In the predawn hours of March 28, 2012, a small enclave of townhouses on Rocky Gap Court in Lorton sat dark and quiet. The cookie-cutter homes, distinguishable by paint color and not much else, look like typical, middle-class suburbia.
Inside a cream-colored, three-story home, Strom was asleep. It was from this townhouse that Woolf and Johannes say Strom ran his trafficking business. He had brought many of his underage victims there—leading them past a KinderCare daycare center to his back patio door, which is obscured by trees—and invited men over to have sex with them.
Woolf and Johannes had by now interviewed ten of Strom’s victims and corroborated their stories. They finally had enough evidence to bring Strom down.
SWAT teams from Fairfax County Police and the FBI arrived at 6 am. They barged through the small front door, finding mattresses on the floor and condoms strewn about. At Strom’s sentencing, his lawyer would describe him as having lived in “a perpetual fog of alcohol and sex.”
Woolf and Johannes watched from the command center in the FBI’s office in Manassas as the arrest team apprehended Strom. They could see the action play out on flat-screen monitors and hear updates coming in over the radio.
At the same time, SWAT teams arrested Henock Ghile, one of Strom’s drivers, and searched the home of Michael Jefferies, who worked as a bodyguard for the girls. It was the first time the FBI had ever done a “takedown”—multiple, simultaneous arrests and searches—in a child sex-trafficking case. Strom and his associates all pleaded guilty.
The arrest team brought Strom to the FBI’s Manassas office, where Woolf finally had the chance to question him. Woolf says that when asked how many girls he had sold, Strom answered: “Too many to count.”
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On September 14, 2012, prosecutors asked Virginia federal judge James Cacheris to sentence Strom to life in prison.
A stream of his victims and their family members stood up to describe the devastation Strom had left in their lives.
Jessica, now 20, told the court about the summer she was 16.
“I had been playing soccer, had good friends and a good relationship with my parents. . . .” she said. “The same day I met [Strom], I found myself, or lost myself, in the arms of thugs and hustlers. I was brainwashed into believing that having sex with men for money was normal, an everyday thing.”
She said she continues to struggle: “I have been in three rehabs, three hospitals, had a suicide attempt and outpatient treatments with multiple therapists. And even after all that, I still seem to feel broken, worthless, and unequal to society.”
Laura was at a rehab facility in Colorado, so she was unable to attend. She says she believes police sent her away to keep her from speaking in Strom’s defense at his sentencing—a claim Woolf calls “ridiculous.” He says Laura’s parents paid for her treatment at the facility and that a juvenile court had ordered her there for an unrelated matter.
Laura’s mother spoke in her daughter’s absence: “What Mr. Strom subjected my daughter and these other young girls to is the most degrading, despicable, inhumane act of depravity any parent can imagine.”
Meg’s father challenged the judge: “My marriage is failing; my family is failing. I failed my daughter. I hope you don’t fail us.”
Strom listened—even teared up—as the people who blamed him for ruining their lives spoke. Then it was his turn.
“I want to say to the families and the victims and to my family that I’m sorry for all the pain that I caused them,” he told the court. “I don’t want to blame it on drugs or alcohol, but it had a big part. . . . I ask God to forgive me. I ask for mercy. Your Honor, I just ask that you have mercy on me.”
To some extent, Judge Cacheris did. He gave Strom 40 years, not life. Strom spends his days now in a maximum-security prison in Victorville, California, on the edge of the Mojave Desert. His codefendants are also locked up. Donyel Dove got 23 years. Michael Jefferies, Christopher Sylvia, and Henock Ghile are each serving ten. (Attempts to reach Strom’s codefendants directly and through their lawyers were unsuccessful.)
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This winter, I sent Strom a letter explaining that I was writing about his case and offering him the chance to comment. His response, two weeks later, stood out in my stack of mail. He had scrawled a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. (“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”) on the back of the envelope along with the phrases “cold world” and “God is love.”
Given that Strom had pleaded guilty, signed a statement of facts admitting to the investigators’ findings, and said at his sentencing that he accepted responsibility and had ended his involvement in prostitution only a month before his arrest, I was thrown by what he wrote.
He claimed he hadn’t been involved in sex trafficking for “several years.” He said Katie, the girl who was raped 15 times, didn’t exist. He mentioned Laura and how she doesn’t consider herself a victim. He also wrote that he was in solitary confinement because “there’s said to be a hit out” on his life.
I wrote him back, asking why he would plead guilty and apologize if none of the allegations were true. In his response, he said his codefendants had conspired to “pin me as the leader” and that he pleaded because his lawyers told him he had no chance of winning.
He also changed his story from his first letter and claimed that he had never trafficked young girls. He again addressed the rape accusation, writing that he was “known for being a ladies man” and had no need to force himself on women.
Strom’s letters were littered with strange quotes and indecipherable Bible references. Laura had told me he’d introduced her to philosophy; maybe these rambling thoughts were Strom’s attempt to sound philosophical.
He sent me one more piece of mail. He’s married now, to the mother of some of his five children; the couple wed while he was in prison. But with this last letter, Strom included a photo of himself and Laura. She’s smiling and kissing his cheek. The angle indicates that one of them was holding the camera. As I studied it, I wondered if they’d taken the photo while they were on the run together over Christmas.
Laura is 18 now. She spent eight months in Colorado getting sober and participating in therapy for kids who have been sexually exploited. She says she became a leader among her peers at the treatment center.
“The staff saw me that way,” she says. “It made me feel good, just how people viewed me.”
She says she’s drug-free. She has a job as an administrative assistant and plans to start community college in August. She and her mother hadn’t had a relationship since she was 12, but now she says they e-mail and hang out.
But Laura remains loyal to Strom. She talks about how he may be able to appeal his case—unlikely, given his guilty plea. And though he’s married, when I ask her if she thinks they’ll reconnect one day, she doesn’t rule it out: “I don’t really know where we’re at or where we’re going to be in the future.”
I ask what advice she’d give to other girls. She says staying busy with something positive, like a sport, is important. Keeping out of trouble, she says, requires finding “a place to belong.”
I look at the girl—young and pretty—in the photo with Strom. I hope she’s found her place.
This article appears in the June 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.