Former sex trafficker starts Conway ministry to help women

By Tammy Keith Published March 23, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Nick Hillemann

Suzanne Gonzalez, 48, talks about the trailers in Glen Echo mobile-home park in Conway that have been donated to Stand Together And No Drugs, the mission for women that she started. Gonzalez spent years addicted to drugs, trafficked drugs and ran a prostitution ring before turning her life around after an encounter at Mosaic Church in Conway.

Suzanne Gonzalez sat in the trailer at a long folding table that serves as her desk. She glanced out the window and looked across the dirt road.

“I used to do drugs in those weeds over there,” she said, pointing.

It’s just steps away, but she’s come so far since then.

It seems like another lifetime when she was in a gang, sold her body for sex and set up a prostitution business with women she recruited off the streets of Conway. It seems like another person who did those things because she has changed now, she said.

“I hate talking about this,” Gonzalez said, laughing nervously, taking a deep breath and pulling her white cardigan closed.

The 48-year-old has to, though. It’s her mission now to help women when they come out of jail, when they have nowhere to go or need someone who understands what they’ve been through.

Gonzalez started STAND, Stand Together and No Drugs, and is partnering with Habitat for Humanity of Faulkner County to refurbish six donated trailers in Glen Echo mobile-home park in Conway. They will be used as residences for homeless women, including some who have been released from jail. Seven women live there now.

The trailer Gonzalez uses as STAND’s temporary headquarters is situated near the Faulkner County Detention Center, which she can see out of the kitchen window.

It’s a place with which she is familiar. Gonzalez was arrested 34 times over a 30-year period.

Gonzalez, who grew up primarily in Texas, said her parents were both in the military and moved often.

Her life of “bondage,” as she describes it, wasn’t because of her parents, she said.

“Neither one were alcoholics or drug addicts. They never even smoked cigarettes,” Gonzalez said. “I had a good childhood, as far as my parents were concerned.”

Her lifestyle was one she chose at about 16, she said. She gave birth to her first son, Anthony, when she was 17. She said she started experimenting with drugs and hanging around with the wrong people.

“I was more of a liar and manipulator,” Gonzalez said.

She went to church a few times but was never involved in the church.

“When I’d see all these people at church, I’d think, ‘These are the chosen ones. Maybe someday I’ll get chosen.’ I would pray, but since you don’t have a relationship with the Lord, it’s like you’re praying to nothing.”

By the time she was 18, she had started rebelling more and joined a gang.

“To be initiated into the gang, they’d roll the dice, and whatever number is what you’d do with a male, or how many times you’d be beat up,” she said.

It was her choice.

“I did the sexual thing — I was already doing that,” she said.

The trouble got serious after she married.

Gonzalez said stolen John Deere parts were found on land that was in her name.

After her husband left for the store one day and never returned, Gonzalez brought her mother and younger son to Conway, where her mother had grown up, and Gonzalez turned herself in to authorities.

“I was extradited back to San Antonio,” Gonzalez said. It was a long bus trip, taking women to prisons across the country.

“We pulled up to prison, and there were horses and officers with rifles. I saw the guard with a rifle and I said, ‘Oh, my God, this is real. I’m going to prison.’”

Being in a gang was an advantage in prison, she said, when other members saw the tattoo that affiliated her with that gang.

“I was more or less cared for,” she said.

For the theft, she also received five years of probation and had to pay $45,000 in restitution.

Gonzalez spent three years in a prison unit in Dayton, Texas.

“I went in angry. By the time I hit those doors, I was ready,” she said. “That’s why I know how some of the girls feel when they’re getting out of jail. If someone had said, ‘Look, you’ve done so well; let’s put that in the past,’ maybe even a spiritual approach, … I would have maybe not taken the destructive path I took for the next 30 years.”

When she was 25 years old and got out of prison, far from being rehabilitated, she started trafficking in Texas — drugs and sex.

“I transported a couple of girls. Then, I’m thinking, ‘I’m giving someone a ride,’” she said, but she was trafficking the women for sex.

“I trafficked drugs from one state to another state, cocaine and marijuana. You were given so much money before you left and so much money when you got there. I went as far as Montana, California, Texas,” she said. “I never went to jail for trafficking.”

She made money to pay her $45,000 in restitution.

“I paid all but $2,000. That’s why I was trafficking drugs on the fifth year (of probation),” she said.

Gonzalez said that although she is Hispanic, she didn’t look it, and gangs and the drug cartel in Texas used her to get Social Security cards and identification for gang members.

“With all that knowledge I had there, … it’s all bad knowledge, but I came here to the small Conway, and I was like, ‘Wow, I can really do a lot here.’”

Jobs were scarce for a convicted felon. Gonzalez said she told herself she’d sell drugs “for a short time” to get some money.

“The big cartel is not Hispanic here in Conway,” she said.

“I started going to worse sides of town, and I’d see these girls,” Gonzalez said. She found out they were “turning tricks” for $20.

“I said, ‘Are you serious?’ I’d get a girl, and I’d say, ‘You can make a lot of money; you’re so pretty.’”

Gonzalez would give the girls makeovers and buy them clothes.

Soon, Gonzalez had six young women working for her.

“I started posting on Craigslist for full-body massages,” she said.

“When I got my big break, I met someone very important,” she said, hesitating.

“He became a client,” she said.

Gonzalez kept her clients’ identities secret, and her clientele grew.

“I had it set up; I wouldn’t make any more appointments on the phone,” she said. Other men contacted this man of

influence, she said, and they were assured anonymity.

Gonzalez leased two apartments between Little Rock and Conway and set up appointments with the prostitutes.

Businessmen traveling between the two cities would meet the girls in a “home-environment-type thing” after work, or sometimes on their lunch hour.

Gonzalez said she made $1,200 to $1,300 a day, per girl.

She didn’t feel any remorse at the time about what she was doing.

“At that time, I didn’t. I had no feelings. I had no emotions. I had no heart. I was on the dark side,” she said.

For a while, Gonzalez even used a public library to post her prostitution information, using massage as a cover.

Then she stopped.

“It was getting way bigger,” she said.

Men who were visiting Conway with various out-of-town companies would call before they arrived, and Gonzalez paid hotel attendants not to call the police on the women who met the clients.

Her younger son, by this time, was in high school.

Gonzalez said she lived in a nice home, and the prostitutes didn’t know where she lived. She was living two lives, trying to be a normal mother and running a sex-trafficking service on the side.

She told her son she was “in sales,” and he saw her on the computer a lot.

“For the most part, I could function, but there were times I’d go on a binge,” she said.

Afraid that the sex-trafficking business would be discovered, Gonzalez said, she gave it up and started selling drugs and cooking meth, which she’d done before.

Gonzalez was using — at one time she had a $400-a-day drug habit — and selling drugs, which was dangerous.

In 2006, she was shot in the leg during a drug deal, and she said she has also been stabbed.

Her parents are divorced. She said her father never knew about the prostitution ring or drug trafficking.

“Mom knew all along. She’d voice it in front of my son. ‘You need to stop what you’re doing and take care of your son,’” Gonzalez recalled her mother saying. “He stood up for me.”

Gonzalez was in and out of the Faulkner County Jail.

“Every time I went to jail and would come out, it was like having to start all over again. I’d start that chase. ‘Let me get my money again.’ A lot of times when I was in jail, I’d think, ‘This is the last time.’ I wanted to have just a normal life. As soon as I walked out those doors, it was like walking into a lost time,” she said.

Gonzalez would go back to a drug house because it was familiar, and she knew those people.

About four years ago, she lost her nice home in a Conway subdivision and went to drug court.

She was arrested the last time in 2011 for possession of drug paraphernalia as she was sitting in her car waiting to meet a guy who was bringing her drugs and a drug lab.

Gonzalez started losing control of her world. She said other drug dealers started wanting what she had because she was successful.

“They started backstabbing me; I started losing connections,” she said.

“Everything started falling apart. My relationship with my mother started deteriorating. I wanted somebody to trust me, and she didn’t trust me. I put her through a lot,” Gonzalez said, starting to cry and looking out the window. She took a tissue from a travel-size package and pressed it to her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Then, I just got tired. I got tired of the chase, tired of watching over my back, and I had given up the escort service. I was prostituting. The men, after a while, I didn’t have any girls. They’d see me and … ,” Gonzalez said, not finishing her sentence.

“When I started losing everything is when I became homeless. I stayed from place to place, like crack homes, sometimes outside, anywhere I could,” Gonzalez said.

An argument with her mother changed everything. Gonzalez was at her mother’s home in Old Conway.

“I took off mad and started walking,” Gonzalez said.

“I called my drug dealer and asked him to pick me up,” she said, not even certain what street she was on at that point.

“When I started walking, I thought if I could just get into a church, everything would go away. I just wanted it to go away, so I walked inside a building where these men had been working,” she said.

A man was painting, and she asked if she could wait for her ride.

The man asked her if she wanted pizza, and she told him no. He asked her if she wanted some Coke, and she accepted, because she thought he meant cocaine. He brought her a liter of Coca-Cola.

“I started flirting with him,” she said.

When she started to leave, he grabbed her arm and asked if they could pray.

“I said, ‘Oh, my God, I’m in a church, right?’”

They were in a building being renovated for Mosaic Church, and he was the pastor, Anthony Hendricks.

“He asked the Lord to take the taste of beer, alcohol, away from me — cocaine, some things I’d never tried,” she said. He asked her to come to church on Sunday.

“When I left, I felt like a big 50-pound weight had been lifted off my shoulders,” Gonzalez said.

Her drug connection picked her up, but he didn’t have any drugs with him.

When she got with her friends who were doing drugs the next day, Gonzalez said, she didn’t want anything.

“The next day came. I tried to smoke some crack, and it was horrible, horrible,” she said. When she tried to drink a beer, she said she couldn’t because of its smell. “I thought maybe it was the brand,” she said.

Gonzalez thought the drugs weren’t appealing because she had done so many drugs just before her experience at the church.

Three days after she met Hendricks, she went back to the church to see him.

“I said, ‘I’m sorry if I’m coming up here like this is some rehab center,’ and he said, ‘No, no, no; it’s fine.’”

When Sunday came, she remembered her promise.

Hendricks called the experience “humbling” and said he doesn’t deserve any credit. He said he doesn’t remember praying for her not to like the taste of the drugs.

“It was definitely a Holy Spirit thing,” Hendricks said.

Gonzalez said she hasn’t touched drugs or alcohol since August 2011, and she entered drug court in December.

“I never had a desire; I haven’t relapsed,” she said. “What’s amazing is I haven’t had any withdrawal. I usually have the shakes. At the time, I didn’t know how to explain it. Now that I’m growing spiritually, [I know that] the Holy Spirit had really touched me.

“I could not live without the Lord. Now, I’m so in love with God. I know I was in bondage with the enemy. There were things I don’t even want to remember,” she said.

She rented a trailer near the Conway Adult Education Center for $300 a month and lived there 14 months.

Gonzalez said another miracle was that a bank account set up for her ex-husband to deposit child-support payments was usually empty.

“He’d put in a $50 check every two years, or something. I checked it after I went to church, and there was $472. I used it to rent the trailer, turn the electricity on and buy food.”

Then, she had another breakthrough.

“I’d go into the closet, and I’d start screaming and crying and pulling my hair,” she said. “I went through every emotion. … Minutes seemed like hours. I felt sad; I felt depressed; I felt loneliness. I felt all those emotions I had all balled up at once, and then it was released.”

She credits Circuit Judge Charles E. Clawson, whom she calls “an awesome judge,” for sentencing her to drug court instead of time behind bars after her 2011 arrest. She said it gave her the tools and accountability to change her life to normalcy — getting up at a certain time, making a meeting, being responsible.

Still, she had to figure out how to live out her new-found faith, and the Bible was overwhelming, she said.

“I went to Hastings and got a basic Bible for children,” she said, laughing.

“I was telling a friend, ‘What is my purpose?’ He said, ‘Ask him — ask God.’ As I started praying for that, thoughts started coming into my head,” she said.

One of her thoughts was to have a meeting for women.

Gonzalez had gotten to know Liz McCoy, who teaches GED classes at the jail.

McCoy was enthusiastic about the idea to help women, and they started meeting at a Baptist church because Mosaic’s facility wasn’t ready.

Gonzalez said she woke up at 3 a.m. with the word STAND in her mind.

“I couldn’t get it out of my head,” she said. “I got the Bible, and everything I read had ‘stand’ in it — ‘stand firm.’ I wrote it down and said ‘Stand Together and No Drugs.’”

The group started with two or three women, “drug-court girls,” Gonzalez said.

They talked about their struggles and had Bible studies.

Gonzalez said her drug-court counselor told her to confront her fears, so she came to the wooded area where she had done drugs so many times.

“I [went there] for myself,” she said. “A man with a really nice sports car pulled up, and I said, ‘Oh, he thinks I’m a prostitute,’” she said. “The Lord spoke to me and said, ‘Tell him.’”

Gonzalez said she told the man that she used to come to the mobile-home park to do drugs and explained what she was planning.

“He said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a trailer over there you can use,’” she said.

He was the mobile-home park owner, and he donated six trailers to her to renovate.

“He just handed me the keys,” Gonzalez said, still incredulous that he would do such a thing.

Because the mobile-home park is practically next door to the Faulkner County Detention Center, it’s perfect for STAND, she said.

“That’s where the harvest is — that jail,” she said.

A couple of Conway organizations helped clean and repair one of the trailers, which was home to 16 cats and was damaged. STAND started meeting in one of the trailers in September, and now about 30 women attend meetings three nights a week. Seven of the women live in one of the trailers.

STAND has no income, no funding.

“As a need would arise, God would provide it,” said Traci Guinee of Conway, a STAND volunteer and a member of Mosaic Church.

Guinee sat, legs pulled up beside her, in a chair in the trailer. She listened to Gonzalez’s story, one she has heard many times.

Guinee said the women who participate in STAND came to church one Sunday with matching red T-shirts bearing the mission’s logo.

“I just fell in love with them right away,” Guinee said. She said Gonzalez is the right person to help the women in STAND.

“It’s amazing because the girls are drawn to her. Watching her as a Christian, they want to be like her,” Guinee said.

Although Gonzalez’s previous lifestyle was illegal and misguided, she learned organizational skills and other abilities from it, Guinee said.

“She knows the life,” Guinee said.

Gonzalez said Guinee helps with transportation for the women, some of whom are in drug court, some of whom are homeless and some of whom just need support.

Gonzalez said that of 34 women involved thus far in STAND, only two “have left to go back out on the streets.”

Gonzalez said she isn’t naive.

“The thing that I’m blessed with — I think God has given me the discernment to discern these women’s feelings and their thoughts” and to know whether they need tough love or patient attention.

“Every girl has either gotten a job or reconciled with their family in a matter of days,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez is still working on putting her own life back together. She said her younger son has moved back in with her.

“Now that we are together, he’s never held that [lifestyle] against me and never thrown that in my face,” she said. “I don’t feel like I have to make up for what I did. He’s really proud.” Adrian is helping his mother refurbish the trailers, too.

She said her mother “doesn’t understand the drug-addiction mentality,” but she is proud of the work Gonzalez is doing.

“It’s been rough; it’s been really rough,” Gonzalez said.

“I have to pay off fines before I graduate (from drug court). It was $10,000; now it’s $4,000,” she said. “I’ve completed the whole program, but I’m held back because I still owe $4,000.”

She makes no money for being the executive director of STAND, although the board has approved for her to get a sustainable salary when funding is available.

“I wouldn’t use that funding for my fine. … I feel like that’s my obligation,” she said. “I believe in paying my debts back; that’s part of my recovery.”

Gonzalez’s father helps out financially as he can, “now that I’ve turned my life around,” she said.

Gonzalez has faith that God will provide, and she’s just happy to be alive.

“I should have been dead, really,” she said.

“I know this is God’s ministry. This is what he’s called me to do. You can’t do this alone. You can’t get sober alone.

“It’s up to you to break that bondage.”

A tree stands out in the middle of those weeds across the road from STAND’s trailer. The tree is full of blossoms.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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