Editor’s note — This is part 1 of a two-part story about the disappearance and recovery of Kristi Merrill, a Union Mine graduate.
The story of Kristi Merrill, her disappearance from Carmichael and rescue from a sex trafficking ring in Sacramento, starts as many stories of the seedy underbelly of society do: with death and drugs.
The first death to affect Merrill was of a friend known as Vash, nicknamed after a popular Japanese comic character, who Merrill’s mother Bryn Barton called a life-long friend of her daughter’s, almost a “high school sweetheart.” He succumbed to injuries sustained in Afghanistan during an Army tour after being shipped back to Texas in an attempt to save his life.
Merrill, who was attending Santa Barbara Community College, found out “later than she should have” about her friend’s death, Barton, a secretary for the Department of Justice, said. The death of her close friend hit her hard, leading to a minor drinking problem. After the fall 2005 semester, Merrill returned home.
“Our community picked her up off her feet,” Barton said. “We stopped her drinking.” She was then provided medical and therapeutic assistance.
Meanwhile, another friend, who Barton knew as 26-year-old Tim, began hanging around Barton’s neighborhood park. Tim, described as looking like “something from Peter Pan,” was the product of a protective mother, Barton said. He was on many prescription drugs, she said.
“We took him in. We watched movies, he’d have dinner with us,” Barton said.
Merrill began to suffer from “migraines, cramps and insomnia,” Barton said, and Tim would provide prescription medication from a lunch box he would carry around, thinking he was being helpful. He was the “missing puzzle piece” to Merrill, Barton said, despite his less than legal providing of medication.
But Tim’s mother was becoming distressed at how much time he was spending with Merrill. After an overdose of medication at an apartment Merrill and Tim later shared, Tim returned his mother’s house but later later left to live with other family members. , but Barton would not let him stay at her home, feeling she was not equipped to handle his sensitive needs. Tim moved in with his sister, Barton said, but asked if he could attend church with Merrill and Barton. “The emotional fixation was there,” Barton said.
One day, while Merrill was working at Caffino in Carmichal, she missed a phone call from Tim, begging her meet him in a hotel room, to stay with him for the night. She mistakenly missed the call and, alter that night, Tim committed suicide. Barton said her daughter felt responsible for his death, though she doubted anything Merrill had said would have stopped Tim. Her daughter already felt “vulnerable, with low self-esteem” after the death of Vash and overcoming her drinking, Barton said. “She went sideways on me when (Tim) died.”
Barton enrolled Merrill in a one-year Christian getaway in Bakersfield to help her cope. After a year in the program, Merrill decided to move in with her father, Rob Merrill, and sister, Mindi. While there, however, she was again exposed to opiates. She gave in and used the medication to dull the pain of her loss, Barton said.
Barton, who worried about her daughter, said she would be firm in her “tough love” stance if Merrill came home. When she did, Barton set ground rules: Chief among them, no more drugs. Merrill said she was “‘just done with Placerville,’” Barton said, and while she loved her family, wanted to go back to living with her mother. Barton agreed, and upon seeing her daughter when she came home, thought she was pregnant. A trip to what is now the Shingle Springs Health and Wellness Clinic, run by the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, confirmed her suspicions; her daughter was pregnant.
After the visit, Merrill was put on Sebutex, an alternative to methadone, as methadone had associations with past drug use. After getting group help from Kaiser starting in September of 2010, Barton said they had “the best year of our lives.” After eight weeks, Merrill was behaving more like her old self, before the problems began. When Kaiser changed how therapy was done, Barton paid out-of-pocket to help her daughter. “It’s rare to find such a unique bond with your daughter,” she said. “We are very, very, very close.”
Barton took Merrill to Bi-Valley Clinic in Carmichael, where she did well with treatment. It was here, however, that Barton thinks the sex trafficking ring targeted vulnerable young adults and teens.
Seeing her father and his new girlfriend at the birth of her daughter, Adisyn ”gave Kristi some hope,” Barton said.
After a successful stint with John Daily at Recovery Happens, Barton said the Kaiser insurance kicked in again and Merrill was able to go back to the Kaiser group. “It’s not the drug that’s the problem,” Barton later wrote in an email, “it’s the underlying demons, fears, traumas and PTSD and other similar dual diagnosis issues that makes a person lead to self medicate or relapse.”
After a year, Barton allowed Merrill to have her car back, and allowed her to get a restricted license. She joined a group with Christ Community Church to address the losses of Tim and Vash. And while this helped, it didn’t help with Merrill’s ongoing prescription drug problem. She returned to Bi-Valley. It was here that Merrill met a girl she called Lisa.
The relationship with Lisa would lead Merrill into the world of sex trafficking. The details are sketchy, and Barton said that her daughter has not quite revealed exactly what happened.
Barton was suspicious of Lisa from the start of the relationship. When Merrill would go to visit Lisa, she would not tell Barton exactly where she was going, only the vicinity. From everything Merrill told Barton of Lisa, Lisa sounded like a “classic trafficking victim,” Barton said.
Barton stopped giving gas money to her daughter to go see Lisa. She found out Merrill would panhandle for gas, asking for “just enough gas to get to the next place,” Barton said. “I was led to believe she was boosting,” Barton said, referring to the criminal practice of stealing something from a store and returning it for a refund.
“Was she using again? Was she trying to help Lisa get away, to escape an abusive home?” Barton speculated on the situation, but only knew that her daughter’s ultimate goal was to help Lisa in any way she could, a trait Merrill was known for, sometimes – as in this case – to the detriment of herself.
Barton believes that Merrill and Lisa were approached outside of one of the opiate recovery facilities by someone claiming that they could get the girls a job as a high-end escort or model. They could make money with hardly any effort and quit any time. A common tactic, Barton said, of the sex trafficking industry; say the victim would not be selling their body only to force them into prostitution.
On the night of March 23 Merrill told Barton she would be back at 11 p.m. as she headed out the door. Barton believes her daughter was going to become what she thought was an escort or model — “She would never sell her body,” Barton said — when Merrill disappeared. It would take four stressful months, a relatively new Christian organization dedicated to finding victims of sex trafficking, a private investigator, finding clues in Merrill’s missing car and the help of other prostitutes before Barton would see her daughter again.
Next, in part 2, the hunt for Kristi Merrill succeeds.