Desperately seeking justice

Photograph by Molly Blackbird

By Raheem F. Hosseini and Scott Thomas Anderson

Savannah knew she was going to die.

Tortured and trussed in handcuffs, cable ties and electrical tape, the 23-year-old escort from Sacramento cowered in the empty bathtub of a hilltop home somewhere in the remote foothills.

The woman’s wobbly eyed captors had spent the past hour brutalizing her with their bodies and the long stem of a shotgun they stuck in Savannah’s face soon after she entered their odd home, with its old-lady knickknacks scattered throughout. Now, her two abductors hovered outside the bathroom, whispering about the next stage of their escalating plan.

Savannah (not her real name) is but one member of a persecuted sisterhood.

Violence against sex workers is both common and largely ignored, according to the limited data available.

When the Urban Justice Center examined the issues facing New York City sex workers in 2005, 46 percent of those surveyed said they had been attacked on the job. Another 30 percent said their interactions with police either involved violence or sex—but not help.

Here in “progressive” California, state law actually disqualifies sex workers from receiving statutorily provided victims aid, even in cases of rape.

“You have a lot of enemies,” said Kristen DiAngelo, a Sacramento-based escort who has survived multiple attacks. “You have the guys who want to harm you, you have the pimps and you have the police. …You are in a battle zone 24-seven.”

As a result, a silenced community of sex workers has nowhere to turn when attacked. Most never get justice.

With her bruised, aching face shrouded under a blanket, Savannah refused to be another statistic. She raged against her maniacal captors as long as she could. And when they battered her into submission, she did the only thing she could think of: spit.

Watercolor sputa of blood and saliva slapped the tub’s filmy basin between her legs, its dry porcelain walls and bowed lip. If Savannah was going to die, then she would leave signs that she was here. That she existed.

Maybe, she thought, someone would come looking for her in this spooky old house after she was dead. Maybe someone would care.

The assault

Savannah grew up in an abusive home, became pregnant at 15—and turned to escorting at 18. 

Raised in a home of chronic abuse and neglect, Savannah struck out on her own at the age of 15 and gave birth to her first child soon after. Minimum-wage jobs pulled the single mother to the brink of homelessness, and alternative prospects proved bleak without a high-school diploma. When Savannah turned to escorting at 18, she thought she’d found a way to provide her kids all the things she never had.

Most of her clients were successful businessmen from Sacramento and Roseville. Except for being stiffed a few times, she’d never experienced danger. Until January 23.

According to law-enforcement accounts, firsthand testimonies and eyewitness interviews, this is what happened that drizzly afternoon in a blue-collar suburb of Plymouth, about an hour out of Sacramento:

Shortly before 1:30 p.m., Savannah turned her car onto a country lane off state Route 49—an avenue curving up a grassy, rust-yellow hill. Storm clouds rolled above a strip of homes looming on the bluff.

The 30-year-old-man who claimed to live at an address beyond this ascent was Vincent Michael Brewer, one of the few clients Savannah neglected to screen through other escorts. On two previous meetings with Brewer, he’d been accompanied by a stocky 38-year-old named Michael Lynn Gunn. During Savannah’s second appointment, she says Gunn morphed into a bully, pulling a fake-cop routine and driving her out of the house in tears.

Braking in front of the dirt-brown residence, Savannah decided she would leave if she saw Gunn again. Brewer opened the door and led her into the sparsely furnished living room.

“Is your asshole friend Mike here?” she asked.

Brewer smiled and laughed a little, but didn’t answer. He motioned down the hall toward a bedroom adorned with neatly folded women’s clothes, photos of children and a baby bassinet decked with pink-and-white lace.

As Savannah leaned against the bed in the middle of the room, Gunn leaped out from under it.

“So I’m an asshole, huh, bitch?” he yelled, pointing a black-and-silver 12-gauge at her skull.

Both men tore her arms behind her back. Savannah felt a pair of handcuffs bite into her wrists. She screamed for help.

Gunn jammed the shotgun’s sawed-off barrel in her mouth.

“Shut the fuck up, bitch, or I’ll kill you,” he commanded.

Brewer wrenched her head down and mummified it in duct tape. Savannah kicked wildly into a framed portrait and prayed neighbors would hear the clatter. He grabbed a pillow and jammed it over her face. She bit deep into his chest. Both men rammed their fists into her head and stomach until she stopped.

As her mind clouded, the animals set upon her in other ways. And when they had their sickening fill, after more than an hour, they loaded her into a bathtub like a desecrated corpse.

By this time, Savannah had accepted her fate, explained Chris Crandell, an investigator with the Amador County District Attorney’s Office.

“The thing I’ll never forget about the case is that … she had come to terms with this being her last night of living,” shuddered Crandell, a deputy sheriff at the time of the attack.

In the back of Brewer’s speeding car, faint shapes blurred by the weather-slicked window. Savannah tried to etch the word “help” with her nose against the fogged glass, but no one noticed. Through the knit blanket covering her head, she saw highway exit markers streak by: Vallejo-San Francisco, Benicia, Emeryville, Oakland, Richmond—farther away from home and deeper into the nightmare.

At some point, the car slouched to the side. Squeezing her knees together, Savannah tugged the blanket off her face enough to see they were in a parking lot along the water. She spotted a couple standing outside a white truck just two spaces away. Forcing open the back passenger door with her mouth, Savannah spilled onto the concrete and screamed at the top of her lungs. Brewer and Gunn rushed over, sealing her back inside.

“What’s wrong with her?” one of the bystanders asked.

“Nothing,” Gunn said quickly. “We got into a fight. She’s acting crazy. She’s just tripping.”

Savannah didn’t hear the onlooker say another word. The men got back into the car and started the engine.

Driving through San Pablo, Brewer asked Savannah if she was going to start cooperating.

“I just want you to stop hurting me,” she pleaded.

Brewer pulled the wires off her ankles, burned the duct tape off her legs with a Zippo lighter, ripped the tape from her mouth and set flame to the zip-ties. It was a momentary reprieve. Within seconds, Brewer was sexually assaulting her again. Savannah directed her eyes at Gunn, who steered down an exit road into a dumping site. She made out a sign that read, “Bio-hazard area—stay away.”

Brewer leaned over the woman in his lap. “I could throw you in the water in a 50-gallon drum and no one would ever find you,” he hissed.

The car slowed.

The hospital

Savannah was ignored for nearly four hours at Sutter Amador Hospital. 

Tammie Crabtree is used to 2 a.m. wake-up calls. The executive director of Operation Care has held the hand of domestic-violence survivors for 18 years. But she had never laid eyes on someone like Savannah.

When Crabtree arrived at Sutter Amador Hospital’s emergency room in Jackson early that Thursday, Crandell was standing in the hall.

No one wants to cop to it, but when the call first went out on the radio—that a woman had been abducted and tortured for 10 hours, and then dumped in a neighborhood 2 miles away—everyone was a little suspect. In a tweaker town like theirs, that’s a wolf that gets cried quite often. But Crandell’s “holy shit” expression told Crabtree this was the real deal.

“When I walked in [her hospital room], she looked just like a feral child,” Crabtree recalled. “Her hair was matted and she was in a fetal position on the bed. It was just awful.”

Draped in a flimsy hospital smock, Savannah gathered herself into a ball for warmth, and to avoid resting on her backside, gashed from being dragged around by the chain of her handcuffs.

She’d been at the hospital for nearly four hours, but no one had tended her wounds, including the deep rings around her bloated, nerve-damaged hands. Only Crandell kept her company, switching off his tape recorder after their interview and sitting with her.

“When I got there, I knew there were some judgment issues,” Crabtree told SN&R.

Judgment isn’t unique to rural areas.

The Urban Justice Center says federal funding efforts to curb sexually transmitted diseases and human trafficking come with strings that often force health-care and social workers to “deny sex workers around the world the health services they need to survive.”

To that point, a 36-year-old sex worker who was raped and strangled in Oakland last year told SN&R she was also treated coldly by emergency-room staff.

“I cooperated from the get-go,” said the woman, who asked that she be identified as Ms. R. “I gave them my real name. I gave them access to my home. I gave them access to my body for evidence, thinking I would get medical care.”

Ms. R. claimed that didn’t happen, but she did get a big, fat bill.

Back at Sutter, Crabtree marched toward a nurse and demanded a blanket and socks. Fifteen minutes later, when Crabtree pulled her client’s discharge papers, there was another muted confrontation.

The paperwork said Savannah was being discharged “into custody,” which is what’s written when a suspected criminal is released from hospital care.

“You need to put that she’s here for a [rape] exam,” Crabtree told the admitting nurse. “She’s a sexual-assault victim.”

The nurse amended the line item. By that time, Savannah had changed back into her soiled clothes and wandered outside into the twilight. Crabtree led the young woman to her car.

“I had to put newspapers on the seat of my car because she was seeping clear liquid from her butt through her clothes,” Crabtree said. “They didn’t do anything.”

Sixteen hours after she was shoveled onto an unfamiliar street, Savannah’s wounds were cleaned and bandaged at a neighboring hospital the following afternoon.

Sutter Health charged her $1,500 for its care.

The stigma

Even though Savannah was assaulted, tortured and left for dead by captors outside of Sacramento, the state denied her victim compensation because she was a sex worker.

The myth that sex workers are somehow unrapeable because of their profession was explored in a 1995 research paper that appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Deviant Behavior. After interviewing 16 street prostitutes, the authors, two sociology professors from the University of Southern California and Ohio University, concluded that violence against prostitutes sheds light on violence against all women.

But efforts to shelter sex workers under the umbrella of campaigns aimed at stopping violence against women have fallen short.

More recent—and relevant—studies are hard to come by.

“There are no stats, because nobody cares enough to fund those studies,” said Maxine Doogan, president of San Francisco-based advocacy group the Erotic Service Providers Legal Education and Research Project, and a working escort herself. “They only care if we have a pimp.”

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 67 percent of all rape victims never come forward, but actual figures are probably even higher. In a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice, the National Research Council determined last month that crime statisticians drastically undercount sexual assault, in part because their surveys lump rape in with other offenses and don’t provide the option of anonymity.

Even when brave victims do come forward, most rape cases go nowhere. According to the FBI, arrests occurred in only 21 percent of rape cases last year in California. Clearance rates dipped to a shade under 19 percent in Sacramento County.

The results are even worse for sex workers, even though they’re more likely targets.

Following a brutal rape in 1983, Sacramento escort DiAngelo, then 25, lay in a hospital bed at UC Davis Medical Center while police officers told her that pressing charges would only get her arrested, too. Even after she went over their heads to the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office, her attacker ended up accepting a knocked-down plea deal and a 45-day sentence of picking up trash along the highway, which he served during weekends.

“That was typical,” said DiAngelo, who has become an advocate for sex workers’ rights. “You can’t call the police. Nobody’s going to help you. They won’t even listen to you.”

Thirty years later, that belief remains intact.

“It seems pretty obvious that a number of sex workers don’t report the assaults they suffer for a whole host of reasons,” observed Kimberly A. Horiuchi, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

Most sex workers that come through Crabtree’s shelter doors seeking help decline to report their assaults to authorities. The majority return to their abusers.

“No matter how much assurance we’d give them … there’s no way they’d report,” Crabtree said.

Fear is often the overriding factor—of retaliation, of being arrested or not being believed, and fear of starting over. That last wrinkle is especially unique.

“The added factor for these women … this is like their job,” Crabtree explained. “It completely not just changes you emotionally, but now it’s financially affecting her as well.”

As a result, female prostitutes are 34 more times likely to be killed by homicide than the average Californian, says a 2003 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology. Most sex workers have taken to self-policing through unofficial escort websites like myRedBook, where they tag “bad dates” in online forums to warn each other away from violence and robbery.

But with a widened campaign against human trafficking—one that’s created new federal and state income streams for law-enforcement agencies—escorts like DiAngelo say they could be prosecuted simply for sharing information or providing support. For instance, someone who drives an escort across county lines to an appointment and then waits in the car to make sure she returns safely could be accused of trafficking.

“It hasn’t manifested itself yet, at least to my knowledge, but theoretically that could be a concern … given the extraordinarily expansive definition of human trafficking,” Horiuchi allowed. “That shouldn’t be the way that sex workers find safety in sex work.”

Maybe not. But what’s the alternative?

The courtroom

After much delay, Savannah’s captors pleaded guilty to 25-years-to-life sentences.

In a tea-colored superior courtroom on a slow-cooked May morning, a visiting judge who resembles a svelte Wilford Brimley seats himself and gavels the matter to order.

Brewer and Gunn stand behind a rich, burnished table wearing matching jumpsuits and blank expressions. Horizontally striped in pale orange and tawny white, the accused rapists resemble toddlers in shackles. Brewer especially, with his round, slack face and pinking cheeks. But the litany of charges—forced rape, forced oral copulation, anal or genital penetration with an object, kidnapping, assault with a firearm, on and on—is the work of monsters.

It’s only when Savannah enters that the co-defendants’ expressions shift. They glance back at the woman they tormented, trying to make eye contact. Savannah trembles, even with three burly bailiffs crowding the defense table.

Absorbing none of this, the judge arrives to the point:

“The defendant has the mental competency to stand trial,” he declares. “Criminal proceedings are now reinstated.”

Brewer’s public defender quickly starts sniffing around for a plea deal.

Deputy District Attorney Gabrielle Stidger is amenable to the idea. In her mind, she’s already drafted out a 25-years-to-life offer that both men would have to accept, or risk going to trial, where a mountain of physical evidence, and a motivated victim, could doom them for multiple lifetimes.

But Stidger wants to spare her star witness the trauma of testifying, where she’d be raked over the details of the crime and her profession by both defense attorneys. The prosecutor also knows there’s a risk, even a small one, in putting Savannah before a conservative county jury and asking them to sympathize with an escort.

Stidger’s boss, District Attorney Todd Riebe, crunched the mental math himself.

“I think there were a few potential hurdles if the case went to a jury trial—just because you might be up against jurors who are put off by it, or have a really judgmental mindset,” he acknowledged. “But I don’t think that detail was a fatal challenge at all. I was confident that no matter what she was doing at the time, nothing would justify to jurors the crimes these men committed.”

Reality doesn’t always break that way.

In 2007, a Philadelphia judge reduced the charges of four men accused of gang-raping a female escort at gunpoint to theft of services.

Ms. R. described her dealings with Alameda County prosecutors as traumatizing. “They have hurt me way more than the rape ever could,” she said.

But even when you have a sympathetic district attorney on your side, as in Savannah’s case, there are still setbacks.

Ten months, 18 court dates and seven judges passed since two sadists tried to bury Savannah in their own hatred. They almost did.

Savannah’s returned to the ER seven times for panic attacks. She has nightmares that it’s her teddy bear of a husband accosting her instead of Brewer and Gunn.

The state has also denied her victim compensation application for counseling and moving costs twice—because she was “involved in the underlying crime of prostitution.”

“I was embarrassed that that came from anyone who even pretends they’re representing victims,” Crabtree scolded. Twenty-eight sex workers received similar rejection letters last year from the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board.

Savannah isn’t alone, but she feels like she is.

“It’s hard. It’s still hard,” she admitted, her earthy brown eyes glistening. “But I’ve had to move on with my life.”

Last month, she took a big step.

Savannah and her family caravanned from their patchwork life in Carmichael so she could speak at the felony sentencing hearing. After a tragicomedy of courtroom miscues—starring bickering defendants, dismissed attorneys and politically hamstrung judges—Brewer and Gunn finally swallowed a 25-to-life deal and admitted their guilt. November 1 was the first time Savannah’s attackers heard her voice since she begged them for her life.

Her back to a shushed audience, the young mother of two steadied her trembling hands and explained what it felt like to have her sacred things taken. As she read, Brewer clenched his reddening jaw. His collaborator adopted a more hapless expression, looking both shameful and dopey.

“I am so thankful that I am here today to tell my story about the two monsters that now get to pay for their evil ways,” she said in a soft, steady voice.

After concluding her statement, the woman who wouldn’t stop fighting waded through an orange-glow courtroom that’d fallen pin-drop silent. There are thousands of stories like hers, untold by a repressed sorority whose contours may never be known.

Survivors often ask Crabtree whether coming forward is worth it. The advocate doesn’t always know what to say.

“You have to be really, really strong,” she advises them. Then she thinks of Savannah.

“It’s really pretty amazing how much inner strength she found.”

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