DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) - It started with a pill - a sedative before bed, a powerful painkiller to cure a headache.
The dosage grew gradually, turning teenager Makell Graves into an addict. Then the injections started.
From that point, Makell can recall her childhood only in fits and fragments, mangled in her memory by the trauma that followed.
What she does remember she’d rather not conjure - nauseating visions of being bound and battered as old men violated her body and mind.
Afterward, her mother would drive her home.
“I’ve kind of always known there was something different between my life and other kids,” Makell, now 19, told The News-Journal. She has undergone extensive therapy to combat her addiction and restore her mental health. “I don’t really know if I ever realized what was going on because when you’re a kid, you automatically think to trust your parents, and that’s what I did.”
By age 14, Makell’s mother was shooting narcotics into her veins in the bathroom of the family’s DeBary home, then selling her to strange men for sex, sometimes for as little as a single prescription pill.
The drugs wiped many markers of time and place from Makell’s memory. But she thinks the drugs and sexual abuse went on for about two years before local law enforcement poured into her quiet neighborhood and removed her and her sister to safety.
Makell’s parents, Michael and Cynthia Graves, were arrested three months later. But under Florida law, the parents were able to trade pleas for light penalties. Meanwhile, Makell’s sentence stretches out before her with no end in sight.
Feeling “cheated” out of justice by the punishment meted out to her parents, Makell has come forward, identifying herself in the media to advance her intent to push legislators to strengthen Florida’s statute on human trafficking.
Sex trafficking “is not happening somewhere far away from us like everyone thinks,” Makell said. “It’s literally happening all around you. People either choose to ignore it or they have no idea what it is.”
‘You don’t have to lie anymore’
Holly Ware wasn’t expecting the frantic voice she heard when she answered a call from Cynthia Graves. “They’re taking my kids!” Graves screamed. “Please don’t let my kids go to foster care.”
Ware loved Makell’s younger sister, Kaytee, like a daughter. Her longtime partner had a daughter Kaytee’s age and the two girls were close friends.
Kaytee had spent three summers and countless weekends at Ware’s home. “Mama Holly,” as Ware was known, often had paid for Kaytee’s school clothes, immunizations and doctor visits.
Kaytee was a “good girl” who talked about “God and boys,” Ware said. When Ware drove Kaytee home, she’d see Makell outside, scantily clad and smoking a cigarette. Ware thought Makell was a stoner and a street thug.
After hearing Graves’ phoned plea that late summer afternoon in 2014, Ware agreed to meet the girls at a state Department of Children and Families facility where they were taken to be interviewed.
There, she got the full story.
Graves had decided to pick Kaytee up early from her Orange City middle school. She took Makell, who hadn’t been to class in two years, along for the drive.
On their way home, a neighbor called with a warning: Law enforcement had surrounded the Graves residence.
Graves went home anyway. When they arrived, Volusia County deputies escorted Makell and Kaytee inside to pack their bags. Later at the DCF office, Ware’s assumptions about Makell were shattered in seconds.
“(FBI agents) said (Makell’s parents) have been IV drugging Makell and selling her to their drug dealers, and that’s called human trafficking,” Ware recalled. “My jaw fell to the floor. I just thought she was this little pothead. I felt shame for judging her.”
That was all it took to shift Ware into “mama bear” mode. “You’re gonna come stay with me,” she told Makell. “You’re gonna be safe.”
Makell was skeptical. The first time investigators questioned her, she lied.
“Both my parents would coach me into thinking (what they did to me) was OK, and if anything were to happen, to take the fall for it so they wouldn’t get in trouble,” Makell said.
Ware convinced her to come clean.
“(Ware) looked at me and said, ‘Makell, I know you don’t know me like that, but (the authorities) know everything and you don’t have to lie anymore,’” Makell recalled. “And I said OK.”
Ware’s daughter, Reagan, was waiting for Makell outside the interview room. “She just hugged me,” Makell said, blinking back tears. “I will never forget that day.”
That night, Makell slept on a mattress in Ware’s living room. Ware stayed close on the couch to remind Makell she was safe.
“I slept for the first time in two years,” Makell said.
Sold for sex
Arrest reports fill in some of the memory gaps Makell would prefer to leave empty.
They tell how Robert Richards, 60-year-old owner of Fresh Off the Hook restaurant in DeLand, handcuffed Makell’s hands behind her back and then to a bedpost while he raped her with an object as another young woman watched.
When Richards was finished, Cynthia Graves picked up Makell and the other young woman - one of several Graves prostituted, records show - demanded payment from Richards and drove to Deltona to purchase pills.
Makell was 14.
She usually was “sedated” during sexual encounters, but not always. Sometimes, Makell recalled, her mother would say, “We need money so we can get our drugs, so I need you to do this. It kind of just became like a normalcy or routine in my life for a while.”
Makell thinks she was 12 the first time her parents medicated her. She had watched them openly abuse drugs for years. “They didn’t try to hide it,” she said.
They fed her progressively stronger pills, and then began injecting liquefied narcotics - Dilaudid, Xanax, oxycodone - into her arms, buttocks and between her fingers. Once her parents started shooting her up with drugs, Makell said her memories became muddled.
“There were times when I would wake up in someone’s house, or I have little memories of driving to Sanford or just like little bits here and there,” she said. “But, you know, the more time that I try to heal, I remember more and more from flashbacks and dreams and stuff like that.”
She recalls a Sanford neighborhood haunted by drug dealers, addicts and prostitutes. “(My mother) knew everyone in that neighborhood,” Makell said.
Graves could count on collecting cash from two Sanford men in particular, an informant told investigators. To one, Graves sold shoplifted steaks. To the other, she sold Makell.
Police reports refer to those buyers as “James” and “Reggie.” Reggie was an active member of the military, according to an informant. Reggie rented hotel rooms for sex acts with Makell and her mother to hide his illicit activities from his wife. Neither man has been prosecuted.
Makell believes her mother sold her to eight different men, including at least three in Seminole County. Only two of the men - both in West Volusia - have been publicly identified.
Richards, the DeLand restaurant owner, was a regular. His reputed preference for underage girls attracted FBI attention. Besides Makell, Richards liked to hire young female employees he could entice with money or gifts in exchange for after-hours sex, a confidential source told investigators.
Cynthia Graves planned to start selling Kaytee as well, the source said, but Makell intervened. “No, take me,” Makell insisted.
Richards was arrested Dec. 17, 2014, the same day as Makell’s parents. He was charged with child abuse and two counts of lewd or lascivious sexual battery on a child age 12 but less than 16.
He died while awaiting trial. Records do not show the cause of death. If convicted, Roberts would have faced up to 35 years in prison.
In comparison, Makell’s parents received relatively light sentences.
Michael Graves pleaded no contest to child abuse. He was sentenced in late August 2015 to a year and a day, with credit for six months in Volusia County jail. He was released in February 2016 after five months in prison, and returned to his DeBary home for three years of supervised probation.
A month after her husband, Cindy Graves pleaded no contest to procuring a minor for prostitution, deriving support from the proceeds of prostitution and child abuse. She was sentenced to five years in prison. She’s scheduled for release April 5, 2019.
Reliving the trauma
“Five years? Am I only worth five years?” Makell asked Ware when she heard the news of her parents’ short sentences. She was devastated.
But part of the challenge for prosecutors was Makell’s state of mind as a result of the trauma she’d experienced.
In sex crime cases, it’s common for prosecutors and defense attorneys to discuss a plea that does not require the victim to testify, Assistant State Attorney Shannon Peters said.
The deposition process alone is “very rigorous,” Peters told The News-Journal. A defense attorney’s role is to protect the accused, and though some handle victims with care, others take the opportunity to intimidate.
When Makell was scheduled to speak with prosecutors, she experienced mental and emotional upheaval and was not able to follow through.
“You’re confronted with forcing a girl to come into court whether she’s having seizures or throwing up,” Peters said.
A trial would have required Makell to relive her trauma yet again and be cross examined in a public courtroom.
“She didn’t want to have to face the perpetrators in court,” said Peters. (Though Makell has come forward in the media, prosecutors are prohibited from naming her.) “If the victim isn’t willing to come to court and (testify), we don’t have a case. If you don’t make a plea deal and they don’t come to court, you don’t get a second bite of that apple.”
Had Michael Graves gone to trial, he could have been sentenced to five years in prison. Cindy Graves could have faced 25 years, but five years was “what the defendant was willing to plead to without putting the victim through a deposition or any court proceedings,” Peters said.
Still, Makell said she felt “cheated” by the justice system.
“I think if my parents had been charged the proper way in the beginning and served what they deserved, I would probably be in a different place with everything,” she said.
‘The law let us down’
An investigation by the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office revealed Cindy Graves was “sex trafficking (Makell) for money,” an arrest report states.
Human trafficking, a first-degree felony, carries a maximum prison sentence of 30 years. But Cynthia Graves wasn’t charged with human trafficking. No one has ever been prosecuted for human trafficking in the 7th Judicial Circuit, comprised of Volusia, Flagler, St. Johns and Putnam counties.
Makell is seeking support among Florida’s legislators to change that. Aided by Don Mair, who helped draft Gabby’s Law after his daughter was hit by a car and killed at a school bus stop, Makell is advocating for a rewrite of Florida’s human trafficking statute.
The proposed bill emphasizes harsher penalties and removal of plea deals for those charged with the crime.
“The law let us down,” Holly Ware said, “so let’s change the law.”
State Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, said he is working with the House of Representatives’ criminal justice staff to draft an effective bill, but it will not be completed in time for the 2018 legislative session.
Leek, an attorney, said the punishment Makell’s parents received for “one of the most atrocious crimes I can think of being committed is offensive.”
But, he added, “We have to make sure to give law enforcement and the state attorney the discretion they need to put together the best case they can without unnecessary restrictions. It was easy to recognize the problem, but it’s hard to find a solution that works.”
Florida’s human trafficking law requires prosecutors to prove the victim was subjected to force, fraud or coercion. Proof of coercion is usually developed through victim testimony, Peters said.
Drugging a child for the purpose of sexual exploitation is a form of coercion, but there must be a direct connection between the two. In Makell’s case, Peters said, “Every time (her parents provided her with drugs), it wasn’t for the purpose of sexual acts.”
Makell’s father - though guilty of giving his underage daughter drugs - was never alleged to have sold her for sex.
“The charges we used didn’t have to prove coercion and covered the facts exactly,” Peters said. “I don’t think the problem is what we charged. The end result is what people are upset about.”
Leek said the solution may be to change the standard of proof from coercion to facilitation. While it may be difficult to prove the purpose of Makell’s mother’s actions was to sell her for sex, Leek said, “What her parents did by drugging her is they took away her ability to reject, her ability to reason.
“What I do know is parents who sell their kids into the sex trade should not be able to walk away with (a short sentence),” Leek said. “There’s got to be a better solution.”
A taste of justice
In June 2016, nine months after her mother went to prison, Makell suffered a flashback to a sexual assault by a man she could only identify as “Buzz.” Ware notified the FBI.
The next day, FBI agents drove Makell to her parents’ home and she directed them turn by turn to the door of John Szolosi of DeBary.
Szolosi, 70, pleaded no contest to lewd or lascivious sexual battery, but later admitted his guilt to the court. Szolosi told investigators he paid Cindy Graves a single Xanax for the sex act with Makell.
New charges were filed against Graves, too. But the incident had occurred during the date range already covered by her plea.
In the months leading up to Szolosi’s sentencing, Makell had returned to school. Outwardly, she seemed like any other University High School student. But the trauma she has suffered still lingers. One day earlier this year, she pulled into the University High School parking lot for a typical day of classes when memories simmering below the surface struck without warning.
She panicked and dialed Ware, whom she now calls “Mom.” Ware officially adopted Makell and Kaytee in 2015, and both girls have taken their adoptive mother’s last name.
Ware calmed her. “You’re in control. You’re not trapped. You can drive home.”
When she reached home that day, a wave of nausea hit Makell the moment she stepped through the front door. She vomited again and again until she blacked out. Ware put her to bed. When Makell awoke, she shared previously suppressed details from her hours-long encounter with Szolosi.
“That (memory) was actually so traumatizing,” Makell said, “I had to tell my mom what I remembered and what happened because I couldn’t physically write it down.”
Awaiting sentencing at his home earlier this year, Szolosi told The News-Journal he had “a lot of feelings” about what he did to Makell.
Leaning against his doorframe, an ankle monitor hidden under his jeans, he indicated a desire to express those feelings, but ultimately declined to divulge them without his attorney present. His attorney, Michael Nielsen, did not respond to multiple attempts to contact him. Szolosi was sentenced in September to 10 years in prison and declared a sex offender.
To Makell, Szolosi’s sentence felt like justice.
When Ware arrived home from Szolosi’s sentencing, Makell ran outside to greet her in the driveway.
“What are we gonna do now?” Ware asked as they wiped away tears.
Makell answered, “Live our lives.”
‘I want to be a kid’
“Pretty but stupid” is what Makell said her parents called her. They pulled her from public school soon after she started seventh grade.
A teacher came to her house at first, and she was expected to complete her courses online. She didn’t, and the teacher quit coming.
When Ware took custody of Makell and Kaytee, Makell should have been a high school freshman. Instead, Ware re-enrolled her in middle school. She made honor roll.
“She did a 180 in a week,” Ware said. “She wanted to be a good kid. She didn’t want to be what they made her.”
Makell will graduate high school in May, and is dual enrolled at Daytona State College. She had planned to pursue a nursing certification, but is now considering a career in law enforcement.
She still has counseling three times a week. Patrick Nave and Diena Cannavino, founders of Bikers Against Trafficking, give their services free to Makell at their state-licensed addiction treatment and counseling center, Ware said.
Survivors of sex trafficking have wounds and addictions they will deal with for the rest of their lives, Nave told The News-Journal.
“Something that happened 30 years ago can be triggered by a movie. Everything is still in the brain.”
Scent, he said, is the biggest trigger, and can catch a survivor off guard.
For Makell, each day is a minefield.
Last year, a grocery shopping trip took a dark turn when an elderly man passed Makell in the aisle. The “old man smell” plunged Makell into a disturbing memory. She crumbled to the floor in hysterics.
“In that moment, you don’t feel like you’re in the middle of a store. You feel like you’re back in that bad situation,” Makell explained. “And all I had was my mom to just stand there and hold me and tell me, ‘It’s OK, you’re safe.’”
The threat of a sneak attack from her subconscious lingers. Makell still lives in DeBary. Ware has moved them to a new neighborhood. But at any turn, Makell worries she could encounter her father or grandparents or previously unidentified rapists.
“For the longest time I was literally running out of stores and just running from anyone in my past and anything that reminded me,” Makell said. “It hasn’t really been until recently I’ve tried to stop running, but it is hard to go into Walmart.”
Walter and Esther Graves, Makell’s grandparents, live with Michael Graves. Esther said her son won’t talk about the case. She and her husband are “very upset that we can’t see (Makell and Kaytee),” she told The News-Journal. “We’ve tried, but (Ware) won’t let us.”
Michael Graves was prohibited by law from contacting Makell until she turned 18. Makell said her dad doesn’t have her number, but if he called she’d have some choice words for him.
Makell didn’t want to celebrate her 18th birthday. “I didn’t get to be a kid,” she told Ware. “I’m not an adult. I want to be a kid.”
In recent months, she has finally started sleeping in a bedroom rather than in the living room with Ware.
And another significant thing has changed: Since Szolosi’s sentencing - and the toll it took on her mental and physical well-being - she’s decided not to pursue prosecution of any perpetrators she remembers in the future.
“Even when there’s no more court hearings or interviews like this, we’re not going to be a completely normal family,” Makell said. “But we’re all just really ready to just be done with this.”
Information from: Daytona Beach (Fla.) News-Journal, http://www.news-journalonline.com
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