Story by Ron Logan / East County Magazine
July 7, 2012 (San Diego) – This Independence Day promised the usual smell of barbecued burgers and dogs, the taste of chilled drinks, the glisten of suntan lotion, the sound of children playing, and the smoke, the lights and the crackle of pyrotechnics. Across the nation, families celebrated their independence, partied with friends, and enjoyed the freedoms that we far too often take for granted.
But this Independence Day meant much more for Sara Kruzan – a woman who has never known independence, has never enjoyed freedom, and has fallen through the cracks of our society.
While we celebrated our freedom, Kruzan remained imprisoned, having served the last 18 years of her life in a cell in Chowchilla, California.
East County activist Carrie Christie saw this Fourth of July as an opportunity to bring attention to Kruzan’s case. Due to Christie’s efforts, this July 4th marked a day of action for Kruzan’s supporters in the form of a postcard writing campaign to California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris and Chief Assistant Attorney General Dane Gillette.
“I wasn’t gonna feel right about making plans for myself and my family on the Fourth of July while thinking of Sara,” said Christie during a late night interview at a local coffeehouse. “That day is all about Independence and freedom in America. And I couldn’t stop thinking about my friend who doesn’t have all those things. She’s never been independent and she doesn’t have freedom. Whether it was her pimp taking it away from her or the State of California – she went from one loss of freedom to another.”
Kruzan’s story, on the surface, is one of a young woman with amazing promise.
As a child, she showed incredible potential. She loved school and excelled in both academic and extracurricular endeavors. As a fourth grader she and a friend won a young author’s award in a writing competition for their book about the evils of drugs. In fifth grade she was on the principal’s honor roll. She was elected as the student body president, won ribbons in track and field, participated in the science fair, competed in the spelling bee, and worked on the school newspaper. She was a bright young woman with a promising future.
But Kruzan’s story is more dark than it is bright. Her story is one of epic tragedy.
Her mother was emotionally unstable, violent, and addicted to drugs. Her father, who she never knew, was an ex-convict and heroin addict. She was molested by her mother’s boyfriend when she was just 5 years old. By 9 she suffered from severe depression. She was again molested by another of her mother’s boyfriends at the age of 10. At 11 she met then 31-year-old George Gilbert Howard (aka: G.G.), a man who immediately began preparing her for a life of prostitution. This same year she first attempted suicide. At the age of 12, Kruzan was a victim of repeated statutory rapes by a “mentor” who was 11 years her senior. She was gang raped at 13, the same year she was first sex trafficked by G.G. By the age of 14, Kruzan had been hospitalized five times for attempted suicide.
On March 10, 1994, at the age of 16, Sara Kruzan shot G.G. in the neck at close range. The wound was fatal.
It has become commonplace for stories like these to go unnoticed. We often dismiss them or justify the results. It is no surprise that the has formed opinions that Ms. Kruzan deserves what happened to her, or that justice has been served and she is paying her debt to society as decided by a court of law. In the same way that news media and politicians like to over-simplify, we also like to push things into neatly manicured categories so that it requires little thought to understand. We live in a busy and chaotic society and it is much easier to compartmentalize than to learn all the nuances of every situation.
Kruzan was a victim of her own environment – an environment that as a child, she had little ability to control. Our society is supposed to have certain mechanisms in place to assist when things go awry. In this situation, those mechanisms never kicked into gear.
She had been physically, emotionally and sexually abused since birth by her own mother and by other family and friends. Her mother, Nicole Kruzan, had three other children, all from different fathers.
At the age of 5, Kruzan’s mother left her with a man named Bob Brown, who molested her. When she was 10, another of her mother’s “boyfriends” touched her sexually while she was in bed. When she told her mother of these incidents, her mother chose to do nothing about it. Her mother also accused Sara of trying to steal her boyfriends.
When she was 10 years old, someone at her school discovered bruises on her body from where her mother had struck her. The incident was reported to Child Protective Services, who substantiated the allegations. Ultimately, neither CPS nor the school intervened to save her.
By the time Kruzan was 10, she had begun intentionally cutting herself with scissors to the point of bleeding.
On several occasions, Kruzan had witnessed her mother being abused by her numerous boyfriends. Due to these situations, she was exposed to sexually inappropriate and exploitative behavior by her mother. Some of the men who were abusive to her mother later molested Sara.
Kruzan’s childhood home was a “party house” where people would come for the purpose of taking and purchasing illicit drugs. When she relocated with her mother to a new home the neighborhood was impoverished and gang infested.
According the Kruzan’s Petition for Writ of Habeus Corpus, when she was 15, a petition was filed with the court to remove her from her home due to “the mother’s incapacity to parent the minor and the mother’s failure to protect the minor due to [the mother’s] own emotional difficulties.” It continued, “At that time, Sara’s mother admitted that she had ‘take[n] Sara’s head and hit it on the floor,’ and a social worker determined that the physical abuse was such that ‘the minor is at risk if she returns to her mother’s care’ … Sara learned to shut down her emotions in order to better endure the constant abuse.”
Also according to her Petition for Writ, G.G., approached Kruzan when she was only 11. He bought her ice cream and then took her to his home where he undressed her. As he sexually moltested her, he told her “Using you will be fantastic. We will make lots of money.” G.G. was 31 years old.
G.G. used Kruzan’s youth, vulnerability and poverty to manipulate and ingratiate himself to her. He treated her and her friends to movies, roller-skating, and shopping at the mall.
After several months, G.G. began spending more time alone with Kruzan while asserting greater control over her, often pressuring her to keep in contact with him.
The Petition continues in more detail:
Sara observed that G.G.’s wealth and self-assurance “commanded respect” from others. (testimony of Tanja Gillam: “[H]e wore a lot of jewelry. He liked flashy clothes. He liked clothes that stood out. He was a person who stood out in a crowd.”). Impressed by G.G.’s wealth and confidence, both of which were completely unfamiliar to her, Sara came to believe that G.G. would save her from the abuse and neglect she experienced at the hands of her mother and the other adults in her life.
Intoxicated by the attention, prestige and relative wealth she enjoyed in the company of a man old enough to be her father, 11-year-old Sara was incapable of appreciating where her relationship with G.G. was leading. Her deeply troubled mother, who had enabled men to abuse Sara for years, not only failed to intervene between Sara and G.G. but continued to provide opportunities for further abuse by others.
When Kruzan was 12, her mother asked a 23-year-old man named Roosevelt Carroll to become the mentor of her daughter. Although the intentions of Kruzan’s mother are unclear, the result was that Carroll engaged in statutory rape with Sara on a regular basis.
At 13, Kruzan was gang raped by three gang members while walking home from school. She knew all three men. One was a friend’s uncle. Her mother blamed her for the rape, telling her that she had probably asked for it. Feeling shame and suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Kruzan again attempted suicide.
The year did not improve for Kruzan as G.G. took her to a motel room, told her he was “gonna teach her some things,” and had sex with her for the first time. G.G. was a powerful 6’4″ man and sex with him was very painful for her.
G.G. then turned Kruzan over to the older prostitutes that worked for him. It was their job to take her “under their wing.” Still only 13, Kruzan was now being sex trafficked in Hollywood and in Orange County. On her first night she provided sexual services to more than ten different men.
Kruzan learned and witnessed first-hand as G.G. would beat and humiliate his women to keep them under his control. Her Petition reads, “Sara became very fearful of ‘setting him off.’ She believed that as long as she did what he wanted, she would be safe and protected. If she defied him, she expected to ‘pay’ for it.”
When Kruzan was 15, still under the control of G.G., she went for a joy ride with a boy who crashed the vehicle during a high speed police pursuit. Her closest friend was killed in the accident. Kruzan was badly injured.
After the accident, she was placed in foster care. She lived in a half dozen different homes during a five month period.
In November of 1993, Kruzan met a 15-year-old boy named Johnny Otis. Otis took her to live with his mother in Ontario, California, but she was forced to leave the home when her mother threatened to report Otis to the police for harboring a runaway. Having no other options, Otis took Kruzan to live with his friend’s uncle, “James Earl” Hampton.
Hampton was a drug dealer with an extensive criminal record. He boasted to Kruzan of his prison record and claimed to have committed numerous murders and other violent acts. He later returned to prison after a brutal rape and stabbing of a woman in front of her children.
Kruzan, now 16, was threatened and intimidated by Hampton. She and Otis made plans to move out into their own place. When Otis mentioned to Hampton that Kruzan was connected to G.G., Hampton hatched a plan to coerce and threaten her to get G.G. into a motel room. Once there, Hampton told her that he would kill her if she did not kill G.G. and steal his money.
G.G. was expecting to have sex with Kruzan in the motel room, but as he prepared the room for the act, Kruzan shot him in the neck at close range. Although one nightmare came to an end, another one was about to begin.
Kruzan was arrested a few days later.
The Kruzan case was assigned to defense counsel David Gunn. Gunn convinced Kruzan to go to trial rather than to accept the prosecution’s plea offer for 30 years with time off for good behavior and the possibility of parole. Her entire trial lasted just two and a half days.
The State called seven witnesses. The defense only called one – Kruzan herself.
Her testimony was limited mostly to the facts and events leading up to and following the shooting. The jury learned little of Kruzan’s history, the circumstances that brought her life to his strange apex, and her relationship with G.G.
Unprepared for cross examination, depressed, and medicated, Kruzan agreed with nearly every one of the prosecutions “leading questions.” No expert testimony was given on her behalf. Her own attorney offered little defense for her.
The jury found Kruzan guilty of Murder in the First Degree.
Defense counsel Gunn requested that Kruzan be evaluated by the California Youth Authority. The Youth Authority found that she “possessed the capacity to make positive change and that she was amenable to treatment,” according to court records. The Authority also stated that “Sara had ‘no prior arrests and she has never been afforded correctional treatment’ and that ‘her male co-offender [James Earl Hampton] was considerably older than Sara and she was strongly vulnerable to exploitation by him.’” The Authority recommended that Kruzan be referred to their rehabilitation program rather than being tried as an adult.
The probation officer assigned to Kruzan’s case recommended in his report, incorrectly, that the California Law required a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. The Petition for Writ states, “In fact, however, section 190.5 of the Penal Code, a relatively new provision at the time, granted the trial court discretion to sentence defendants between the ages of 16 and 18 years old at the time of the crime to prison terms of 25 years to life – terms that allowed for future parole consideration.” This provision was made exactly for people like Kruzan, yet it was unknown and ignored during sentencing.
On May 11, 1995, Judge J. Thompson Hanks stated that Kruzan’s crime was “well thought out,” and added that “what is striking about this is the lack of moral scruple.” The court sentenced Kruzan to life without the possibility of parole. Plus four years.
In January 2011, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted Kruzan’s sentence to 25 years to life, with the possibility of parole.
Two independent experts, Dr. Linda Barnard and Dr. Nancy Kaser-Boyd, later concluded that Kruzan had suffered the effects of intimate partner battering at the time of the shooting.
For the past several years, Kruzan has lived in the Honor Dorm at the Central California Women’s Facility inChowchilla, California, an opportunity usually not available to inmates serving life without parole. She is well respected by her peers and by the prison staff. She was recently awarded Honor Dorm “Woman of the Year” by a vote of the prison guards.
Now 34 years old, Kruzan has earned leadership positions in many prison groups. Her list of accomplishments while incarcerated is quite impressive. She has consistently shown a willingness to learn new skills, be a mentor to others, and earn the respect and admiration of those around her. She earned her high school diploma when she first entered prison and is currently taking college-level classes.
Sara Kruzan’s future is now in the hands of California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Harris is scheduled to make a decision about the case on July 20, 2012.
And this is where the “Dear Kamala” campaign comes into play.
“I heard about Sara because a family member of someone who is close to me is a [sex trafficking] survivor here in San Diego and she was fighting for Sara,” said activist Carrie Christie. “Over time, I worked up the courage to write her. I just felt I wanted to do more than just keep up-to-date with how many people were supporting her on change.org. I just overwhelmingly wanted to do more.”
Christie’s activism came in the form of a postcard writing campaign. She started small with just a few of her friends invited to the event through social media. A few weeks later (as of the writing of this article), more than 16,000 people have been invited to participate in the event and more than 900 people have committed to taking part.
“I started it on my own,” said Christie. “And when I began to put it together I reached out to Sara’s other supporters, to Kim Deanne who had initially started the campaign to Free Sara … Deanne had started the campaign to bring Sara to freedom back in 2006 … she was excited to get on-board and help push the postcard campaign.”
“The idea is to purchase two postcards,” Christie explained. One to send to Kamala Harris and one to send to Dane Gillette. “We’ve been telling people to purchase something with their city and state, or to make their own postcard.”
“Elizabeth O’Hara, a nationally recognized photographer, has put together some postcards that you can download and print yourself,” said Christie. “You can make your own. You can write a note. You can write a card. You can write a letter. It is open-ended.” Correspondence should be mailed so that it arrives before July 20.
“We not only want to support Sara, but also to thank the attorney general because she is pushing hard and fighting against trafficking,” said Christie. “It has become one of Harris’ hallmark issues. She is working on some legislation and is partnering with the Polaris Project. We are really grateful for what she’s doing, but it would mean so much more if she would support Sara’s freedom. it would send an amazing message that she is also backing the victims and survivors of this tragedy of sex trafficking.”
Carissa Phelps, a survivor of sex trafficking who is now an attorney and advocate, recently wrote in a card to Kruzan, “You are our Mandela!” These are poignant words coming from an accomplished woman, and those words give some insight into the magnitude of Sara Kruzan’s case.
Christie met Phelps at a recent screening of a documentary about her life named “CARISSA, A Film by David Sauvage.” And Phelps’ new book has just been released, Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets, One Helping Hand at a Time,which chronicles her story from runaway girl to attorney, motivational speaker and youth advocate. The book is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble, et al.
Kruzan’s case is gaining popularity. Even the Hollywood A-Listers are getting involved with the fight against sex trafficking.
Recently, an 11-year-old girl named Willow was watching the Kony 2012 videos. She learned about the sex trafficking of children and did some additional research of her own. Shocked that girls her age were being sold for sex, she told her parents about it, and at her request, the entire family began to learn more about the problem.
Willow’s parents are actors Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith. They jumped head-first into the trenches to learn more – even attending some of the top conferences in human trafficking. From this, Jada Pinkett Smith created the Don’t Sell Bodies project. The Smith family also backs the C.A.S.E. Act (Californians Against Sexual Exploitation) of 2012. “The fact that the Smiths have supported the C.A.S.E. Act is huge!” said Christie, “We need that to pass.”
The Don’t Sell Bodies project is promoting the Dear Kamala postcard project on their official web site and on their Facebok page, support that is a nice boost to an already snowballing cause. The project has even sent two postcards of their own.
As far as how she will measure the success of the Dear Kamala campaign, Christie said, “if they receive 100 postcards it will be phenomenal.”
It will likely be much higher. Much.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
“Dear Kamala” Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/events/
TIP (Trafficking in Persons) Report: www.state.gov/j/tip/
YouTube Viral Video: www.socialcam.com/
Web Sites: www.freesarakruzan.org
C.A.S.E. Act: www.
Don’t Sell Bodies: www.dontsellbodies.org
Polaris Project: www.polarisproject.
CARISSA Documentary: www.