Becoming Carmen: Sex work took her name, then everything else. Now she helps women take life back.

Author's Note: This story contains explicit language and descriptions of real prostitution cases. Reader discretion is advised.

INDIANAPOLIS -- The first woman we see who pings Stefanie’s radar is hopping out of the cab of a truck in an otherwise empty parking lot along 10th Street. She’s in her mid-to-late 30s, in jeans and a jacket that’s a little too light for the cool, drizzly day.

“She could be working,” Stefanie says.

Working, in this case, means climbing into stranger’s trucks to sell them sex – sometimes for as little as $20. It’s a booming industry on the Near Eastside, and Stefanie and I are driving around looking for practitioners.

Two blocks down the street, an IMPD squad car suddenly pulls out in front of us from around the corner of building and speeds back toward the way we’d come. Maybe the woman really was working – but as an undercover vice officer. Maybe she just gave the signal and her partners are swooping in to arrest a john.

"We think [prostitutes] are going to be in a skimpy outfit or look a certain way, but they don't. They blend in."

Street corner reversals are the most common way Indianapolis police conduct prostitution stings. As it happened, Southeast District’s vice unit was out that day conducting stings just a few blocks south of where we were driving. They were looking for johns – the men who pay for sex. We were looking for the women they’d want to pay. That means women in jeans and sweaters – women who look like they’re running out for groceries or taking a cigarette break.

READ MORE'Operation: Cupid's Broken Arrow' nets 10 men accused of trying to buy sex

“’Pretty Woman’ has kind of done a number on what we think prostitution looks like,” Stefanie says. Julia Roberts won a Golden Globe for the 1990 film, in which she plays a down-on-her-luck prostitute who falls in love with a john – a wealthy businessman played by Richard Gere. Roberts’ character, Vivian Ward, dresses in thigh-high leather boots and crop tops that offer plenty of midriff. In real life, police would spot that get-up in an instant.

“The women who are working on the streets are just in sweatshirts and jeans,” says Stefanie. “If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you wouldn’t recognize her as someone being prostituted. We think they’re going to be in a skimpy outfit or look a certain way, but they don’t. They blend in.”

Below: See what our analysis of all of 2017's prostitution-related cases found.

 
 

We turn south and then eventually back west onto Washington Street. Near the recently renovated Carnegie Library at the intersection with Rural Street, Stefanie spots another woman at a bus stop who could be working. Or, she could just be waiting for the bus.

If you really want to know if a girl is working, Stefanie says, watch what she does when she’s alone and a car pulls up to her on the street.

“Most women, if a car pulls up to them, would be fearful of that and walk away,” Stefanie says. “I would be worried if a car I didn’t know just pulled up to me. So a woman who is walking and a car pulls up, and she walks over to the car, is more than likely a woman who is prostituting.”

Explore the map below to see information about every prostitution-related arrest in Indianapolis in 2017:

 

Her intuition about the corner, if not this particular woman, isn’t off base. Last year alone there were three prostitution arrests and a fourth for patronizing a prostitute within just a few blocks.

In fact, roughly one out of every three prostitution-related arrests made in Indianapolis last year happened in the 2-square-mile-area bounded by 10th and Washington streets to the north and south and Rural Street and Emerson Avenue to the west and east. The average woman charged in those cases was 33 – a dozen years older than Roberts when she was cast to play Hollywood’s most famous prostitute. It’s the same age as Stephanie was, though, the first time she met a man at a hotel to be paid for sex.

Becoming 'Carmen'

“I had been pregnant,” Stefanie tells me. “The day that that baby should have been born I walked into my job as a paralegal, gathered all of my things and I just left.”

We met for the first time over coffee at a restaurant in Fishers, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Now 47 – clear-eyed and enthusiastic about the non-profit she’s a year into building – it’s hard to imagine she spent three years dancing in Indianapolis strip clubs.

Stefanie Jeffers, 47, says for years all she wanted was to move on past her life as a stripper.

At 30, Stefanie Jeffers was in a different place. A divorce left her the single mother of a young daughter on a paralegal’s salary. She became pregnant by her new boyfriend, who she says was emotionally and physically abusive. At 16 weeks pregnant, Stefanie learned she’d lost the baby.

"That conversation I'd had years before of, 'Stefanie you could be a dancer,' kind of crept in when I was at my most vulnerable and my most broken..."

“When I left my job, I didn’t say goodbye. Didn’t quit. Didn’t do any of the things you’re supposed to do,” she said. “I went to a cemetery and sat in the rain – it was raining so hard that day – and I just sat in the mud and I just didn’t know what to do, but I knew that I couldn’t keep doing what I’d been doing. Even though it looked right to the world, it felt wrong to me, because on the inside I was really broken.”

Years earlier, a friend had told her – jokingly, she thought at the time – that she could be a dancer. She’d dismissed it immediately. She hadn’t thought about it in years.

“That conversation I’d had years before of, ‘Stefanie you could be a dancer,’ kind of crept in when I was at my most vulnerable and my most broken, and I got up and thought, you know, maybe I can,” Stefanie said. “Maybe I can become a dancer. And so I got up and the next day I walked into a strip club for what was for me the first time.”

It was August 2001, and Stefanie was about to begin her education in the sex trade.

It’s not hard for a young, attractive woman to find a stage to dance on. Strip clubs have a lot of hours of dancing to fill. The men start coming in around lunch time and keep coming in until the club closes. On top of that, a dancer’s tenure at any given club might only last a few months. The bottom line: If you want to dance, there’s probably a spot open for you.

First, though, you need a stripper name.

“The very first thing that happens when you go to get a job as a dancer is you give away your name and they give you something different,” Stefanie said. “So for me, I went in as Stefanie and they renamed me as ‘Carmen.’ I didn’t even pick my name. I was not aware stage names existed, because I had never been in a club before.

Below: "Becoming Carmen: Stefanie the paralegal gets her 'stripper name.'"

 
 

“It took a while for me to understand the significance of that because I was just so willing to play the game. To follow the rules of this life that I’d never encountered before. So I just gave my name away,” Stefanie said. “But there’s something really precious about the fact that I have a name that my mom looked at me when I was little and she named me Stefanie. And it’s Stefanie with an ‘f,’ and it’s different. And that means ‘child of God.’ It means ‘chosen one.’ I don’t know what ‘Carmen’ means, but to me it meant everything opposite of who I was raised to be.”

But it didn’t take long for Stefanie to start responding more easily to “Carmen” than to her own name: “That’s kind of the slow fade of losing yourself.”

"In my mind at the time it was, 'I can get someone to my stage and I can make money and I'm pretty good at this.'"

The clubs, despite the stigma that can be attached to working in them, had a certain allure to a woman just out of an abusive relationship. There’s no mystery about where it comes from: Men want to be there to see you. They want to see your body. And they’re willing to pay to do it.

“Initially there’s something intoxicating about working in a club,” Jeffers said. “I did feel, in the beginning, powerful. In my mind at the time it was, ‘I can get someone to my stage and I can make money and I’m pretty good at this.’”

In theory, there are rules in place to keep the men on their side of the stage – to keep a separation between both parts of what is, after all, a business transaction. The women are paid to dance. The men pay to watch.

Part of becoming “Carmen,” though, was learning just what those rules were worth.

“You know, they say that there are rules,” Jeffers said. “That there are boundaries and they’ll protect you. And I never felt protected there, because people can bite you and grab you and slap you and call you whatever they want to call you. And you keep smiling. And you keep taking it. Because, if I thought I was nothing when I first walked into a strip club… having been in there just a little bit of time, I really, really believed I was nothing.”

Too Old For Sympathy

Back on 10th Street – almost 17 years after her first dance – we spot a woman Stefanie knows as a prostitute. She’s encountered her before while working with a street ministry for prostituted women.

When we play back the video later, we realize we’d seen her an hour earlier. She was working 10th Street then, too. The woman was easily in her 50s, wearing a short, black skirt over dark tights. She had on boots and a black hoodie. The hood was up and she was making a determined shuffle down the street.

When we spot her again an hour later, she’s crossing the street with a brown bag of liquor cradled under her arm like a football.

Stefanie tells me she’s part of a “forgotten group” – women working the streets who are “too old” to get sympathy anymore.

“They are the most vulnerable and disenfranchised group of women I’ve ever met in my life,” Stefanie says. “It is easier as a society to look at someone who’s engaging in prostitution and look at them in disgust, and to think that they are below us and that they don’t belong in society. That they simply don’t want to belong in society. That they want to do their own thing. That they enjoy sex, they want to get paid for it, they have drugs and those types of issues, and that this is a choice for them.

“Every single woman I have ever talked to who is engaging in adult prostitution now, who you would look at and think, ‘This is her choice. It’s hopeless,' it wasn’t, at some point, her choice. This is what she knew. And most of the women that I work with were victims of child sexual abuse, child physical abuse, neglect. They’ve been in the foster care system their whole lives. They have lived in great poverty.

“So when you look at choice… what is a choice? Because if someone is hungry and they have no food, and maybe their mom is selling them for crack, or maybe as a woman this is all she knows… maybe this is the only asset she has. This is the only thing she owns, and she’s hungry. Then what? I don’t know that that’s a choice anymore.”

In 2017, Indianapolis police arrested 58 women over the age of 35 on prostitution charges. The oldest was 61. Their criminal histories suggest many of them, like 53-year-old Maria, have been working on the street for years.

Repeat Offenders, Repeat Victims

Maria shows up in 2017’s arrest logs on a charge of prostitution following her arrest in September at the corner of Washington Street and Euclid Avenue. But that’s hardly her first run-in with the law.

A year-and-a-half earlier, in March 2016, undercover officers pulled up to Maria standing outside the U-STOR Self Storage lot near the intersection of Washington and Lasalle streets – about a mile west of where she would be arrested in 2017.

In a probable cause affidavit later filed in court, undercover officers said Maria walked up to the driver’s side window of the car as soon as they parked.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I was looking to have some fun,” the detective told her.

Maria told the officer she wouldn’t get into the vehicle because there were two people in it, so one of the detectives got out and walked to a nearby Taco Bell.

Maria then got inside, and she and the remaining undercover detective arranged for him to pay $20 for fellatio. Once the deal was made, the detective drove to the Taco Bell where his partner was waiting, and Maria was placed under arrest.

At the bottom of the affidavit, one of the detectives handwrote a note: “[Maria] has multiple prior prostitution convictions.”

Court records show eight separate prostitution cases involving Maria between May 2013 and her 2017 arrest. Since then, she’s been arrested three more times – most recently in February, on a charge of prostitution. This time she was picked up at Washington and Denny streets.

In between those cases, Maria also shows up in arrest reports in another capacity: as the victim of domestic battery.

In response to a survey conducted by Millikin University, a veteran IMPD vice detective said that’s a common theme among repeat prostitutes.

Only 44 men were arrested in Indianapolis in 2017 on soliciting a prostitute charges – just a quarter of the 164 women jailed for prostitution.

“We do see some very common ‘victim’ threads among those who are repeat prostitutes,” the detective (whom RTV6 is not identifying due to the undercover nature of her work) wrote. “Almost all of them were molested as children repeatedly, almost all of them had been raped, and most of them were repeat victims of either domestic violence or other violent crimes.”

Maria’s last trip to court on a prostitution charge earned her 130 days in jail. Part of that was the more than half a dozen priors on her record. The men who make up Maria’s clientele, however, almost never receive jail time for their half of the prostitution equation – and that’s if they’re caught at all.

Only 44 men were arrested in Indianapolis last year on charges of soliciting a prostitute. That’s just a quarter of the 164 women who were jailed on prostitution charges. As of this writing, those 44 cases have resulted in five dismissals, 10 pretrial diversion agreements and 12 guilty pleas. Far and away the most common punishment? Twenty to 40 hours of community service, a $300 fine and a court order to stay away from the area where they were arrested. Because soliciting a prostitute is a misdemeanor, most of the men charged with it in Indianapolis are released without bond.

All of that, both Stefanie and IMPD agree, creates a system that punishes prostitutes and johns unequally. It’s a system in which men rarely have to face the social consequences of their decisions to buy sex.

‘I Want Some A**!’

It was shortly before 2 p.m. on April 26, 2017. A maroon Buick Lesabre was approaching 10th Street southbound on Tacoma Avenue. In response to several complaints of prostitution and narcotics activity in the neighborhood, IMPD undercover officers were staging a reverse sting to look for “johns” – people, almost always men, looking to purchase sex.

The Lesabre pulled up to the stop sign. The driver made eye contact with an undercover detective and then jerked his head in a “get in” motion. The detective walked around to passenger side and opened the door.

“You have twenty for me?” she asked. The man said he did.

“You lookin’ for head?” the detective asked.

“No, I want some a**!” the man replied. He urged her to get into the car.

"You know how I knew you were the police? Because you said you had people watching you."

The detective told the man to meet her around the corner. She said there were people watching her at the moment.

The man, 36-year-old Randy Logging, complied. A short distance later, uniformed officers stopped his vehicle and placed him into custody.

Logging, apparently, was unsurprised. While waiting to be transported to jail, he had a question for the detective.

“You know how I knew you were the police?” he said. “Because you said you had people watching you.”

Logging later pleaded guilty to patronizing a prostitute. Even though he had prior convictions for battery, dealing in narcotics and possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon, Logging was sentenced to 40 hours of community service. Court records show he failed to appear for a compliance hearing and was briefly taken back into custody – but received no additional time.

Learning to Make Regulars

At the clubs where Stefanie worked, the male clientele was, if nothing else, a little more subtle.

It was the younger dancers – 18 and 19-year-olds – who taught Stefanie how to turn the men who frequented the clubs into regulars.

“It was older businessmen,” Stefanie said. “They would come in at lunchtime, and you gradually realized they were there just to see you. They want to sit in the back with you. Sometimes they just want to talk with you.”

“There’s always a promise of something – an unspoken promise of something more,” Stefanie said. “When somebody decides that they like your particular look or what you have to offer, you want to get them to become a regular customer. You want them to come back just to see you and spend time with you, because that’s where you earn more money. It is an individual relationship, but it’s a relationship that’s built on lies.”

For Stefanie, and for “Carmen,” courting regulars was always uncomfortable.

"[Men] would want to sit with you for hours and just talk. At some point it became easier to say, 'Can I just give you a dance?'"

 

“They wanted to get to know me, and I wanted to forget me,” she said. “It was very hard to engage in conversations with them sometimes. They would want to sit with you for hours and just talk. At some point it became easier to say, ‘Can I just give you a dance?’ Because that I can do. But I don’t want to talk to you anymore, because it is built on lies. They keep coming because they hope something will develop. And what they hope will develop is that you will meet them outside of the club and you will go to dinner with them and that you will have a relationship outside of the club. The ultimate goal, I’m sure, is that they want to have sex.”

Ultimately, that was how Stefanie – the mom, the paralegal, the woman who’d never been in a strip club in her life – became a prostitute.

At first, Stefanie says, it was just private dances for regulars.

“I just allowed that boundary to be pushed back a little bit further and a little bit further, until it didn’t seem so bad to meet somebody who had been a customer at their home to dance with no clothes on,” she said “And then when that was over and I got paid good money for that, and I lived to tell about it, then it seems a little less horrific to meet a client outside of the club at a hotel and get paid for sex.”

Below: "Becoming Carmen: For Stefanie, stripping eventually becomes prostitution."

 
 

Eventually, Stefanie says, she got to a place where the drugs and the booze weren’t enough to numb the reality of who she had become.

“I looked in the mirror and I didn’t know who I was,” she said. “I was unrecognizable from anyone I had ever been, and I did not look at all like the woman God had created me to be. I got to a point where I couldn’t take it anymore – not one more touch or grab or bite or slap or foul word whispered in my ear. I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

Like many dancers, she’d tried to leave the industry before. The “last time” had come and gone multiple times – and she was still dancing. When she decided this “last time” would be the actual last time, Stefanie made a vow to herself that she was never coming back. She knew to keep that vow, she had to discard all the trappings that turned Stefanie into Carmen.

“The costumes that we had are very expensive,” she said. “I had years of gathering pretty things to wear, and it’s crazy how expensive they are for how little they are. But I didn’t want them anymore because that would be a key back in. That would be a way to just walk back in. I would have all of my things and I could still be Stefanie who was a stripper. So I went to my locker and I opened the door and I laid out everything on the floor – shoes, costumes – and I told the women I worked with, I told the girls I worked with, that they could have it and it wouldn’t cost them a thing. I just wanted to get rid of it.”

“It was haunting to me. It still does sometimes, even though I know those costumes are probably gone by now,” Stefanie said. “But for the first few years after I left I was haunted by the fact that there were little pieces of me walking around the clubs on the broken backs of women. Women that I cared about.”

Life After the Clubs, and the Dream House

Three years as a dancer had cost Stefanie almost everything. The highest price, she says, was her relationship with her daughter.

“In the end, I was not making a good, wholesome, safe and stable place for her to live like I was supposed to do. And her dad was,” Stefanie said.

When she was in the first grade, Stefanie’s daughter decided she wanted to live with her father, Stefanie’s ex-husband. He had since remarried and had a child with his new wife. He offered the stable, happy childhood home that Stefanie couldn’t.

Below: "Becoming Carmen: Stefanie loses her daughter to the 'darkness' of her life as a stripper."

 
 

 

“Truly one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done was putting her in the car and buckling her in and watching her drive away, and collapsing in the snow when she was out of sight – and knowing, years later, that she looked back to see if I was still there and she thought I’d gone inside. I hadn’t,” Stefanie said. “I had fallen on to the ground. Driving home after that getting high so I could numb myself to what that felt like… it’s a big failure as a mom to not provide a place for your daughter and to not make her feel safe. I had allowed my own brokenness to break her.”

In 2004, when Stefanie finally left the clubs for good, she wanted nothing more than to repair that relationship with her daughter. Eventually, slowly, she did. When she was in the seventh grade, Stefanie’s daughter came back to live with her. After graduation, she pursued missionary work. She’s now married. Stefanie says their relationship has never been better.

Stefanie had her own life to rebuild too. She remarried and eventually became a mother again. She lives in Fishers with her family and is an active member of her church. For almost a decade, she was content to leave her three years in the clubs in the past

Slowly, Stefanie began to share her story – with just a select few friends and members of her church at first, then more widely. She began participating in “strip ministries” that reach out to women who are still working at clubs to provide them resources to leave, if that’s something they’re looking for. Then she began participating in street outreach. She was asked to participate in the FBI’s “Operation Cross Country.”

To her surprise, Stefanie found herself talking again about that vow she’d made to herself in 2004 – the vow she thought she’d never tell anyone else about

"I think that if a woman can make that vow to herself... that's a really good first step to leaving."

“It’s not something I had to tell anyone else about,” Stefanie said. “It’s not something that the women I work with now have to tell someone. Because there’s such a fear of failure and of disappointing yourself and other people, so sometimes you do just have to keep it to yourself. But I think that if a woman can make that vow to herself, and it looks different to every woman, but if she can make that vow to herself, and a promise… that’s a really good first step to leaving.”

Last January, Stefanie says she felt a burden to do something more. So she formed her non-profit, Grit Into Grace, which focuses specifically on women engaged in street prostitution. Stefanie says it’s the culmination of a dream God gave her “to work with women in a space where they could find a haven, find some support, mentoring, resources, therapy, things that they need to actually be able to exit the industry, if that’s something they want.”

Even though Stefanie never engaged in street prostitution, she says the women she works with find in her someone who understands them.

“When they’re ready, then they trust me because we do speak the same language,” Stefanie said. “Even though I didn’t engage in street prostitution, I know what it feels like. I just know what it feels like. And there’s always something visible I can see in the women who look at me for the first time and wonder why I’m there. I’m able to tell them, ‘I understand what you’re going through because I’ve been there.’ It’s something physical in their presence where they’re able to relax a little bit.”

Still in its infancy, Stefanie’s hope for Grit Into Grace is that it will provide all of the services women need to get off the street. That starts with a permanent place to stay. After that, Stefanie says they need food, recovery help and, critically, trauma-focused counseling.

“The rates of PTSD and trauma are astronomical for these women,” Stefanie said. “Once we can help them get sober, help them get clean, get them counseling, help them find a place to live… meet their basic needs. And then help them get a GED, how do they get their license, is their case something that can be expunged, how do we help them clean up their record?”

Earlier this year, Stefanie learned that a longtime dream of hers – the aptly named “Dream House” – was going to become a reality. The owner of a house near 10th Street and Parker Avenue, right in the heart of the Near Eastside, donated it to Grit Into Grace. Once refurbished, the Dream House will allow Stefanie to have a place where women can go that’s only blocks from the corners where many of them now work.

The modest house on Parker Avenue that will become Grit Into Grace's "Dream House."

It will be a place, Stefanie says, where women can take the first step out of prostitution – and then plan out the next steps after that.

“It’s always at their pace,” Stefanie said. “It’s whatever they want to do, and with the knowledge that relapse is a thing. I was part of that process. Going back and coming out, and going back and coming out is part of the process, and we love them through that process too. I will work in constant contact with a woman and then she will disappear. She knows that if she contacts me again I will answer every time.”

If you or someone you know are currently being prostituted, resources are available. Contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or visit their website here.

This article is the second in a series documenting the sex trade in Indianapolis. Read Part 2, “Dear John,” here.

Jordan Fischer is the Senior Digital Reporter for RTV6. He writes about crime & the underlying issues that cause it. Follow his reporting on Twitter at @Jordan_RTV6 or on Facebook.