Holly Austin Smith autographs copies of her book, “Walking Prey” and talks with guests at the Nelson County Human Trafficking Task Force discussion.

Story by Randy Patrick | The Kentucky Standard

Holly Austin Smith didn’t know what was happening to her until it was too late to stop it.

There was a chance encounter at a mall near her New Jersey home with a cool-looking guy in his 20s, phone conversations with someone she thought was that same guy, the decision to run away from home with the stranger — then the next thing she knew, she was in a motel room with Greg, who sternly told a woman called Nicki to “Get her ready.”

But for what? Holly imagined she was going to a club, and that her new friends were later going to take her to California, where she would become a model or songwriter for rock bands.

Instead, she was going to Atlantic City, where Greg and Nicki would sell her to men on the street.

“Nobody ever said the word prostitution,” Smith said, reading from her memoir, “Walking Prey,” to about 175 attendees at a seminar on human trafficking at Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. “It just hung there like a slab of meat. Everything was moving so quickly. Nobody asked me any questions. Nobody asked me if I was OK with this, or if this was what I had signed up for, or if I wanted some time to think about it.”

The first customer was an “old, pudgy white man” who gave Nicki $200 and drove away with Holly. She told the man she didn’t kiss on the mouth. “It’s too personal,” she said.

The man stripped off his clothes and left the socks on his feet. I looked from his wrinkled body up to his face. He kept smiling this friendly old-man smile.

“This is my first night,” I said.

“I could tell,” he said. “I’m honored.”

And then he told me that I reminded him of his granddaughter.

I was 14 years old.

Today Smith, 36, is a biologist, an advocate for victims of human trafficking and a consultant for Amber Alert. Friday, she was the featured speaker for a symposium of the Nelson County Human Trafficking Task Force, which included a panel discussion by an FBI agent, a nun, an attorney and representatives of two victim advocacy groups. The event was funded by a violence prevention grant from Catholic Health Initiatives and hosted by the Sisters of Charity, who have been instrumental in shaping Kentucky’s human trafficking statute.

Smith shared her story, talked about the crime of human trafficking, answered questions and offered advice on how to better deal with the issue.

In response to a question by Lynne Potter, a family resources counselor, Smith said she escaped from prostitution after 36 hours by being arrested, but what happened after was just as bad.

“I was seen as a criminal, and I was treated as a criminal, and that was pretty traumatic,” she said. “The people who were supposed to be helping me were shunning me. They were treating me like there was something wrong with me.”

Holly already had low self-esteem and was depressed, which is why she had run away from home. She had also been sexually abused as a child. Earning money made her feel “empowered.”

“Fourteen-year-olds make bad decisions all the time,” she said. “It doesn’t mean they deserve something like this to happen to them.”

“I chose to write ‘Walking Prey’ for my 14-year-old self because I think it’s important for people to understand that children who are trafficked are just that — they’re children,” she said.

Some who heard Smith’s talk commented afterward.

“It was eye-opening,” said Wilma Sorrell of the PATH Coalition, who didn’t realize traffickers could get their prey so easily.

Sister Brenda Gonzalez of SCN, a former teacher, said junior high school is the most difficult time for children and the time when they’re most vulnerable, and she wants the task force to be able to talk with students.

Shane Fitzgerald, an employee of Flaget Memorial Hospital, said he was surprised by the connections Smith made between sexually explicit messages in song lyrics and advertising and the exploitation of girls. People of faith want to counter those images without seeming to want to impose their values on others, he said.

“One of the questions for me is how can we be voices against that kind of culture that would support victimization or contribute to any kind of violation of human dignity,” he said.

Bardstown Police Officer Robin Cull said Smith “sheds some light” on the problem. She has had training on dealing with sex trafficking, but it’s helpful to hear about it from a victim’s perspective, she said.

County Attorney Matthew Hite said he has had cases of parents selling their children for sex, but hasn’t had one like Smith’s.

“Starting the conversation is the first step to finding a solution,” he said. It’s important, he said, for a prosecutor to realize that because the person in front of him has been charged with a crime doesn’t mean she isn’t a victim.

“As police and prosecutors, we all need to make sure that we are not re-victimizing somebody,” he said.

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