Maegan Bell, 34, found comfort in her dog Presley, 13, while Bell suffered as a victim of human trafficking in New York City. She is pictured with the dog, a Yorkshire terrier Maltese mix, in Waterville on March 9. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

When Maegan Bell left for college after graduating from Skowhegan Area High School in 2004, her sights were set: she would be attending school in Vermont for elementary education, with hopes of teaching children and being a dance instructor on the side.

Living in a rural community like Canaan, she says she grew up like most kids: she was a part of dance teams, chorus, drama, the cheerleading squad, had a long-term boyfriend and a tight-knit group of friends.

Maegan Bell, a graduate of Skowhegan Area High School. is seen at age 23, when she became a victim of sex trafficking. Photo courtesy of Maegan Bell

By 2009 at the age of 23, Bell had settled in New York City, transitioning to studying fashion merchandising at the Laboratory Institute of Merchandising.

Soon, though, she would find herself on the run: desperately trying to escape a near-deadly beating and descent into a life of sexual exploitation and abuse.

“All I could do was cry. I was numb,” Bell said in an interview. “I was scared, I was confused and I was heartbroken.”

Now, Bell is sharing her story after she saw Facebook posts circulating about potential trafficking schemes at local department stores. After joining a support network, the 34-year-old Canaan woman was connected with Survivor Speak, a survivor-based organization that  aims to turn “survivors into leaders and advocates.” The group is led by Dee Clarke.

“There have been cases, several here in Maine,” Clarke said. “A lot of times it’s proven that the person is being trafficked by force, fraud or coercion, but they’re not willing to tell on their perpetrator, so it’s not a case.”

Back in New York City, it would take time for Bell to reach her limit as a life of intrigue became one of subjugation.

“I was living in The Big Apple, the city that never sleeps, the melting pot,” she said. “I was a normal college girl. I thought looking cute and clubbing was a part-time job.”

It’s there that she met Divine, who she described as “this gorgeous Costa Rican rapper” who approached her when she was out at a club “dancing the night away.”

“He promised me the world,” she said. “He made me feel like I was the only woman alive. He was very detailed in his goals and dreams, and he made me believe that I’d be the rapper’s wife, living in a mansion one day with kids.”

The two moved in together in September 2009, a few months after they started dating. But by the end of the month, Bell found herself the victim of abuse, manipulation and drug use.

She soon realized that she was a victim of sex trafficking, a more specific form of human trafficking, where victims are subject to force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labor. That progressed over months, resulting in her failing out of school and becoming isolated from the world around her.

 

RUN AWAY

According to a 2015 report by the Maine Sex Trafficking & Exploitation Network, Maine sees between 200 and 300 cases of sex trafficking annually; nearly 40% of law enforcement officers have seen a trafficking case in the last year and fewer than half of all law enforcement officers in Maine believe that their departments are prepared to address cases involving minors.

About six months after the relationship began, Bell said she was beaten nearly to death by her boyfriend/trafficker.

“The next morning I could barely move,” she said. “My lips swollen, my rib cage still hurts to touch to this day. He left with his mother to help her with laundry. God or my angels or someone or something inside of me said, ‘Now is the time, you gotta go.'”

Bell said she had $40 stored in the back of an old Blackberry phone. She took that money, her dog Presley, and started to walk. Her walk turned into a run and she took off to the first store she could find, T-Mobile, where staff allowed her to hide and call the police and her family.

She did not have luck with the police during this exchange, so she used the $40 to pay for a cab to a friend’s place in a different area, where the police were called again.

Maegan Bell, 34, was the victim of human trafficking in New York City. She is pictured at Starbucks in Waterville on March 9. Bell said while she was being abused, Starbucks was a place she could go to feel happy during an otherwise horrible time in her life. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

Bell was hospitalized for her injuries; her abuser later turned himself into police after a warrant for his arrest was issued on charges of assault and menacing. She returned home to Maine for a few weeks, where she stayed with her parents and recovered from her injuries as well as a drug addiction and a breakup.

Reflecting on this a decade later, now at age 34, Bell refers to her abuser as a “Romeo pimp,” or one who prides himself on his control through psychological manipulation. According to sharedhope.org, “Romeo pimps” tend to shower their victims with affection and gifts, though the threat of violence is always present.

Survivor Speak has been around since 2015 and does outreach in several different ways. Each mentor has been through Survivor Advocacy Leadership Training, a curriculum designed to help survivors heal, build fellowships and gain leadership skills. Bell is working on the training and plans to become a mentor moving forward.

“For women that are out of (a trafficking situation), our outreach is to try to help them come into (Survivor Advocacy Leadership Training),” Clarke said. “Women that are out of it, we do outreach on the street to befriend them, just make friends with them. And then there are women who are half in and half out that are homeless that are in homeless shelters, which is not great.”

Clarke said that the group also works to coordinate fellowships, which brings survivors together to check in with one another. She said that sometimes the girls in these groups know each other from trafficking situations.

“It inspires possibilities,” Clarke said. “Even if it doesn’t happen then and there, it’s a possibility.”

Clarke’s administrative assistant, Jenny Clark, says that the fellowship is crucial for the survivor network that they work with.

“I think the fellowship and the community building is a really foundational thing and something that a lot of service providers aren’t targeted at,” Clark said. “There are a couple of other survivor-led organizations working on trafficking awareness, but Dee’s is the only one that is training other survivors to speak out and be advocates.”

 

RAISING AWARENESS

Sex trafficking, Bell said, does not have a specific color or a face.

“It could be your neighbor, your aunt, a drug addict; a college student, a teenager driving alone, even an at-risk woman in a shelter,” she said. “It happens every day, every second, to anyone, and we must bring this issue to the surface.”

Nationally, the first-ever Federal Human Trafficking Report outlines all civil and criminal cases handled by federal courts in 2017, totaling 783 active cases. Between 2007 and 2017, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline has received more than 417 calls from Maine and identified at least 44 cases where trafficking was likely perpetrated.

Additionally, Preble Street Anti-Trafficking Services in Portland has served over 168 survivors, and nearly 90% of them do not have stable housing.

The same report says that there are no official estimates of the total number of human trafficking victims in the United States, but the Polaris Project estimates that the number of adults and minors that are victims of sex trafficking nationally reaches into the hundreds of thousands.

Last fall, a community member in Skowhegan hosted the Red Sands Project to raise awareness and start the conversation about human trafficking and exploitation.

Additionally, Bell is working on legislation to protect victims of trafficking and domestic violence. “Maegan’s Bill” would provide survivors of sex trafficking, rape and domestic violence a safe and separate court appearance from their abuser/traffickers.

“I started this bill because I was living in fear regarding facing my trafficker in a court room,” Bell said. “I never went through with placing charges on him. For him to know the date and time and place I would be really scared me. I thought he would send someone to kill me or my family outside of the courthouse.”

“I also didn’t think anyone would believe me, or I’d be prosecuted as a prostitute. A court room setting can also revictimize a victim and could potentially create even worse (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) or trauma since the opposite party normally cross-examines the victim, which could hurt the survivor’s character and create fear and trauma.”

Maegan Bell, 34, found comfort in her dog Presley, 13, while Bell suffered as a victim of human trafficking in New York City. She is pictured with the dog, a Yorkshire terrier, Maltese mix, in Waterville on March 9. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

For now, Bell continues to share her story and is working to become an advocate for other survivors. She is writing a book coming out in a couple of years, “Country Roads, Take Me Home,” where she shares her story and struggles.

On top of her advocacy work, Bell works for the company that she says saved her life a decade ago. She is also working to speak with local middle and high schools and planning to start after-school workshops for teens “to learn to love and accept themselves.”

“I escaped to a T-Mobile store in Queens (New York) and that’s the company that I work for today,” Bell said. “T-Mobile allowed me to move back home to Maine 10 years later and allowed me to deeply heal in my home state.”

“I don’t know how I’m alive,” Bell added. “I made it out alive. This is why I’m here on this earth: to share my story, to bring awareness to a serious problem that most victims are silent about. You are not alone, don’t be ashamed.”

National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888; a call to this number can connect you with local resources.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.