When Leneka Pendergrass’ seventeen-year-old daughter called out of the blue two years ago and pleaded for help, she immediately knew what was wrong. “Mom, I’m in somebody’s backyard and he’s looking for me. He has a gun.” The teenager, who frequently ran away from home — and who’d struggled since age thirteen as an exploited child in Oakland’s violent underworld of human sex trafficking — had escaped the clutches of a pimp. And now, that pimp was out to kill her.
Pendergrass drove to 64th Avenue on January 7, 2014, and rescued her daughter from a stranger’s house. They sped to the Oakland Police Department’s Eastmont Substation, seeking protection. “The pimp knew where I lived, and he was definitely looking for her,” Pendergrass recalled during an interview last week. But the Eastmont station was closed, so they drove to OPD’s downtown headquarters and filed a report. The family then fled straight to Hayward and hid at a friend’s house.
Her daughter’s trafficker had used violence and intimidation to dominate their lives. “I realized we couldn’t just go home,” Pendergrass explained. She worried that Oakland police would not prioritize the capture of her pimp, and that he would return to their apartment and kill them both.
In desperation, Pendergrass turned to an organization that had previously helped. She called Patrick Mims, a community leader and coordinator of the Sexually Exploited Minors program at Bay Area Women Against Rape, an Oakland-based nonprofit that counsels trafficking survivors and their parents. Pendergrass had interacted with Mims and BAWAR several times before, and she felt that the organization, plus the police and the district attorney, would make a difference for her daughter (the Express is not using her name because she was a minor during this time of abuse).
Now, however, Pendergrass alleges that she was sexually exploited and betrayed by one of the very people who was supposed to protect her family.
Making a Sex-Trafficking Survivor
Pendergrass’ daughter was a runaway who regularly went missing. But during the final months of 2012 and beginning of 2013, she began disappearing for extended periods.
Her mother tried to stage an intervention. She took her daughter to BAWAR’s offices in the Alameda County Family Justice Center on 27th Street in Oakland. She met Mims, who agreed to try to mediate between the two, she says. But the conversations were difficult. During one session, her daughter stormed out of the room.
Around this time, Pendergrass felt like her life was falling apart. She explained to the Express how her friends and family were growing distant. She rarely saw her daughter and constantly worried for her safety. And a 2007 conviction for forging Department of Motor Vehicle documents for undocumented immigrants made it difficult for Pendergrass to find work and housing.
“There was a period when I didn’t want to live,” Pendergrass admitted.[pullquote-1]
She started having problems at work, as well. So, she asked Mims if he would help by writing a letter to her managers, explaining what kind of psychological stress she was under due to her daughter’s plight.
This letter demonstrated that BAWAR and Mims considered Pendergrass a client, just like her daughter.
“Over the course of the last two months Ms. Pendergrass has spent countless hours attempting to retrieve her daughter from being trafficked and exploited for money,” Mims wrote in the letter. “Ms. Pendergrass has also participated in individual counseling on a weekly basis in order to help her cope with the fact that she has a missing child. Please consider this when making any decision in regards to her employment.” His letter helped Pendergrass keep her job.
But the trauma of having a daughter on the streets persisted.
In May 2013, her daughter called saying she had been kidnapped. “She said she didn’t know where she was. She hadn’t eaten in three days, and they kept her naked in a house,” Pendergrass explained. “I was terrified.”
Somehow, the girl escaped. But another pimp met her on the streets of Oakland in July of that year: Marcus Brown.
According to court records, Brown promised her money and a home in Los Angeles if she worked for him. He trafficked her in Stockton, Salinas, and as far away as Las Vegas, making $500 off her body a day. He took all the money and controlled her with violence. When she said she didn’t want to work, Brown would hold her captive. If she tried to escape, he threatened that he would make her “go missing,” that her corpse would be found in an alleyway. Brown kept Pendergrass’ daughter isolated from friends and family.
When they were in Oakland, Brown would drive the girl to International Boulevard, or across the Bay to Polk Street in San Francisco, where he would force her work in the “tracks,” areas known for street prostitution. Some days, the daughter would be able to leave Brown’s house and go to her mother’s home, seeking shelter. But the pimp would send text messages threatening to kill her and her mother. He had brutalized Pendergrass’ daughter in a bid to physically and psychologically dominate her.
Once, he choked her until she blacked out. Another time, he told her he would break her ribs, kill her, and hide her body.
The abuse climaxed in January 2014, when on the fifth day of that year the girl snuck out a window of the pimp’s home and escaped to her mom’s apartment, where she hid for several days. Brown threatened to kill her if she didn’t return.
When she came back to him two days later, he forced her take off her clothes and step into a dark closet, which he blocked with a dresser. He then began dropping bullets on the floor, saying one of them would be for her unless she turned over hundreds of dollars he claimed she owed him. The girl said she had money for him at an aunt’s house. That was a lie. Instead, they drove to a random home on 65th Avenue, parked, and the girl approached the house — but then ran and jumped a fence. She hid in a neighbor’s home, where she was able to call her mother.
At this point, Leneka Pendergrass was determined to break the cycle: She again called BAWAR.
First Help, Then Betrayal
Bay Area Women Against Rape was founded in 1971 and is considered by California Attorney General Kamala Harris to be the lead East Bay nonprofit organization in the state’s Regional Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force. The organization receives most of its funding from government grants, including payments from the City of Oakland, the Alameda County DA, and state agencies such as the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. Between 2009 and 2014, the nonprofit took in more than $3 million in donations, according to the most recent reports with the Internal Revenue Service.
BAWAR works closely with Oakland police. Its staff speaks to officers at their line-ups before they go on shift, to educate them about child sex trafficking. And BAWAR employees, including Mims while he worked there from 2010 to 2014, accompany Oakland cops on their anti-human-trafficking sting operations.
By many accounts, BAWAR is a model organization. And Mims’ own story is one of redemption: He’s a former convict who found a new path after serving decades of hard time. In an interview published in the March 2013 Prison University Project newsletter, Mims discussed his rough upbringing, where he dropped out of high school in ninth grade and escaped an abusive father in Berkeley. “I ran to the streets, which was the only place that would embrace me at the time,” Mims said in that interview.
According to court documents, Mims was sentenced to twenty years in San Quentin State Prison for stabbing a man to death in San Diego during a drug deal in 1988. He was released in 2009. Prior to his murder conviction, Mims’ life was characterized by an “escalating pattern of criminal conduct and violence,” according to court records. He had been charged for robbery with a deadly weapon, accessory to a burglary, carrying a concealed firearm, and assault on a peace officer. But in prison, by many accounts, Mims became a leading advocate for prisoner rehabilitation and education.
Mims met BAWAR executive director Marcia Blackstock while serving his sentence in San Quentin. She was impressed with his transformation and hired him to help develop the nonprofit’s Sexually Exploited Minors program, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report from 2014.
Accolades quickly followed. On January 30, 2014, Mims and three other BAWAR representatives were presented with the FBI’s Community Leadership Award by the head of the Bureau’s San Francisco office, David J. Johnson. “We are proud to recognize BAWAR for their selfless service of bridging communication voids left by victimization,” Johnson said in a press release. Mims also won the 2014 Stewardship Award from Freedom House, a San Francisco-based group that supports survivors of sex trafficking.
However, Mims’ criminal history wasn’t disclosed to OPD until 2013, when officers in the special-victims unit, which refers human-trafficking survivors to BAWAR and other nonprofits, were tipped off about his murder conviction.
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley was aware of Mims’ past, and had signed off on his hire, according to law-enforcement sources.
Some protested Mims’ employment at BAWAR. “We were all surprised when he was hired,” said Nola Brantley, the founder of Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting & Serving Sexually Exploited Youth, or MISSSEY, a nonprofit that works with sexually exploited children. “Lots of us said that we didn’t think it was appropriate to have a male working with women and kids.” But Brantley said her concerns, and those of other advocates, were brushed aside by BAWAR and East Bay law-enforcement agencies such as the Alameda County District Attorney.
Pendergrass says she first met Mims in 2012, after cops arrested her daughter during a prostitution sting in East Oakland. At the time, he was working closely with OPD on the front lines of the department’s anti-human-trafficking initiative. BAWAR had become the East Bay’s leading anti-trafficking nonprofit, a place where OPD and the Alameda County District Attorney directed child survivors for counseling and protection.
Although she had only met Mims in passing, Pendergrass felt he had made a positive impact on her daughter; Mims taught her at a court-ordered, girls-education program run by BAWAR on Saturdays in 2012.
This was why, after her daughter escaped her pimp in January 2014 — when Pendergrass was determined to make a break in this cycle — she called Mims. The day after her daughter’s harrowing escape, the family met with him at BAWAR. Pendergrass says he had brought in an Oakland police officer to take the girl’s statement.
“It felt very different from the first time we went to OPD by ourselves to file a report,” Pendergrass explained about their visit to OPD the previous day. “At BAWAR, it seemed like the police took us more seriously. They recorded our statements and interviewed us for over an hour.”
The mom said that BAWAR was able to provide her family with resources that they could not obtain on their own, such as access to police and prosecutors. They felt that their case against the pimp was strengthened. And Mims was a big reason for this: He personally knew many Oakland police officers and prosecutors with the district attorney’s office.
And the authorities touted their proximity to Mims, who was frequently invited to conferences and fundraisers alongside police and prosecutors. For example, in 2014, Mims was advertised as one of “Nancy’s Hero[es]” that the public could meet at Alameda County District Attorney O’Malley’s summer barbecue fundraiser. For these reasons, Pendergrass felt that he could open doors and speed up the process.
She felt that they would be safe.
The mom said that she and Mims frequently texted the first few nights after she and her daughter escaped. On the first night, Mims texted her to ask if they were OK. She responded that they were shaken up and afraid to return to their home because Brown was threatening to kill them.
The next day, Pendergrass says Mims checked in with her again. She told him that her daughter had left Oakland for safety reasons and that she was feeling lonely and wanted to go home. Mims decided to visit her at her apartment that night, according to Pendergrass.
They talked for a while about the case, and also about their personal lives. “I felt like we were establishing trust,” Pendergrass explained.
Later that night, after Mims had left, they talked again on the phone. But she says their conversation took an unusual turn: They began talking about sex.
Mims allegedly told Pendergrass: “It sounds like we have some unfinished business.”
A Common (But Often Unreported) Sexual Assault
Over the next several days, Pendergrass says the two exchanged sexually charged text messages, in between communicating about the services BAWAR was providing her family. Then, on the night of January 13, less than a week after her daughter escaped her pimp — and just days after Mims helped the family file police reports and counseled them — Pendergrass says Mims came to her apartment and they had sex.
Over the next month-and-a-half, she said Mims would repeatedly arrive at Pendergrass’ home to have sex with her. And he always left the same night. “At first I felt that it was consensual,” Pendergrass explained. She also says she felt protected, because someone with the power to help her was taking a romantic interest.
But her perception of things evolved when the police called to inform her of Brown’s arrest. Pendergrass phoned Mims to share the news. Shortly after, he attended a meeting between Pendergrass, her daughter and Deputy District Attorney Amanda Chavez, who would prosecute the Brown case. Mims spoke on behalf of the Pendergrass family, telling the DA about their background and experiences.
“The moment I had a realization, that I felt I was being used, we were in the District Attorney’s office,” she recalled. “I felt like we were taken more seriously by the DA because Pat Mims was there.”
Things between Pendergrass and Mims changed when she needed help filing a supplemental police report with OPD. She wanted to seek relocation assistance, and the additional report was necessary before applying. She asked Mims for help, as she had done every other step of the way up to that point, but Pendergrass said Mims suddenly stopped responding to her calls and texts.
Afterward, she felt that her daughter’s case was no longer a priority for BAWAR. She felt Mims abused his position of power. Feelings of confusion and remorse grew intense, she said. She worried that her access to OPD and the DA was being curtailed, too.
“I was taken advantage of,” Pendergrass said of Mims. “I wasn’t thinking clearly.”
What most might not realize is that Mims’ alleged behavior also amounts to a type of sexual exploitation, according to advocacy groups — and one that is common but has a very low reporting rate.
Even BAWAR recognizes “sexual exploitation by helping professionals” as a form of sexual assault. A page on BAWAR’s website titled “Was I Sexually Assaulted?” explains that “sexual exploitation by helping professionals involves sexual contact of any kind between a helping professional — doctor, therapist, teacher, priest, professor, police officer, lawyer, etc. — and a client/patient.”
The BAWAR website links to a more in-depth definition by Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, or RAINN, the nation’s largest rape-crisis center: “When you seek someone’s professional help, you’re putting your trust in their hands to make decisions in your best interest,” reads RAINN’s own website. “Sexual exploitation by a helping professional is a serious violation of your trust and, in many cases, the law.”
In March 2014, Pendergrass called RAINN’s national rape-crisis hotline. They transferred her to Highland Hospital’s sexual-assault response team, where a counselor listened to her story and advised her over the phone that she could file a police report and follow up with personal counseling sessions.
Pendergrass also called OPD and filed a police report. Officer Amerra Kesterson arrived at her apartment the next day and took a statement. Kesterson also gave Pendergrass a single-page brochure that the Oakland police hands out to anyone who reports being sexually assaulted. The sheet contained the contact information for several rape crisis and counseling centers, but Kesterson took a pen and crossed out BAWAR.
An OPD crime-scene technician also took pictures of the text messages between Pendergrass and Mims, and these confirm Pendergrass’ allegations that the two had been flirting, and that Mims scheduled times to come to her house for sex.
At her first appointment at Highland Hospital, a few days later, Pendergrass told a counselor about her history with BAWAR, her family’s situation, and her interactions with Mims. The counselor, according to Pendergrass, characterized Mims’ actions as a form of sexual assault, because he was a helping professional.
Pendergrass also wrote a letter to the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, an umbrella organization of rape-crisis centers like BAWAR. She copied BAWAR’s executive director Blackstock on the letter.
“Mr. Mims used the power and authority associated with his position to take advantage of me during this time in my life when I’m vulnerable and dependent on his help,” the letter read. “I would like for your organization to reconsider allowing him to work in the capacity of the [Sexually Exploited Minors] program coordinator or in any other capacity with vulnerable populations and individuals.”
But it appears that nothing ever came of her letter, or the police report. The California Coalition Against Sexual Assault told the Express they never received a copy of the letter, which Pendergrass said she sent via regular mail. BAWAR did not respond to the letter.
According to Pendergrass, Oakland police officer Joseph Rasler, who was assigned to her case, told her over the phone several weeks after she filed the report there was no rape case to forward to the district attorney. Rasler classified his investigation as a “forcible rape,” but because she had consented at the time to sex, no laws were broken. “Based on my preliminary investigation I believe [Pendergrass] and [Mims] engaged in consensual sex,” Rasler wrote in his final report. Sergeant William Bacon closed her case against Mims in September 2014.
Reached by phone last week, Mims declined to be interviewed.
BAWAR never replied to her letter, either. In fact, the organization appears to never have acknowledged what happened.
More than two years later, Pendergrass wonders if Mims was ever investigated and disciplined by BAWAR for the alleged exploitation. And she questions whether Oakland police officials and the Alameda County district attorney — who both fund and work closely with BAWAR — ever took steps to deal with the incident, or if East Bay law enforcement swept it under the rug.
Her daughter’s pimp, Brown, was sentenced in 2015 to five years for multiple felonies and will have to register as a sex offender upon his release from Ironwood State Prison. But was there accountability for those who exploited Pendergrass?
The Express requested an in-person interview with Blackstock at BAWAR’s Oakland office, but she declined multiple offers. This paper met briefly with a staff member and board member of the organization, but both said they did not work at BAWAR in 2014, when Mims was an employee. Both said they had no knowledge of the allegations, and one board member, Sarai Crane-Pope, said BAWAR’s board of directors had not discussed the allegations during the time she has been on the board.
We also emailed Blackstock a list of questions, including whether she informed her board of directors about the allegations made against Mims, if she disclosed to OPD Mims’ criminal history before she hired him, and to discuss BAWAR’s policies with respect to sex between staff and clients. Her reply, via email, was “I am not available for any further interviews.”
A former staff member of BAWAR, who the Express has agreed not to identify, said that Mims was not fired over the incident. In fact, this staffer says he was never punished.
Instead, Mims was allowed to leave BAWAR in July 2014, just seven months after his prestigious FBI award. Today, he works for the Contra Costa County Probation Department as the field operations coordinator for its re-entry network, which helps recently released prisoners integrate back in to society.
Pendergrass’s daughter, who is now nineteen and pregnant, lives with her mother, and says she’s out of the sex-work industry. Pendergrass is going back to school and trying to move on with her life, but says she is bothered by her case’s lack of closure.
Several law-enforcement experts with experience in sex-crime investigations, who asked that the Express not identify them because they work with some of the nonprofits and agencies named in this story, said it would be difficult to prosecute someone for sexual assault when they did not physically attack someone, or literally trade services for sex. Without evidence that a helping professional literally demanded sex for services, a prosecution is unlikely.
Pendergrass said her main concern is if what she experienced ever happened to anyone else. She also wonders if the problem is systemic.
“BAWAR should have at least acknowledged what happened,” she said.
Clarification: The original version of this story stated that Leneka Pendergrass sent a letter to the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, or CALCASA, regarding her being sexually exploited by an employee of Bay Area Women Against Rape. Pendergrass said that CALCASA did not respond to the letter. The California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, however, said they never received a copy of the letter, which Pendergrass said she sent via the U.S. Postal Service. Shaina Brown of CALCASA told the Express that had her organization received a copy, they would have responded. This online version of this story has been updated to reflect this clarification.