Young, scared and used

In 2001, Natasha Herzig found herself at age 19 staring at a gun, yanked into a car before she could make a sound.

She spent a year trapped, working as a high-end escort for a pimp.

The indignities were numerous.

She remembers receiving a beating for asking whether she could go home.

There was the john who once tried to suffocate her with a shower curtain after forcing her to lie in an ice-filled bathtub.

She had to walk "the track," meaning the street, to meet her prostitution quota.

On Wednesday, Herzig, now 31, recounted her harrowing experience to a room of law enforcement officials, hospital workers, and resort and mall security in an office building near South Coast Plaza. The event was sponsored by the Orange County Intelligence Assessment Center, a consortium of law enforcement agencies.

Her goal: teach law enforcement officials how to spot and help a human trafficking victim.


Compliment becomes terror

It all started at a mall near Herzig's home, then in Northern California.

A woman at the center told her she should work as a makeup artist.

The community college student told her parents about the job, but they wanted her to continue her studies. She applied anyway, providing her Social Security number and the names of friends and family as references.

She showcased her cosmetic abilities for her prospective employers at an office building. But when she met up with them at a restaurant later to sign her final contract, they were oddly evasive.

"I knew something was wrong, I just didn't know how to get out of it," she said.

She made an excuse. She needed her jacket.

She was taken at gunpoint outside of the restaurant, then left for days — naked and alone — in a room without furniture.

Showing weakness brought beatings and threats. Once, her pimp brought her along to stalk her brother, saying if she ever left, he would kill him.

"Even as a child, the one thing I did know is that I couldn't live with myself if he killed my family," she said.


Repeating the cycle

She adapted to survive, eventually recruiting others.

She took party girls out in limos, convincing those who wanted to get away from their parents that she could find them freedom.

Herzig continued the cycle, setting up fake modeling agencies as her pimp hosted beauty pageants. They talked with girls' parents.

The day four plain-clothes detectives rescued her, she told them her name was Paige, and assured them she was fine. One detective, on the phone with her mother, relayed what happened.

When police told her she needed to go with them, her mother could hear Herzig pleading with police, screaming "Please don't take me. He's going to kill me and my family."

The man Herzig described as her pimp, who went by "Spyder" and "Daddy," was later convicted of falsifying documents and was sentenced to prison. He is no longer in federal custody.


Signs, Treatment

Herzig said risque clothing, speech — calling someone daddy for instance — and several women traveling with one man are dead give-aways of human-trafficking victims.

The Arizona resident, who is now married and has a young daughter, cautioned mall security to watch for people who keep returning and approaching young woman.

Hospital workers should be wary of someone who wants to do all the talking for a patient, she said.

Police have a fine line to walk: Don't treat women like victims but also show them compassion, she said.

"I will tell you that as a victim, nothing is better than giving us justice."

Twitter: @lawilliams30

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