published Sunday, August 19th, 2012

How a woman was held captive, drugged and prepared for sale

Sharon Stratton, left, and daughter Satara Stratton talk about Satara's experiences in Los Angeles. Stratton says she was held against her will and given drugs to keep her disoriented.
Sharon Stratton, left, and daughter Satara Stratton talk about Satara's experiences in Los Angeles. Stratton says she was held against her will and given drugs to keep her disoriented.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

Reminders of Satara Stratton's captors still mar her skin. A bite mark -- each tooth easily seen -- scars her forearm. Circular burn marks from a cigarette trail up and down her pale, thin arms. Needle marks from heroin shootups -- forced on her by her captors -- dot her upper arms.

A carefully placed part in her bleached blonde hair, which normally frames her doll-like face, conceals her healing scalp where hair was ripped out in clumps.

Satara, 25, who spent most of her childhood in Chattanooga and whose mother still lives here, has come back home to recover after being kept captive in the rear apartment of a Santa Monica Boulevard business in Los Angeles for four and a half months. Injected regularly with heroin by her captor, she was being prepared to be sold to men in Korea, she said.

"He wouldn't let me leave. There was a tiny room. Sometimes he would keep me in a hole in the wall when people would come around so people wouldn't know I was there. He would beat me, burn me," Satara says in an emotionless, monotone voice.

He told her she had been a heroin addict when she was 12 and a prostitute since she was 13, long before he had met her. In the never-dissipating fog of drugs, she forgot her own past, how she went to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic school in Chattanooga and played soccer. She believed what she was told.

Now she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, blackouts and depression.

As she recalls her experiences from months ago, Satara sits on a futon in her home, sometimes clutching her knees to her chest. She remains detached, smiling infrequently. She doesn't speak much about her experiences, bringing them to the surface only when pressed for answers. Memories of her life before her abuse seem incomplete, and she gazes at photos and visits places in Chattanooga to remind herself of her true past.

"I was kind of in survival mode. It's hard sometimes to get everything correct. I didn't remember my childhood or anything. We had to go over that when I first got back," Satara said.

Satara doesn't like anyone to touch her. It's difficult for her to hug her own mother, Sharon Stratton. Satara's precocious 3-year-old cousin is the only one who seems to break down her walls when he climbs on her lap.

" [Since she has been back in Chattanooga], she slowly has become more personable again," her mother says. "She's smiling a lot more. She still does not want to be touched by anybody. She'll almost jump out of her skin when certain people touch her. You can tell someone did something to her with the way she responds."

The Strattons have little money and there aren't resources in Chattanooga to help her -- or any victim of sex trafficking.

So Satara and her mother -- who once taught at local colleges before turning her full attention to her wounded daughter -- visit food banks. They worry about eviction from their home on a monthly basis. They try to stretch Sharon's $89-per-week unemployment checks to survive.

Preyed upon

Satara, who moved to California six years ago to pursue an acting and directing career in independent films, tries to remember who she was before the bright lights grew dim in Hollywood. She wanted to be an actor since the age of 3, her mother says.

For the first few years on the West Coast, things were fine. She found work in films and did odd jobs on the side. Then in 2011, when Satara was working on a film set, she met 46-year-old Paul Constantinescu, who was working as part of the crew. He initially gave her rides home, Satara said.

"[He] acted like [he] really cared and wanted to help and wanted to be a friend," she said.

All together Constantinescu abducted her four times and worked with others to groom her for sale, drug her and keep her in captivity, she said.

During one stint, he called her mother.

"And he called and told me he was going to start this heroin thing. And I'm like, 'Why would you call and tell me that?' I'm screaming, 'No. No,'" Sharon remembers. "And he took off with her. ... He grabbed her, drugged her and started controlling her."

That time, her family got her away and put her in a rehab facility in California. Constantinescu removed her from the hospital and took her for four and a half days. Friends helped get her back and checked her into another hospital.

Satara said Constantinescu, a convicted pedophile, eventually found her again and kept her for four and a half months.

Despite her hardships, Satara is one of the lucky ones, someone who got away and was able to go home, says Detective Carmine Sasso, officer in charge of the missing persons unit at the Los Angeles Police Department.

"There's a lot of these types of these incidents that probably go unreported and the person involved gets so deep into drugs," he said. "They just get so detached from their family that they totally lose touch. They just blend into the fabric of the drug culture in this city."

Calling for help

In 2011, a nationwide sex trafficking hotline set up by a nonprofit, the Polaris Project, in Washington, D.C., recorded 756 calls from people identifying themselves as victims. The hotline received a total of 19,427 calls. Out of those calls, 1,461 sex trafficking cases were documented; 391 victims were U.S. citizens.

Tennessee's state trafficking hotline started last October and has received 40 calls. Five were from East Tennessee, said Kristin Helm, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. It's unclear whether any arrests resulted from the tips. TBI does not keep statistics on hotline tips after local law enforcement agencies are contacted, Helm said.

Satara left town before the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office could take her statement and, though she has given statements to state and federal authorities, Constantinescu has not been charged.

Normally, trafficking involves a large number of captives. Satara remembers a couple of other women who were held in similar conditions to hers.

"Could she have been part of that? Yes," Sasso said.

"However, there's a tremendous amount of evidence that indicates she was being held against her will. The injuries she suffered, the imprisonment involved in holding," Sasso said.

Constantinescu denied Satara's allegations by phone this month and declined to comment further.

"It's a total lie," he said.

Constantinescu has two convictions in California for attempted lewd or lascivious acts with a child and attempted oral copulation with a minor. Both were filed after he went to meet what he thought was a 14-year-old who later turned out to be a Riverside County, Calif., deputy sheriff.

Constantinescu was featured on "Dateline NBC: To Catch a Predator" in 2011 when he showed up at a location to meet a child. He brought condoms, wine and a camera. Instead he was interviewed by a reporter.

Satara said while she was never prostituted, she was kept for Constantinescu's personal use. He liked young teenage girls and while Satara was older, her childlike features appealed to him.

"Luckily, it didn't go that far," she said.

Surviving out of sight

While Satara, weighing 80 pounds at the time, was being held captive, she was moved around to seedy motels and also kept in the back room of a rubber-stamp business. The room, which was separated from the business by a pair of walls, served as an apartment where Constantinescu lived.

The apartment had a hole in one wall that she was forced to climb into whenever her captor wanted to conceal her. The hole led to a tiny space between two walls. The space was so small she could barely move and couldn't turn around. Dirty needles and trash were strewn on the ground.

She was put there whenever someone visited the apartment. Sometimes she was forced to stay there as punishment. She remembers being fed a diet of cereal and candy bars.

"It was filthy. There was a hole in the wall where he put a picture over the hole [to hide it]," said Satara.

During a recent group therapy session in Chattanooga, Satara was asked to draw an image from one of the awful parts of her experience. She drew a replica of the abstract painting filled with red and black shades -- rendered by Constantinescu -- that was placed over the hole. There was a triangle with a face in it, a square and other images.

"That was one of the worst parts was being locked up in that wall. I'm extremely claustrophobic," she said. "Sometimes he would wait until I started to get sick and put me in there. It felt really bad, like the flu, with body pain and headaches. I was withdrawing."

He would come to inject her with more heroin, telling her the drug would "help make you feel better."

"He changed her memories," Sharon said. "The police have proof of that by him sending her text messages, reminding her what her past was. He took her and started giving her drugs so she wouldn't know what was going on. He led her to believe he was giving her a place to live."

To counter those thoughts, the group therapist asked her to draw an image of something that brought her comfort. She drew a picture of her grandparents' home in Rossville, near Lake Winnepesaukah. It reminded her of happier times in her childhood.

Satara was unable to escape. She tried once, but she didn't make it far. She was caught.

"They are too weak to run away. They are weak. They are hopeless. They'll do what they are told," Sasso said. "You shoot them up a couple of times and you can do whatever you want. You have sexual predators out there and they thrive because it's the land of opportunity with these young girls."

The bus station on Hollywood Boulevard was forced to close in July 2011 because droves of girls were being lured to California by online predators who made false promises of careers and fame, Sasso said. Not all the girls were runaways, escaping horrible homes.

"Some of these girls were from good homes," he said.

Now in Tennessee

Constantinescu's brother, Rick, owns the Hollywood Rubber Stamp Co. building where Satara was being held, according to a Linked-In account. It's where Paul Constantinescu still worked as of a couple weeks ago.

Rick Constantinescu, 49, moved to Tennessee to open another rubber-stamp company in Murfreesboro. Police have been alerted that he's there.

"Right now I just really can't talk about that," said Murfreesboro police Sgt. John Jones, who works in the department's vice unit.

Rick Constantinescu could not be reached for comment.

During a federal investigation, two people affiliated with the California business were arrested and taken into custody for attempting to bring two 12-year-old girls from Idaho by sending them Greyhound bus tickets, Sasso said.

In Satara's case, police came to the company's building at one point, but there was no sign of her. She was behind the wall. The apartment was vile inside.

"The place was absolutely atrocious," Sasso said. "It was something you would see out of a horror movie, and this guy was living there. Utterly disgusting."

Satara -- stuffed into the space between the two walls -- remembers hearing the officers' voices when they came, but fear kept her from screaming or banging on the wall.

"They were asking questions. I could hear them through the wall," Satara said. "They came around beating on the wall. They just couldn't come in. They didn't have a warrant."

Constantinescu was standing beside the wall where Satara was.

"When they left, he took me out and we left," Satara said. "That's when we started staying in hotels."

During the time she said she was being held captive, Satara picked up several drug charges.

"She went to jail a couple of times for street possession. Basically, it was his stuff, but the courts don't see it that way," said Sasso, who was not involved in those arrests.

The detective said he has encouraged her to get a public defender to help her remove the pending drug cases. She knows she should because it will be hard for her to move on with a drug conviction and pending charges, she said.

"I don't want to be looked at as a victim for the rest of my life. I want to move on," Satara said. "I wish all this legal stuff would be taken care of so I could move on."

While Satara wants to see Constantinescu prosecuted, she isn't ready to return to California just yet to give depositions and official statements.

She's afraid.

Satara was able to come home after Sasso made contact with Constantinescu. The detective also contacted the media, which bombarded Constantinescu with questions and coverage.

"I basically told him, 'Hey, if you don't turn her over or let me know where she is, we'll basically make your life miserable,'" Sasso said.

In March, Satara was dropped off at the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after she had been injected with a large quantity of heroin. When Sasso found Satara at the hospital, she was saying she wanted her mom.

Mother's determination

Sharon Stratton never gave up on her daughter.

Sharon went to a private investigator, who told her that Satara was likely dead somewhere if they had not found her in three months. She refused to believe that.

"I knew I just had to find her," Sharon said.

In February, after receiving a threatening email from Constantinescu saying that she and Satara would be killed, she went to California and spent more than two weeks searching for Satara. She believes the email was sent to try to get her to give up the search for her only child.

"I met with prostitutes and bums on the street. None of them had seen her working on the street, but they had seen her [dragged] by a greasy old man." Sharon said.

Stratton remembers coming home, discouraged and broke.

"I had spent too much money," she said.

But she wasn't home long before she received a phone call from Cedars-Sinai, telling her that Satara was there and that she was going to be all right even though she had been tortured, abused and battered.

"Fortunately for Satara, her mom cared for her," Sasso said. If not for Sharon, "Satara would still be moved from hotel to hotel and be working the streets right now and be in worse shape than she is. The story turned out for the better."

Fear and Healing

Now that she's home, Satara is trying to move forward.

"When they come out of it, they're having to relearn how to cope in society and how to live in society," said Regina McDevitt, senior director for crisis services at the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults in Chattanooga. "They certainly may have feeling of despondency. They may be withdrawn. They may have coping issues. There's a lot of fear in coming out. There's a lot of fear that anyone could be that person who's going to get them."

Sharon has not been able to work since she went to Los Angeles to bring Satara home. An adjunct anthropology professor at Chattanooga State Community College and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, she must stay home because her daughter blacks out and can't be left alone.

To save Satara, she has spent about $68,000 when attorney's fees, doctor's bills, hospital bills and travel expenses are factored in.

The Partnership was able to help a little, paying a couple of months' rent on Sharon and Satara's home, medical copays a couple of times and some gas money. While Satara is grateful for the aid that is here, as her mother noted "there's nothing here for sex-trafficking victims."

The Partnership recently notified Sharon that this would be the last month it would help with living expenses.

In Chattanooga, Satara attends counseling sessions with a therapist. She attends Narcotics Anonymous sessions. She attends a Survivor's Meeting filled mostly with child abuse victims.

"I definitely know I changed, but I'm getting there," Satara said. "I have a great counselor who has been helping. Just being around family, I'm starting to get my memories back. I think if I can get through this, it's definitely made me stronger."

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