WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) — When she first arrived in town, Windie Lazenko headed to the neon-lit strip clubs and bars catering to lonely oil field workers with extra cash and time on their hands. She knew these were likely gathering spots for the sex trade — the life she'd given up long ago.
For nearly two decades, Lazenko was part of that illicit world, starting as a 13-year-old runaway when, she says, she was bought and sold for sex. Prostitution, pornography and strip clubs followed. Then she walked away from it all. She eventually moved to Montana and a few years ago, while counseling at-risk girls, she began hearing about young women being recruited for prostitution in the Bakken oilfields. She wanted to help.
Lazenko is now one of the most prominent activists in the fight against sex trafficking in the oil patch. She's worked with federal prosecutors, the FBI and police, testified before state lawmakers and addressed church and school groups. She also has formed an advocacy-resource group, 4her North Dakota, reaching out to victimized women.
"I speak their language from the get-go," she says. "I'm not law enforcement. I'm not out there to bust them. They don't have to play the game with me. They're going to respect me and I'm going to respect them. We're going to have a conversation. I know what it is to be out there."
Lazenko's advocacy comes as state lawmakers are considering an array of new measures — including stiffer penalties for pimps and more money to help victims — to combat the growing sex trade in the Bakken. "It's powerful for them to say human trafficking is here in North Dakota," she says. "It's just huge that they've acknowledged it."
In Congress, several bipartisan bills are pending designed to crack down on trafficking and ensure that minors who are sold for sex are treated as victims, not criminals. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat and co-sponsor of several of these measures, has been among the most vocal legislators focusing on this problem, bringing federal officials to the state to train authorities on how to identify trafficking and looking for ways to stem the activity through websites.
Law enforcement says the Bakken is a made-to-order market for sex trafficking: Thousands of men, far from home and families, are holed up in a remote place with ready cash and not many places to spend it. Bars and strip clubs are one option. Online sites also are filled with local ads such as "Body 2 Body Experience" or "Come Enjoy Your WILDEST FANTASIES 2 Girl Show Available."
After settling in North Dakota in late 2013, Lazenko quickly familiarized herself with the local sex-for-sale business. "It was pretty blatant," she says. She noticed less visible signs, too — the motel, for instance, where a broken back-door lock conveniently allowed johns to slip in without having to pass the front desk.
In the past year or so, Lazenko says she's helped several trafficking victims — arranging for women to be taken to shelters after they've fled their pimps or even opening her own apartment to them. She's also escorted some women to court hearings or meetings with prosecutors trying to make cases against traffickers.
At 46, Lazenko, is a grandmother of three, but in her short leather jacket, jeans and knit cap pulled down tightly over chin-length hair, she could be mistaken for a college student. She jokes about her youthful experience, considering her history. "I should be tore up from the floor up with the life that I've led," she says.
Though her past gives her credibility with trafficked women, Lazenko says getting them to walk away is difficult. "We're often working against years of abuse," she says. "When these girls buy into their lives, their minds are made up. The rescue mentality really doesn't work. They don't even consider themselves victims."
It's sometimes hard, too, to convince the police the women are being coerced, Lazenko says.
She maintains that the overwhelming majority of women working as prostitutes in the oil patch are controlled by pimps. She points to one woman she helped who, she says, was beaten by her pimp when she wasn't meeting her $1,000-a-day quota. "That's human trafficking," she says. "That's not prostitution."
The police skepticism, Lazenko says, extends to her.
"They think I'm some kind of wounded warrior who wants to come in and make peace with my past by doing this work," she says. "They don't understand I kind of know what I'm doing."
U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon, though, calls Lazenko "the real deal" and says she's made a huge difference in tackling sex trafficking. He notes that she provided critical emotional support to a woman whose testimony was essential in taking down a man who later pleaded guilty to enticing two women to travel to North Dakota to work as prostitutes.
"She's very calm, and you don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that she can relate to these victims," Purdon says. "She doesn't give up on these women. This can be frustrating work, I'm sure. She's been down this road and knows it's a long march to get out."
Minot Police Capt. Dan Strandberg, who recently worked with Lazenko on a sex sting that led to 13 arrests, calls her "passionate. ... She's got an insight into a world that most people don't."
Lazenko's own story begins with a troubled childhood in California. By her own account, she was sexually abused as a child and at age 13, she ran away, getting involved with people who trafficked her. By 16, she was married to a man a dozen years older. By 19, she was a mother.
What followed was a life of sexual exploitation, she says, including three years as a strip club dancer. She quit one day when she took the stage and had an epiphany. "I knew I didn't belong there," Lazenko says. "I grabbed my stuff and walked out." By then she was 32, and began noticing co-workers her age were quitting and rebuilding their lives.
"It wasn't a quick fix," Lazenko says, and it took years — and a newfound religious faith — to get on track.
Lazenko still has regrets about her past. "I would go the grocery store in my stripper shoes with my kids ... with T-shirts on that said 'Porn Star.' I had no shame," she says. "When I look back on that, it makes me sick to my stomach."
That life damaged her relationship with her five kids, now 18 to 28.
"It's a miracle that things are working out the way that they are," Lazenko says. "It's not perfect. ... It's not like, Poof! My kids forgive me ... They suffered a lot because of the things that had happened in my life, choices I made. I'm not going to say I was a victim 100 percent of the time ... but slowly but surely, my kids are coming around and I'm just so grateful."
While knowing she can't make up for lost years, she's warmed to her new family role "I may have sucked as a mom, but I rock as a grandma," she says with a laugh.
One of Lazenko's goals is to establish a 30-day emergency shelter for trafficking victims. Domestic violence shelters in the state are crowded and don't have staff trained to deal with sexually exploited women, she says.
Meanwhile, Lazenko continues to encourage them there is a way out.
"I tell them that they were created for more than this, that they have value and talents and they deserve a better life," she says. "There's hope, there's hope. It's just a reminder for me too, that even on the bad days, there is hope."
Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.