NOTE: This article contains descriptions of a sexual nature that are disturbing. Please read at your own discretion.
A GoFundMe campaign created for Pieper Lewis, a teenage sex trafficking victim who was ordered to pay US$150,000 in restitution after killing her accused rapist, has raised over $350,000 as of publication time, with over 9,000 donations from well-wishers.
Lewis, 17, was sentenced to five years probation on Tuesday after pleading guilty last year to involuntary manslaughter and willful injury in the June 2020 killing of 37-year-old Zachary Brooks of Des Moines, Iowa. Both charges were punishable by up to 10 years in prison but the sentences were deferred. However, if Lewis violates her probation she could be sent to prison to serve that 20-year term.
Lewis was 15 when she stabbed Brooks more than 30 times in his apartment in 2020. At the time, she was a repeat runaway who had been taken in by a man who portrayed himself as her boyfriend while trafficking her for sex.
In the weeks leading up to the stabbing, Lewis said that Brooks had raped her multiple times despite her pleas for him to stop. She was forced at knifepoint to go to Brooks’ apartment by the man who was trafficking her.
The last time Brooks raped her, Lewis grabbed a knife off the bedside table and stabbed him repeatedly in a fit of rage.
Police and prosecutors have not disputed that Lewis was sexually assaulted and trafficked. But prosecutors have argued that Brooks was asleep at the time he was stabbed and not an immediate danger to Lewis.
Lewis was ordered to pay Brooks’ family $150,000 in restitution for killing her accused rapist, in accordance with Iowa law that intends to provide justice to victims’ families.
“This court is presented with no other option,” the sentencing judge said regarding the fine.
A GoFundMe page was started by Lewis’ former math teacher, Leland Schipper, to help her pay the hefty sum, as well as “Remove financial barriers for Pieper in pursuing college/university or starting her own business,” and to “Give Pieper the financial capacity to explore ways to help other young victims of sex crimes.”
“Pieper wants to go to college, she wants to create art, and she wants to advocate for other girls who find themselves in situations like she endured,” Schipper wrote. “She does not deserve a massive debt looming over her, holding her back from pursuing her ambitions.”
“Pieper does not owe that man’s family justice,” Schipper continued. “Pieper does not deserve to be (financially) burdened for the rest of her life because the state of Iowa wrote a law that fails to give judges any discretion as to how it is applied. This law doesn’t make sense in many cases, but in this case, it’s morally unjustifiable. A child who was raped, under no circumstances, should owe the rapist’s family money.”
The initial goal of raising $200,000 for Pieper was exceeded — and then some. The current total now stands at just under $360,000.
In Lewis’ witness statement, according to the New York Times, the teenager recounted running away from an abusive home with her adopted mother three times within three months in 2020. At first, she stayed with the older sister of a classmate who gave her a place to sleep in exchange for babysitting services, but that arrangement later fell apart.
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With no place to live, Lewis began to sleep in the hallway of the apartment building where she had been staying with the classmate’s sister. She was taken in by a male neighbour but that relationship became violent and Lewis left.
Another neighbour, Christopher Brown, 28, offered to let her stay with him and the two soon began a relationship, with Lewis later saying she believed Brown to be her boyfriend.
Brown arranged for her to have sex with men for money. She said Brown did this about seven to eight times while she stayed in his apartment from April to June 2, 2020.
In May, Brown told Lewis that she had to stay at the home of one of his acquaintances while his daughter and her mother visited.
“Mr. Brown told me that Mr. Brooks would want to have sex with me since he was allowing me to stay with him,” she wrote in her statement. “I did not want to have sex with Mr. Brooks because I believed that Mr. Brown was my boyfriend. I did not want to go to Mr. Brooks’s apartment but I had no other place to go.”
While staying in Brooks’ apartment, Lewis says that the 37-year-old made her drink alcohol and smoke marijuana until she was unconscious. Then, he raped her five times, she says.
After she returned to Brown’s apartment, her trafficker told her later that month to go back to Brooks’ apartment to get them marijuana.
“He told me that I needed to ‘turn that trick’ to ‘get us some weed,’” she said.
Lewis refused and Brown “grabbed a knife from the kitchen counter and pressed it against my neck,” she wrote in her statement. Brown removed the knife when she agreed to go.
On June 1, Brooks picked Lewis up from Brown and took her back to his apartment. Lewis says that Brooks was intoxicated at the time and she hoped that he would fall asleep while watching a movie.
“I tried to remain calm and kept thinking he will pass out and I will leave his apartment at first light,” she said.
Instead, Brooks forced her to take shots of vodka and smoke marijuana, causing her to fall asleep.
When Lewis woke up, Brooks was raping her. She asked him to stop but soon lost consciousness again. When she awoke later in the night her clothes were missing.
Lewis says she “saw a box of KY Jelly and a knife with a black sheath lying on one of his night stands next to his bed,” while Brooks was asleep beside her. She realized that Brooks had raped her again and, “without thinking, I immediately grabbed the knife from his night stand and began stabbing him,” she said.
She says she showered and drove one of Brooks’ cars back to Brown’s apartment. Lewis was arrested the next day.
During Lewis’ sentencing hearing on Tuesday, her lawyers accused Brown of aiding and abetting sex trafficking — but police have still not pressed charges. Polk County Attorney John Sarcone told the New York Times, “The matter is still pending and we do not comment on pending matters.”
In the U.S., dozens of states have instituted safe harbour laws that give trafficking victims some level of criminal immunity from prosecution. Iowa is not one of those states.
Lewis, who earned her GED while being held in juvenile detention, read a statement she had prepared for her sentencing hearing on Tuesday
“My spirit has been burned, but still glows through the flames,” she said. “Hear me roar, see me glow, and watch me grow.”
“I am a survivor.”
— With files from The Associated Press
If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse or is involved in an abusive situation, please visit the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime for help. They are also reachable toll-free at 1-877-232-2610.