Editor’s note — This is part 2 of a two-part story about the disappearance and recovery of Kristi Merrill, a Union Mine graduate. Part 1 ran in the Aug. 15 issue.
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On the night of March 23 25-year-old Kristi Merrill left the Carmichael home she shared with her mother, Bryn Barton, saying she would be back at 11 p.m. Merrill would not be seen by Barton for more than four months.
Barton said her daughter was likely trying to help a friend she met while in group treatment for her use of Oxycontin. Barton said she thought the girls were approached with an offer to be a high-end escort or a model — not a prostitute. This would provide a way to get Merrill’s friend, who Barton called “Lisa,” out of an abusive household.
But, as Merrill would later tell Barton, threats were made regarding Barton and Merrill’s young daughter. Merrill was thus forced into a sex trafficking ring with the aid of guns and drugs.
There was no solid evidence of where Merrill had gone, except that she had left medication and clothing at home. Law enforcement wrote her off as voluntarily missing. “She should have been considered at-risk,” Barton said, especially since she left her antidepressants at home.
Michelle Wishart, a private investigator, was employed by Barton. “I hit the ground running,” Wishart said.
Merrill’s car was found, twice — in April and May — after it was pulled over both times as being missing. The drivers were allegedly found to be driving without a license both times. The first driver was later found to be a known pimp.
Barton said that, at the scene of the second incident, the driver – a man with previous drug charges – called a blocked number and allowed law enforcement to speak with Merrill, who claimed that the driver had her permission to use the car. Barton still questions whether it was actually Merrill on the phone.
After Barton retrieved the car from impound from Sacramento, a hand-written note, in Merrill’s handwriting, was found. It was a phone number.
That phone number led to a prostitute.
“I was working with a woman named Linda,” Wishart said, referencing the prostitute. “She was playing the parents for money. She said she had Kristi and had control of the situation.”
Linda, Wishart said, was working for the same pimp that had Merrill. Linda, a middle-aged prostitute who was in charge of the younger prostitutes, slowly trickled clues. They learned Merrill was being pimped out of the Du Mont Hotel in Sacramento.
A raid on the hotel revealed they had just missed Merrill, by about two days, Barton said. The trafficking ring had moved on.
Barton was granted guardianship of Merrill’s daughter, Adisyn, in the meantime. A second group of people also went to the impound lot to try to find the car — likely, Barton said, from the trafficking ring, afraid of any clues left behind.
Barton, on the advice of her Department of Justice colleagues, hid the car and began staying at a hotel for her own safety. She was contacted by Shannon Forsythe of Run 2 Rescue, a Riverside-based Christian organization founded in February, dedicated to finding, rescuing and rehabilitating victims of sex trafficking. The group devoted resources to help Wishart investigate.
Wishart continued speaking with Linda. “I felt she was playing games, working off emotions,” she said.
Through Linda, methods of keeping women forced into prostitution were revealed. They were given heroin to sleep and a “speedball” — a mixture of heroin and cocaine — to wake up and work. These were given on a schedule.
Using clues Linda gave, including a landline she used to call Wishart and a receipt for a food bank found in the car, Wishart was able to get a rough idea of where Merrill was being held. From working on the Linnea Lomax case, Wishart “knew basically where the ‘rest’ and ‘swap’ houses were.” The girls were moved between houses every 12 hours, to sleep and to work.
In one call made by Linda, Wishart heard Merrill’s voice in the background. She proceeded to surveil the entire area. Barton made a call to Sacramento police, but was met with a wall: They would need two weeks to reopen the case and start investigating.
On Sunday, July 29, a block and a half away from a restaurant she was eating at in the area, Wishart spotted what she believed to be a prostitute. “I had a good feeling,” she said.
She approached the woman, who identified herself as Shelly, and showed her a picture of Merrill. “‘I know her, that’s my friend Kristi,’” Wishart recalled Shelly saying. It took 30 minutes to convince Shelly to get in Wishart’s car, but Shelly led Wishart to the house Merrill was being held in.
Meanwhile, Barton was on the phone with Linda. “I had to go psycho on her,” Barton said. She screamed that Linda was supposed to have helped Merrill escape on Friday, and the deadline had passed. She demanded a photo of her daughter, alive, as a sign of good faith.
Shelly brought Wishart, along with members of Run 2 Rescue, to the house, where Linda brought Merrill out with a guard, with the intent of going to the other house to take a picture.
“She drug Kristi out of the house, and it took another 30 or 45 minutes to convince Kristi to get in the car,” Wishart said. Merrill was afraid of her, Wishart said. The guard, unsure of the situation and outnumbered, backed off.
“(Merrill) was dependent on drugs, on the clock. She kept asking what time it was. A lot of things were going on. I had a car with blacked out windows, a gun, she didn’t know me from Adam,” Wishart said. “She was afraid. She didn’t want to get hurt and was afraid of going home.”
But, having only been on the job for 10 days, Wishart was able to convince Merrill to get in the car, rescuing her from the trafficking ring in the early morning hours of July 30. She immediately took her to see her parents, who Merrill saw only briefly before being moved to an undisclosed location for recovery.
“Kristi doesn’t get services as a victim, that’s where we come in,” said Forsythe. The organization is also working with law enforcement to get the case against the ring reopened.
Run 2 Rescue, which works based solely off of donations and doesn’t charge its clients, is now giving Merrill options for treatment, Forsythe said. “She’s over 18, she has a choice. We’re giving her a few different options and she chooses which she wants to take. We walk her through those processes.”
Forsythe said that they provide “counseling and rehab. We deal with victimization. The girls are ashamed of that; it’s trauma that can be relived. Kristi is tough, she’s a fighter and she does not want to go back to the streets.”
Since the initial brief meeting, Merrill was also more properly reunited with her parents, going out to eat at a fast food restaurant.
“I’m happy that she’s been rescued,” Rob Merrill, Kristi’s father, said, noting he hopes that the trafficking ring is caught. “I’m happy for the investigation that got her. I’m really relieved.”
Although Merrill was afraid her daughter would not recognize her, fearing that “Adi will hate her,” Barton said, Adisyn “ran to her, called her mom. Kristi instantly went into mom mode.”
Of her own daughter’s recovery, Barton said, “It’s a process.” It could take anywhere from two to five years, Barton said.
Wishart warned that Merrill’s case is not isolated. “They’re incredibly smart,” she said of sex trafficking rings. “They know what victims look like. They know they’re vulnerable, they know how to manipulate. They told Kristi her mom and baby would be harmed. They use drugs and a gun to the head. They have several different ways to attack and break down.”
The investigator also noted that Sacramento is the second-largest hub in the U.S. for sex trafficking, noted for its location as being not far from Reno and Las Vegas, Portland and Seattle.
Barton said that the passing of Proposition 35, which gives harsher sentencing to sex traffickers and makes sex trafficking training mandatory for law enforcement, could prevent what happened to her daughter happen to someone else.
The problem with sex trafficking isn’t the victims, but the pimps, Wishart said. “We see people with our eyes, knowing they are probably a prostitute,” Wishart said. “We see that as a choice of lifestyle. It’s not. Someone has power over them.”
Donations and letters of encouragement are being accepted for Kristi Merrill — especially clothes and gift cards for gas — and can be sent to PMC Business Services, c/o Support Kristi Merrill, 7732 Fair Oaks Blvd, Box 160, Carmichael 95608. A walk to benefit Merrill is also set for Aug. 18. More information can be found at facebook.com/HelpFindKristiMerrill.