Kansas City, Mo. — The allegations in the indictment were shocking: A young woman had been held captive for years as the sex slave of a Missouri couple. She had been locked in a cage and subjected to electrical shocks. Parts of her body had been nailed to wooden planks.
When announcing charges last month, U.S. Attorney Beth Phillips called the case one of “the most horrific ever prosecuted in this district.”
Authorities said the woman was a mentally deficient runaway who was recruited by an older man at the age of 16 to live in his trailer. The situation came to light in early 2009, after the woman, then 23, landed in a hospital following what prosecutors said was a torture session.
But as more details have emerged, more questions have arisen about the accuser, including her involvement in violent sex practices, her posing for a pornographic magazine and her work as a strip-club dancer. Supporters of the defendant are speaking out, too, saying many of the acts described in the indictment are practiced every day between consenting adults.
The suspect, 43, faces 11 federal charges, including conspiracy, sex trafficking by force, fraud or coercion, and forced labor trafficking. Four other men also are charged with various crimes. The Journal-World does not name defendants accused of sex crimes unless convicted.
A graphic 21-page federal indictment describes medieval-like sexual devices being used on the woman at the suspect's mobile home about 6 miles outside Lebanon, in southwest Missouri. Accusations of waterboarding, suffocation and beatings are mentioned throughout.
The suspect’s wife said she and her husband knew the girl because she had dated their son. That relationship had ended, his wife said, but the girl wanted to come live with the couple when relations with her adoptive parents soured. She said the girl moved in when she was 17, not 16, and never had sex with her husband until after she turned 18.
“She was not a runaway,” the wife said. “We picked her up from her adopted dad and stepmom. They were right there and everything.”
She said prosecutors have told her she also will be charged if she doesn’t agree to testify against her husband. But she said she will not take the stand against him because she believes the two did nothing wrong.
Prosecutors said the suspect posted videos and other images on the Internet showing the young woman engaged in sexual activities. He allegedly described her as his sex slave and advertised that she would perform sex acts and submit to torture for other people during encounters online or in person.
He is accused of taking payments of cash, cigarettes, computer hard drives and even meat to let other men come to his home and torture her.
The suspect and other defendants are also charged with transporting the woman to California in 2006 and 2007 for prostitution. She appeared on a cover of Taboo, a publication owned by Larry Flynt’s Hustler Magazine Group, and was the subject of a story and multipage photo spread inside.
Prosecutors said the suspect also forced the girl to work as an exotic dancer and threatened to punish her if she was not a top earner at the clubs where she stripped.
But another dancer at the same Missouri strip club said the woman seemed to enjoy the attention she got when she danced, often showing off the issue of Taboo magazine that featured her on the cover.
“This girl was spoiled,” said Katie Smothers, who said she spent time at the suspect’s trailer when she needed a place to stay but never participated in bondage activities.
“She would take customers to show them her magazine, and she had a bucket of photos at the bar. She bragged about it.”
Susan Dill, the suspect’s Kansas City-based attorney, told reporters recently that the indictment tells only one side of the story. She said the defense will present evidence that the woman practiced BDSM — bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism — by choice.
Dill declined to go into detail, and attorneys for the other defendants turned down requests for comment.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Kansas City also declined repeated requests to comment, saying the indictment speaks for itself.
The suspect’s wife, who for years shared a bed with her husband and the woman, told The Associated Press the woman often left the the suspect’s home to go into the community.
She believes the woman’s family coerced her to go to police after she was taken to a hospital suffering from cardiac arrest, which the suspect claims she suffered while getting ready for work — not during a torture session.
“She started seizing, and when she was done, she stopped breathing. (My husband) gave her CPR. I was on the phone to 911. We were freaking out. We didn’t know what to do,” she said.