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After the trauma of sex trafficking, women struggle to cope

WILLISTON, N.D. – One woman has nightmares and sometimes jumps when her fiancé touches her.

Keith GravesAnother withdrew from friends and family, full of shame and guilt.

Survivors of a sex trafficking case that recently came to a close in North Dakota say they’re relieved that Keith Graves was sentenced to more than 33 years in prison.

But two victims who spoke anonymously to Forum News Service said they still struggle to cope.

“I feel like everybody can see right through me because of the things that he was making us do,” said one woman.

Click here to read Forum News Service's extensive series on "Trafficked."

Graves, 39, was sentenced this month in U.S. District Court to 33 years and nine months in prison for five counts of sex trafficking by force or coercion, the longest sentence issued so far in North Dakota for human trafficking.

A jury found Graves guilty after eight women testified about how he used repeated sexual assaults and violence to force them into prostitution in the Williston area. Graves has maintained his innocence and said he plans to appeal.

Prosecutors said Graves preyed on drug-addicted women, including one recruited from a drug treatment center, and also targeted North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandi Sasse Russell cited the “terror and mental anguish” experienced by the victims when pushing for Graves to receive a life sentence.

Graves refused help from a court-appointed lawyer and represented himself at trial, which meant he had the opportunity to cross examine his victims.

One woman said the trauma of having Graves call her a liar while she was on the witness stand prompted her to attempt suicide after the trial.

Another witness was so terrified of Graves she put her hair over her face to avoid seeing him and a table had to be moved so she could avoid him on her way to the witness stand, Russell said.

Paula Bosh, a victim specialist with the FBI, is assisting the eight victims who testified. They have been offered addiction treatment and counseling and therapy services, and many have moved forward with that, Bosh said.

“They’re going to struggle with this for a long time,” Bosh said. “Any victim of trafficking is. My heart just breaks for all these girls.”

In some cases, treatment providers have made adjustments to meet the unique needs of the sex trafficking victims. For example, in some cases the victims need treatment for drug addiction, but they may not be comfortable with group therapy that includes men, Bosh said.

The women were provided information about out-of-state services for human trafficking victims, but a lot of women didn’t want to leave the state, she said.

Prosecutors say there are likely dozens of other victims they weren’t able to locate in time for the trial. Victims who come forward later would still be eligible for victim services, Bosh said.

One woman said the trauma prevented her from keeping a job for more than a couple of months after Graves was arrested.

“I couldn’t be around anyone. I was so scared that something was going to happen to me. I didn’t want to be around people in general,” she said.

She now plans to go back to college and is taking medication for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Another woman wrote in a letter to Graves that he caused her to lose confidence and that the guilt, shame and fear took a “debilitating” toll on her.

But in an interview after the sentencing, the woman said she finally feels like it’s behind her.

“After all this time, it’s kind of hard to believe that it’s all over,” she said. “But it’s relieving, there’s so much weight lifted off my shoulders. I’m smiling now, I even walk lighter.”

If you see potential trafficking or are a victim, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888. You can also email or text “INFO” or “HELP” to BeFree (233733). Click here to find more resources for victims.