With her sunglasses perched on top of her head, Katell Gunning told the crowd of OB-GYN physicians at the Hospital of Central Connecticut in March that she didn’t realize she was being used.
“I’m well taken care of, I’m dressed every morning, I’m fed three times a day, my hair is done, my nails are clean, I’m showered,” the Newington native said.
Her pimp, nicknamed “Blood,” would regularly take her to Planned Parenthood to deal with health issues. She needed to look good; no bruises, no health problems. It was very professional, she said.
It was also a vivid example of the coercion human traffickers use to keep victims who often have no means to support themselves from fleeing.
Gunning died unexpectedly Jan. 11 after spending years trying to help other victims of human trafficking. At the time of her death, she had a pending court case on charges she was allegedly driving impaired in October when she struck another vehicle, causing the death of a Colchester man.
She was a complex, brilliant, funny young woman, who wanted to be a psychologist to help other women in similar situations, said author and human rights activist Raymond Bechard who gave her eulogy.
“One of the things that made her angry was bullies, people, institutions, ideologies, injustices. We had that in common,” Bechard said during her funeral Tuesday. “And that’s what her dream was - to help people, women especially, who were somehow being bullied. No matter where she went or what happened to her, Katell kept coming back to her dream of becoming a psychologist and helping women in need.”
The weeks she spent working for “Blood” when she was 23 or 24 were chronicled in Bechard’s 2011 book, “The Berlin Turnpike: A True Story of Human Trafficking in America.” Her comments at a presentation at HOCC last year were meant to bolster Bechard’s lecture to physicians on what they should look for to determine if patients may have been pressed into prostitution.
Most victims of human trafficking in the United States aren’t foreigners that have been kidnapped, he told the crowd. The bulk are young women who have been coerced with threats or promises of housing, food, drugs or other essentials that they feel they have no access to on their own.
State laws have been particularly harsh on women who engage in prostitution. According to a 2015 report drafted by the state’s Trafficking in Persons Council, prostitutes are more than twice as likely to be arrested than those who patronize prostitutes and seven times more likely to be convicted.
But the tide is turning. Gunning testified before the state Judiciary Committee in 2013 in support of a bill that would erase the convictions of human trafficking victims who were charged with prostitution. That portion of the bill didn’t become law, but Gunning made an impact, said former state Speaker of the House James Amann, who was a lobbyist at the time. “She came across as a fighter, someone who was trying hard to leave her past behind and help other people,” Amann said.
New state laws went into effect in October requiring police and hospitality employees, such as hotel staff, to receive training to recognize the signs of human trafficking. Teens under 18 now cannot be charged with prostitution, and convictions for those who patronize prostitutes will have increased penalties including a $2,000 fine. There are also stiffer penalties for those convicted of human trafficking.
In order to see real change, Bechard contends, there has to be a cultural shift much in the way people now view drinking while pregnant or the use of cell phones while driving. And the shift needs to be led by men. “This is a problem caused by men that specifically needs to be addressed by men saying to other men, ‘Hey don’t do this,’” he said.
Bechard has traveled the country speaking on how to recognize and stop human trafficking. Gunning spoke throughout the state to students, lawmakers and health care professionals about her experiences and about how hard it was to return to a normal life with little support. “I couldn’t get services,” she said during the HOCC presentation. “I couldn’t get medical insurance, I couldn’t go see a doctor, I couldn’t get food stamps. I could barely get an ID on my own.”
Bechard’s book details the history of the Berlin Turnpike, known for its cheap motels that serve as havens for illegal activity, while recounting the federal trial of Dennis Paris on human trafficking charges. Paris ran a highly organized operation with a “stable” of about 100 women. Two of his victims who testified were 14 and 16 when they began working for him. The case was the first of its kind in the nation. Paris was convicted and is now serving a 30-year prison sentence. He operated in Hartford, Newington, Wethersfield and other Central Connecticut locations.
Gunning is featured in the book as “Marie,” a woman who wasn’t part of Paris’ escort service but who supplied Bechard with gut-wrenching details of her time working for a pimp. She was addicted to drugs and struggling to get by with her boyfriend who one day was arrested while she had gone to get cigarettes. She recalled waking up with no shoes, no purse, no cell phone and no ID after being introduced to “Blood” by a woman who lived in the Berlin Turnpike hotel room next to hers. “Blood” set an appointment for her first “date” with a stranger within hours. After Gunning met with the “john,” the term for a client of a prostitute, the pimp pulled out a knife and demanded that she hand over the $250 she just made.
An arrest and an arraignment in Hartford Community Court saved her life. The presiding Judge Curtissa Cofield had created a “prostitution protocol” that focused on getting women help. Cofield introduced Gunning to Bechard who remained a close friend until Gunning died at the age of 34. “I loved the photos of her laughing because you could see, even if it was for a moment, all the things that troubled her disappeared,” Bechard said during her eulogy. “It was just Katell there and nothing else. Her joy pushing everything else away.”
The U.S. Department of State recommends the following: If you are in the United States and believe someone may be a victim of human trafficking, report your suspicions to law enforcement by calling 911 or the 24-hour National Human Trafficking Resource Center line at 1-888-373-7888. Trafficking victims, including undocumented individuals, are eligible for services and immigration assistance.
Lisa Backus can be reached at 860-801-5066 or Lbackus@newbritainherald.com.