TOPEKA, Kan. — As a girl growing up in some of Topeka’s rough neighborhoods, Hope Zeferjohn insists she didn’t fear for her safety.
But she admits that changed when her family befriended a 24-year-old man who seemed to take an interest in the 14-year-old girl.
“He didn’t take too kindly to it that second time,” Hope remembers about Anthony Long the second time he tried to coax her into being with him.
She kept telling him no. She had a boyfriend. Then at a house party, things got violent.
“He pushed me up against, like, the house, and he just raped me there,” Hope said. “And then he decided to give me his number and tells me to call him, like that made us into a relationship.”
Trapped by threats
The memory of their rough start comes back to Hope, now 21 years old and in the Kansas State Women’s Prison in Topeka.
In a phone call, Hope remembers how even when she ended up in a juvenile facility in Salina, Long found her and groomed her in to believing they belonged together and that he would take care of her and her baby whom she’d had with another man.
That included selling videos of them having sex and selling her — human trafficking.
“It would be like here and there, he would sell me to a male,” she said.
Trapped, she believed, by the drugs he provided her and by his threats.
“He said if I didn’t, you know, be with him, he was going to kill my family,” she recalled. “So I was like forced into that whole relationship I didn’t even want to be in.”
Still a minor at the time, Long didn’t stop with Hope. She said he used her Facebook page to lure other teen girls into his sex trade, who Hope said thought they were talking to her.
She would join him, again out of fear for her safety and her family’s.
‘I never had a choice’
Eventually her break came when authorities caught up with Long, and Hope provided key information that led to his conviction and lengthy prison term.
But then a shock to her: Shawnee County prosecutors charged her with 10 felonies and two misdemeanors, including aggravated sex trafficking, claiming although she was once a victim, she had turned into an active participant.
“I never had a choice,” Hope insisted, adding she was choked and beaten to the point of losing two babies in miscarriages. “If I had a choice, this would never have happened.”
“She had nowhere to go,” said Vicki Smith, a Kansas City-based corporate lawyer. “How do you walk away form someone who says, ‘I’ll find you and kill you,’?”
Ultimately facing a lengthy prison sentence, Hope pleaded guilty to one count and was sentenced to six years by a judge who struggled with her plight, but felt he had no choice.
Smith said when she got wind of Hope’s story, something didn’t seem right.
So she took on the case pro bono and has filed a second clemency petition with Gov. Laura Kelly. Her first petition was denied by outgoing Gov. Jeff Colyer.
“If minors have to have permission to get their ears pierced from their parents before they are 18, yet we’re going to call her culpable for things she did when she was a minor because she was being beaten, it just doesn’t seem fair,” Smith said.
Hoping for a second chance
Adding to the unfairness, Smith said Kansas lawmakers changed the law to allow sex trafficking victims to use that status as a defense if charged.
But it was too late for Hope.
And then, there’s her status as a sex offender who must register for life.
UMKC Law Professor Sean O’Brien, who helped found the Midwest Innocence Project, calls that a “scarlet letter” that will hamper Hope’s future.
“There’s a lot here to overcome,” O’Brien said. “That’s something that’s going to make it very difficult for her to — I mean, she can’t work in a number of occupations.”
O’Brien said Kansas law let her down.
Hope agrees and said she would tell Kansas’ governor “it’s not easy being a victim in my case.”
Kelly’s office said it’s reviewing the clemency filing but has offered no timetable for a decision.
The Shawnee County Prosecutor Michael Kagay said in an emailed statement he stands by prosecuting her, in part because “we have no corroboration for Ms. Zeffejohn’s (sic) claim that she was a victim of sex trafficking.”
Smith said she’s hopeful, noting then-State Sen. Laura Kelly voted to support the law that allows for victim status to be used as a defense.
And Smith said she’ll file another petition if this one fails.
Hope is hoping, too. She hopes to regain custody of the son she lost when she went to prison, and when she gets out either now or next spring, she hopes to be an advocate for other victims.
“If I can help somebody, that would be one less person who would be a victim to the state,” she said.
A bill to provide relief
Hope and her attorney aren’t the only ones fighting for a change.
State Sen. David Haley, a KCK Democrat, has filed a measure that would allow victims of human trafficking to file a motion with the court to set aside, or “vacate,” the conviction after the fact.
Senate Bill 154 would require a hearing on the matter and allow for a variety of convictions and diversions to be set aside and all records expunged.
It sets the parameters for cases that qualify and what can be used to convince the judge of the defendant’s victim status.
If signed into law, it would remove the requirement of registering as a sex offender, a major obstacle that would hinder young former inmates from getting jobs or even taking part in their children’s activities.
Haley, a former prosecutor, said they’re working to get the language right, to help “ensure we have a broad amount of legislative support.”
“Depending on the circumstances,” Haley said, “victims should not become felons.”
For more information and resources on human trafficking, visit the website for the Center for Combating Human Trafficking, based out of Wichita State University.