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Sex trafficking witness: ‘I was only a child'

Datqunn Sawyer, for a Monday story on sex trafficking

Wearing a simple pony-tail and no makeup, the young woman nicknamed “Pooh” swung gently back and forth in a federal witness chair.

As the words came out of her mouth, the courtroom fell silent.

When the woman was just 12, Datqunn Sawyer, a pimp, befriended her and took her to the apartment where he lived with at least half a dozen other girls, she testified. She saw him throw a girl down a set of stairs, breaking her arm, she said.

Pooh was soon put on the streets to prostitute herself and even given a quota: She had to have sex with five to 15 men every day, she testified.

Sometimes, when she had a “good day” she said she was rewarded with McDonald’s.

As the months wore on, there was one day, after Sawyer dropped her off at the so-called “track” along Cicero Avenue that she testified she just couldn’t do it.

She took off her high heels, sat down on the concrete and wept, she said.

That’s when she said Sawyer, 32, appeared from the alley.

“You stupid b—-, you’re supposed to be making my money,” she said he snapped at her.

He grabbed her discarded heel and beat her head with it until she started bleeding, she said. She ran of to her grandmother’s house.

But like many of the girls who lived in an apartment with Sawyer at Augusta and Pulaski, she returned.

Now 19, she turned in her witness chair and wiped away tears after Sawyer’s lawyer David Peilet, asked if anyone forced her to go back to Sawyer.

“He had all my information. He had my birth certificate … He knew everything about me.” The 19-year-old yelled in court. “I was only a child. I was only a child! Where else was I supposed to go?”

Pooh’s testimony came in a dramatic and unusual federal court trial that is exposing the violent underworld of prostitution in Chicago – where on any given day, more than 16,000 women and girls are involved in prostitution, according to the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.

She’s among a series of victims who since have testified since last week about living with Sawyer in a bizarre world that they say began with a promise of love and a future but devolved quickly to forced sex, verbal berating and physical beatings.

Sawyer impregnated three of them, according to evidence, the babies would then live there, and he even stashed cash in baby swings. Sawyer is accused of sex trafficking minors and conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion. The conspiracy charge alone carries an automatic 15-year minimum sentence if convicted. His lawyer argues that Sawyer, a rapper, didn’t know the girls were underage and that he didn’t force them to stay with him. Testimony showed a similar pattern: The girls were 12 to 17 when Sawyer befriended them. The girls, who often said they fell in love with him, were given names beginning with “P,” after his own nickname, “P Child” and branded with “P Child” tattoos or with Sawyer’s favorite saying after girls handed him cash from the day: “Chedda make it betta.”

Another witness, a girl known as “Paradise,” was 16 when she allegedly started turning tricks for Sawyer. She said even though she left home, she always kept a piece of it with her – so she carried around her teddy bear everywhere she went in public, except when turning tricks.

“I felt disgusted,” she said of the prostitution. “I felt degraded.”

Another young woman, known as “Peaches,” was shown in a surveillance video wearing a strapless, colorful shirt pulled over her large, pregnant belly, shorts hugging her upper thighs. She was pregnant with Sawyer’s baby as she looked to turn tricks, she said, at his demand. “My ankles were hurting. I was tired, it was hot,” the doe-eyed woman testified. “We didn’t have no food. I needed to eat. So I needed to work.”

The FBI investigated the case and worked with the victims. In some cases, that included helping catch Sawyer on recorded phone calls, which were played to jurors.

The young women each testified that Sawyer, who didn’t have a job, used a silver-studded leather belt or a heavy, wooden pimp stick to beat the girls.

“Do you recognize this belt?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Nasser asked Pooh as she held a belt.

“Yes,” she responded. “He hit me with it.”

At six months’ pregnant, Peaches said Sawyer split her head open with a glass ashtray.

Nasser and Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc Krickbaum asked each of the young women the same question: was there ever a day they wanted to have sex with a stranger? They answered consistently: “no.”

But even as the demand for paid sex in Chicago remains strong, a trial targeting an alleged pimp for sex trafficking charges is unusual, said Lynne Johnson, policy and advocacy director for Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.

“Pimps and the people who buy sex are rarely punished for the harm they cause, so it’s encouraging to see law enforcement focusing on them,” Johnson said. “Ultimately, it’s the best way to protect our children from commercial sexual exploitation.”