’re selling their body to feed their kids,” their mother says.

These scenes might raise eyebrows in sprawling suburbs and well-heeled city districts, but they are ordinary and unremarkable to shopkeepers and apartment dwellers in this urban patch on the southwest outskirts of the city. It’s known to prostitutes, cops and johns as the Bissonnet Track.

The neighborhood has earned an international reputation in recent decades for the street trafficking that permeates everyday life. Arrests have made barely a dent in the criminal activity.

Now, local officials have taken the radical step of asking a judge to declare several blocks off-limits to more than 80 people accused of engaging in prostitution — labeling them nuisances to the community and threatening fines if they return.

The mayor and police chief trumpeted the rare ban last August, and residents and business owners cheered the county’s calls for an “anti-prostitution zone” around a triangle framed by U.S. 59, Beltway 8 and Bissonnet Street. The requested civil injunction, they say, will help shut down the sex trade on the Bissonnet Track.

But as a legal challenge plays out in court, criticism has mounted. Anti-trafficking organizations say the civil suit against alleged prostitutes, pimps and johns could harm victims of the sex trade. Civil liberties advocates say it violates fundamental rights without addressing the problems.

Lawyers for the accused call it misguided and punitive — targeting people for selling themselves but ignoring the circumstances that led them to sex work.

‘Called a nuisance’

For those working the streets, it’s known as “the game”: the life and livelihood of the sex trade, the rules of survival.

Kathryn Griffin has spent years on the front lines of an achingly complex undertaking, helping people find their way out of the life. In her local recovery group, none of about 30 former prostitutes and trafficking victims had heard of the joint effort by the state and county to eject people like them from the streets.

“Nobody wants to be called a nuisance,” Griffin belted out to her Wednesday group, punching hard on “nobody.” It sounded like the first refrain of a sermon.

“Hell, we know we a nuisance! Do y’all know we a nuisance?” she asked, pacing between face-to-face rows of people in padded chairs who nodded and cracked smiles.

“Mmm-mmmhhh,” one woman hummed back.

“That’s right,” another said.

Six participants raised their hands, affirming nonchalantly that they had “worked Bissonnet.”

Sure, Griffin said, they had brought hardship to the neighborhoods they worked, but they had shouldered traumas of their own. Messing up didn’t make you disposable.

People cycle through prison and back to the life, Griffin said. Going straight requires honesty, dedication and time. She then rolled into a favorite riff — slipping into character to tell them they’d never break free if they heeded the wrong messages from the wrong people.

“You sitting on a gold mine! There’s no reason you should be broke as long as you can have sex!” she hollered.

Miss Kathy, as she’s known by three generations of people trying to exit “the game,” is a brash-talking former prostitute and ex-backup singer for Rick James and Parliament with roots in Inglewood, Calif., and Hattiesburg, Miss. She runs a recovery program for the Precinct 1 Constable’s Office called We’ve Been There, Done That.

It took her 22 rehabs and 22 years to shake a crack habit and confront the trauma and sexual abuse she endured as a child and later as a call girl. The prospect of 35 years in the penitentiary propelled her into becoming what she calls “a retired ho.”

Griffin, 59, hosts the weekly gathering at a friend’s ornate mansion typically used for weddings and events. She is also founder and director of Our Roadway to Freedom, another “ho class,” as she calls it, at Plane State Jail, a women’s lockup in Dayton northeast of Houston. She served a stint there from 1996-97 before entering a Harris County drug program.

“Who better to teach a ho not to ho than a ho?” Griffin asked the mix of voluntary and court-ordered attendees, switching to street vernacular.

Group participants include mothers and grandmothers with toddlers wandering at their feet. They share victories and terrifying moments from their week, as Griffin intercedes with mini-lectures on topics such as, “You shouldn’t have never gone back to him,” and the pitfalls of shoplifting at Walmart. On any given week, she will make apoint in song, unleash a string of profanities and pause to praise God.

Haunted by the past

The Bissonnet Track veterans at a recent meeting were mostly transplants to Houston who said trauma and addiction led them to prostitution.

Maylela Lucas, 42, a transgender woman with a sunny demeanor, grew up in a turbulent military household in rural North Carolina. She contracted HIV at 16 when her father raped her, she said. He died a few years later.

Lucas escaped to Houston and began transitioning to female.

“I was haunted by my father doing this to me, his son, you know?” she said. “I began to change my identity, because Jeremy was hurting so bad. Maylela had to become somebody to get away from the pain.”

She was working as a female impersonator when a boyfriend introduced her to crack, which freed her from the incessant trauma of the abuse. She started prostituting north of Bissonnet in the 1990s to fund her habit. The money was easy, she said.

“I’m not patting myself on my back, but I was a pretty girl and nobody hardly knew what I was,” she said. One customer stabbed her after he saw she had apenis. Lucas needed stitches for the wound, but she didn’t go to a doctor until after she spent the day’s earnings getting high.

Another veteran of the Track, Tracy, ran away from a big middle-class family in Chicago where her father partied and gambled. Like several people interviewed by the Houston Chronicle, Tracy, 49, asked that her full name be withheld to protect her safety.

She said she entered the sex trade at 14 and began dating a drug dealer who gave her free samples. She picked up a crack addiction as a young mother in Houston and supported her habit working “renegade” — without a pimp — blocks from her home on the Bissonnet Track. When she was 25, she said, a customer raped her at gunpoint.

The memories of mortal peril — involving knives, guns, beat-downs and hostage-takings — are common in Griffin’s orbit, as are stories of friends lost to murderous pimps and johns. Some of the homicides are unsolved, such as the brutal stabbing death of 21-year-old Natalie Fisher, whose body was found in a Houston ditch in 2016.

Fisher, a suspected trafficking victim from Central Texas, had previously listed a motel near the Track as her home address. Fisher’s mother is now suing the motel on charges the owners failed to intervene when a pimp allegedly held her there and forced her into sex work.

Another of Miss Kathy’s charges, Kristen Howk, is a rapper from New York with torn jeans and tattoo scribbles on her arms, neck and face. The 46-year-old said she worked the streets of Houston from the ages of 19 to 45. She was raped more times than she can count. She said she maintained her sanity by shutting off all sensation during sex.

“You turn on and off like a water faucet,” Howk said.

Ex-con with a badge

Outside the support group, Griffin works with law enforcement to rescue sex trafficking victims. In 16 years, she has met thousands caught up in prostitution and trafficking, she says. She’s at the mercy of her cellphone, which rings at all hours, dozens of times a day.

Idling in her car outside a warehouse on a December morning, Griffin got acall from Sierra, 23, an intellectually disabled woman with epilepsy she hadn’t heard from in a while.

In 2017, Sierra was rescued by a good Samaritan in Houston while being attacked by two men near the downtown bus station. When emergency crews arrived, she was convulsing on the sidewalk.

Sierra told police she’d been kidnapped from a convenience store in Ohio by a Houston man who drove her to Texas and compelled her to work on Bissonnet during the 2017 Super Bowl. When she failed to make her quota, the pimp dropped her off near the bus station, she said.

Sierra was in a childish state when discharged from Ben Taub Hospital the day after the attack, according to Griffin, who’d been summoned to pick her up.

Pimps often target women with disabilities because they are vulnerable, Griffin said.

Sierra recuperated at Griffin’s home two years ago but ultimately returned to Ohio. On the December call, she said family members there had spent her Social Security funds and she was homeless. The young woman switched to video chat and positioned her phone to show where “the dude she was messing with” — her new pimp, Griffin surmised —had torn her hair out because she kept having seizures and refused to work.

“I’ve been going through it, mama. … All that long hair I had when you seen me,” said the young woman, propped up on elbows on an unmade bed.

“Oh my GOD. Oh my GOD,” Griffin muttered back from the driver’s seat of her Jeep Cherokee.

“Look at my face. You see my face?” Sierra asked, pulling the phone close to show scrapes and bruises. “See this, mama? Real bad. That’s why I said I’ve gotta get out of here.”

Was she doing drugs?

Smoking weed, Sierra said.

Was she taking her meds?

No, and she had suffered two seizures.

Griffin ended the conversation, lit a cigar and turned her car toward the Bissonnet Track. She exited the Beltway near a local chain motel with “no prostitution” signs posted in the parking lot.

Griffin then turned off the main boulevard onto Plainfield Street, pulling in beside a young woman in a halter top and red booty shorts waiting for customers in sports cars and utility trucks at the end of the lunch rush. At night, the scene is even more congested, with buyers lining up as if it’s a drive-through restaurant.

“Lemme give you this, mama,” Griffin said, holding her constable’s business card out the car window. “Call me if you ever, EVER, want some help.”

She plugged atransitional housing program, available for those willing to enroll in school.

“I used to be a ho. I’m the first ex-con with a badge,” Griffin said, referring to her civilian credential.

“I remember you,” said the 22-year-old, who goes by the street name Honey. Standing tall and confident on her spot, Honey added, “You pulled me over last time.”

The pair chuckled. People call when they’re ready, Griffin said.

Honey had been prostituting for 10 years and said she planned to stop soon. Just not today.

On the Track’s main thoroughfare, Griffin slowed for a petite woman walking eastward, past a convenience store, in a short dress and giant hoop earrings.

“Who better to teach a ho not to ho than a ho?” Kathryn Griffin

She tried a more subtle approach with the teenager, who calls herself Diamond.

Did she know about a john who had been raping prostitutes? Griffin asked. Had she seen a young trafficking victim with tattoos all over her face?

Maybe, Diamond said, her eyes scanning the traffic. She wasn’t sure. Griffin handed over her business card and said to call anytime. Not a hard sell.

She wasn’t ready.

‘The street is still there’

The neighborhood targeted for the anti-prostitution zone was a master-planned community built on a cattle pasture that once belonged to oilman R.E. “Bob” Smith. It was an upscale, middle-class area when the Westwood Fashion Place, billed as the country’s first split three-level mall and later named Westwood Mall, opened in 1975.

New apartment complexes and condominiums catered to young professionals who commuted to the medical center and downtown. Developers plugged the cathedral ceilings and wood-burning fireplaces at new apartments on Club Creek Drive, as well as the tennis courts and boat storage at the Westwood Village townhomes. The Westwood Country Club and Westwood Racquetball Club were nearby.

Low-rise towers with atrium features and helipads began cropping up in the late 1970s, along with plans for landscaped esplanades on Bissonnet, new hike-and-bike trails and a recreation area along Brays Bayou.

But the momentum stalled amid the crack epidemic and the economic downturn in the oil industry in the 1980s. In the summer of 1992, a tourist who was shoe-shopping with family was fatally shot at Westwood Plaza. A shop owner told a reporter that violent crime in the area was “almost unheard of.”

In 1995, a gunman fired at a romantic rival inside a busy Westwood Mall restaurant. By the late 1990s, many stores in the mall had been shuttered. Cort McMurray, who has lived nearby for decades, remembers an evangelical church taking over the mall’s movie theater.

McMurray said prostitution picked up in the early 1990s. He and colleagues would pick up discarded condoms in their office building’s parking lot.

Now, the storefronts are occupied by pawn shops, convenience stores, check-cashing spots, fast food joints and businesses that give a sense of the vast mix of ethnicities in the area — African braiding salons, a Filipino buffet, storefront iglesias and halal meat shops.

Residents are significantly poorer and with less schooling than the typical Houstonian. About 27 percent of adults 25 and older have less than aninth grade education, compared with 13 percent in Houston. And 40 percent are below the poverty level, compared with less than 21 percent citywide, according to Census data collected between 2013 and 2017. The median household income is just over $27,000, below Houston’s median of more than $49,000.

Kenya Latour, who used the street name Peaches during the years she worked the corner of Forum Park and Sugar Branch, estimated at peak times she saw 200 or 300 prostitutes walking the four or five blocks of the Bis-sonnet Track on a single weekend.

Those with pimps try to meet their quotas. Those without pimps want to pay the rent or feed their kids. Most have drug problems, she said.

Police crack down and stop it for a time, she said. But the prostitutes return.

“They put the gate up around the Payless, they close it down,” she said. “But the Burger King is still there. They can close it down, the Whataburger is still there. … The street is still there.”

Street-brokered hookups

In the last five years, police have arrested nearly 1,500 people in the Bissonnet zone for engaging in prostitution, many repeatedly. Yet, day and night, the johns keep coming.

“I always compare it to fishing,” said Houston Police Lt. Steve Rabago, who oversaw the city’s vice operations on the Track for several years. “You may get a teacher. You might get apolice officer. … It’s white, black, Middle Eastern, everything.”

The street-brokered hookups are so commonplace that johns mistake a wide range of female pedestrians for prostitutes, propositioning them in Spanish and English. A man yelled out from his car to Gloria Arias, 50, a Salvadoran grandmother headed to the bus stop for her night job as a janitor. Another tried to pick up Danielle Agbugba, 34, a paramedic walking home from the bus stop in her EMS uniform.

The reverberations for local businesses have been palpable, though widespread publicity about the nuisance lawsuit slowed the activity, at least during daylight hours.

The wobbly migration of women in heels and lingerie used to strut past Corte Universal from the time Ana Fuentes arrived at her salon until she left at night. The 50-year-old joked about it with customers, calling it el desfile, the parade. It’s better now, she said.

Suresh Patel, 74, shooed away prostitutes convening with “dates” outside his auto shop. One night, a prostitute stood blocking his car as he tried to leave, exposing her breasts through the windshield.

The frenetic environment prompted Shanice King, 26, to quit her job as manager at Family Dollar in a strip mall on Bissonnet. Once, she’d had to lock the doors with customers inside when back-and-forth shooting broke out in the parking lot between men she believed were pimps. Some days prostitutes tried to recruit her off the sales floor.

Her manager wouldn’t transfer her, and it was getting worse by the day when she left, she said.

Janice Hernandez used to call the police dozens of times a day when she began working a year ago as property manager at the nearby Villa La Jolla apartments. Tenants told her they’d seen strangers having sex in the laundry room. Hernandez, 60, saw hookups in the parking lot when she showed the facility to prospective residents. She estimated there were maybe 30 or 40 trysts on the premises daily. It turned out pimps had the access code for the lot.

“It was ridiculous,” Hernandez said. “We’d have all kinds of Mercedes and Range Rovers and Jaguars and Lamborghinis coming through here.”

The owners began an aggressive campaign to take back the complex, investing in improvements, security and community events to attract more permanent tenants. In recent months, the trafficking has died down, she said. Kids are going outside again, and she’s been able to renew leases.

Shaking the memories

A month and a half after her first encounter with Griffin, Diamond strolled along Bissonnet in late January in a dress and sweater boots.

Just 17, she’d moved to Houston from Memphis three months earlier, lured by tales of the big money girls could make on the Track, she said. Her family members — two sheriff’s deputies, a corrections officer, a University of Houston student and two addicts — all know what she does for a living, and they are not happy about it.

She had been on hundreds of Bissonnet “dates,” making $100 an hour, and had been arrested only once, she said. She knew to avoid using certain words when negotiating a pickup, to avoid the well-known traps. But she’d gotten caught after making plans for a rendezvous with an undercover officer who pretended he didn’t speak English.

With help from the internet, they’d hashed out aprice for sex in English and Spanish. Then the patrol cars moved in.

“I pulled out a Google translator and everything,” she said, “and got my (expletive) in jail.”

On that day in January, however, she quit early, grabbed dinner at a nearby McDonald’s and went back to the motel where she was staying. Within days, she texted a reporter to say she’d been ditched in San Antonio, and she later called Griffin from Atlanta. She was hoping to find a way back to Houston.

It takes dedication to get out of “the game,” Griffin says. Skip the soul searching and you fall back on that “gold mine” mentality. You go back to what you know.

Staying focused

The women who’ve been there know how hard it is to break free.

Lisa Mathis, 39, spent 25 years as a prostitute before walking away two years ago. She worked for three Bissonnet pimps and six Houston-area pimps in all. She also worked among the more bedraggled and desperate prostitutes — who would take a“date” for very little money — on a track on Telephone Road in southeast Houston.

The worst pimp, known as Money, beat her with a belt and knocked her teeth out with a hammer. Another pimp battered her when she was pregnant and left her tied up on the kitchen floor.

Now, she sometimes brings her fourth child, a bubbly 8-month-old named Versace, to Miss Kathy’s group. He’s the first child she’s been around to parent — and the first one not born addicted to opioids.

“This little boy is my baby, and I just want to be the best mom — do whatever it takes to provide for him, to protect him,” Mathis said.

She’s trying to keep her head down and stay focused on the future. But with a rap sheet like hers, she knows the past is never far behind.

Coming Monday: Downward spiral into prostitution gabrielle.banks@chron.com

“I was haunted by my father doing this to me, his son, you know?” Maylela Lucas

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