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KENOSHA, Wis. — Metal cuffs strained against her ankles as she shuffled down the courthouse hallway. She passed her mother, who had grown used to seeing her teen daughter in a jail uniform. She passed the activists, who saw her as a victim of child sex trafficking.
She entered the courtroom, where she was facing life in prison on charges of murdering her alleged sex trafficker.
“The court calls 18CF643,” said the judge at this November hearing. “State of Wisconsin versus Chrystul Kizer.”
Chrystul looked up at him, then down at her hands. She sat between the public defenders assigned to her when she couldn’t afford her own lawyer. Beside them was the district attorney, the lead prosecutor for Kenosha County, a lakefront community of about 169,000 people between Milwaukee and Chicago.
Both sides agreed to certain facts about what had brought them here:
When Chrystul was 16, she met a 33-year-old man named Randy Volar.
Volar sexually abused Chrystul multiple times.
He filmed it.
She wasn’t the only one — and in February 2018, police arrested Volar on charges including child sexual assault. But then, they released him without bail.
Volar, a white man, remained free for three months, even after police discovered evidence that he was abusing about a dozen underage black girls.
He remained free until Chrystul, then 17, went to his house one night in June and allegedly shot him in the head, twice. She lit his body on fire, police said, and fled in his car.
A few days later, she confessed. District Attorney Michael Graveley, whose office knew about the evidence against Volar but waited to prosecute him, charged Chrystul with arson and first-degree intentional homicide, an offense that carries a mandatory life sentence in Wisconsin.
Graveley says he believes Chrystul’s crime was premeditated. The evidence, he argues, shows she planned to murder Volar so she could steal his BMW.
Chrystul, now 19, maintains she was defending herself. Speaking publicly from jail for the first time, she said that when she told Volar she didn’t want to have sex that night, he pinned her to the floor.
“I didn’t intentionally try to do this,” she said.
Randall Phillip Volar III, who went by Randy, at his father’s wedding in 2012. (Family photo)
Chrystul Kizer, seen in 2016, the same year she met Volar. (Family photo)
Randall Phillip Volar III, who went by Randy, at his father’s wedding in 2012. (Family photo) Chrystul Kizer, seen in 2016, the same year she met Volar. (Family photo)
Her case comes at a time when police and prosecutors across the country are reevaluating how victims of sex trafficking should be treated. This year, Tennessee released Cyntoia Brown, whose story went viral in the midst of the #MeToo movement. She went to prison at age 16 and served 15 years for killing a man who purchased her for sex.
Brown’s story, along with the downfall of financier Jeffrey Epstein and singer R. Kelly, reveal what most child sex trafficking actually looks like in America: vulnerable kids, not kidnapped and held captive, not chained and smuggled across borders, but groomed by someone they trust and manipulated into believing they are the ones to blame for the abuse.
Under federal law, all children who are bought or sold for sex are trafficking victims, regardless of the circumstances. Thirty states and the District have stopped charging minors with prostitution.
Most states also have a law that gives sex-trafficking victims an “affirmative defense.” If they can prove at trial they committed a crime because they were being trafficked, they can be acquitted of certain charges against them.
Wisconsin is one of those states — and Chrystul wanted to use that law to defend her actions. Despite prosecutors’ certainty that her crime was premeditated, her lawyer argues she still has a complete defense to the charges.
But the affirmative defense law has never been used in a homicide or any other violent crime. Not in Wisconsin and, as far as advocates know, not anywhere else.
At this hearing, the judge was going to decide whether it could be.
With handcuffs on her wrists, Chrystul pulled at the rosary around her neck. Behind her, the courtroom was filled with her supporters and with members of Volar’s family.
“Your honor,” her lawyer began, and Chrystul listened closely as the men debated what she deserved.
‘House is burning!’
Volar’s house once stood on this now-vacant lot in Kenosha, Wis. It was torn down after it was damaged in the fire on June 5, 2018. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Just after 5 a.m. on the morning of June 5, 2018, a woman looked out the window of her Kenosha home and spotted flames on the roof of the tiny tan ranch house on the corner. She punched 911 into her phone.
“Fire!” she told the dispatcher. “House is burning!”
“Do you know if anyone is in the house?” the dispatcher asked.
“Fire! House is burning!” (0:57)
Within two minutes, Kenosha police arrived to find the answer. Inside, a badly charred body lay slumped on the ground. There were two gunshot wounds in the head.
Dispatchers said that earlier that year, the house was involved in a call about a runaway child. Officers didn’t yet know the details of that case, but it did give them a name for the homeowner: Randall Phillip Volar III, who went by Randy.
Police combed the house for evidence. Alcohol bottles on the floor. A pizza box in the fridge. Multiple hotel room keys. Credit card records showed that the night before, he paid for an Uber from Milwaukee to his home. The Uber driver told police he had given a ride to a short black girl named “Chrystal.”
Neighbors reported that there was usually a BMW in Volar’s driveway. The car was found abandoned in Milwaukee. A receipt inside led police to a Family Dollar store, where security footage revealed that four teens had driven the BMW. One of them said he had a sister named Chrystul Kizer.
Police found her Facebook page, filled with photos of a slender girl who wore long, colorful wigs. On the night of the fire, she posted a selfie at 3:10 a.m. Behind her were curtains detectives recognized from Volar’s house. The caption: “My Mug Shot.”
Three days later, Chrystul live-streamed on Facebook. She talked about giving her brother a BMW. She showed off a gun. She told her 20-year-old boyfriend, Delane Nelson, “I don’t want to shoot anybody else.”
The next morning, police drove a battering ram into Nelson’s front door. They found Chrystul inside, a shower cap on her head. Zip ties were placed around her wrists as she was escorted into a squad car.
In June 2018, the police arrested Chrystul at this Milwaukee house, where she and her boyfriend, Delane Nelson, lived with his family. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Her bail was set at $1 million.
As they investigated Chrystul, detectives were gathering information about Volar. He lived alone in the cramped 360-square-foot, one-bedroom house. He graduated from high school in 2001 and described himself as self-employed. He was 5 foot 8 inches tall and about 200 pounds. His autopsy showed he had been born with missing fingers and toes, and a right leg shorter than the left. His parents divorced in 2009, and three years later, Volar wore a suit and a red rose boutonniere to be the best man for his father, Randall P. Volar Jr., when he remarried at a golf resort.
But most of what detectives needed to know was already sitting in a police file. The “runaway” report mentioned by dispatchers was actually something much more serious: a sex crimes investigation that had been underway for months.
It began with another 911 call, this one just before 1 a.m. on Feb. 12, 2018. According to police reports obtained by The Washington Post, a 15-year-old girl calling from Volar’s house told dispatchers that a man had given her drugs, and now he was going to kill her. Then, she hung up.
Officers found her wandering the streets, wearing only a bra under an unzipped jacket. Her pupils were dilated. She said she had taken LSD.
The girl eventually told police she met Volar the year before when he responded to an ad on Backpage.com. The site was one of the country’s largest prostitution marketplaces until it was shut down for involvement in human trafficking last year. The girl said Volar paid her $250 for sex the first time they met — when she was 14 — then $100 each time after that.
She told police he knew how old she was, because when she suggested he find women his own age, he elaborated on why he preferred the bodies of young girls like her.
In December 2017, the girl ran away from home and moved in with Volar. He gave her money, took her shopping and even took her out to dinner with his mother, she said.
The girl showed signs of what sex crimes experts call “trauma bonding.” Volar was nice to her, she said, and she didn’t want to get him in trouble. She called him her “friend.”
She said Volar was sexually abusing other underage girls, too — and filming it. She’d seen the videos.
Volar lived in Kenosha, a lakefront Wisconsin city between Milwaukee and Chicago. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Volar’s bank records showed a pattern of booking hotel rooms in Milwaukee, where Chrystul lived. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Volar lived in Kenosha, a lakefront Wisconsin city between Milwaukee and Chicago. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post) Volar’s bank records showed a pattern of booking hotel rooms in Milwaukee, where Chrystul lived. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
“Sometimes he goes to Milwaukee to find young girls,” the police report said. She told detectives the first names of at least three of them, including one named “Chrystal.”
On Feb. 22, police searched Volar’s house. They confiscated laptops, hard drives and memory cards, along with women’s pajamas, bikini bottoms and underwear.
Volar was arrested. The charges: child enticement, using a computer to facilitate a child sex crime and second-degree sexual assault of a child, a felony punishable by up to 40 years in state prison.
Miriam Falk, a veteran sex crimes prosecutor in Wisconsin, said those charges typically lead to a substantial cash bail, upward of $100,000 if the person involved is wealthy. Add in video evidence and the case would be a “dream” for prosecutors. “That would be a very difficult case to defend,” Falk said.
But on the same day police arrested Volar, they released him. Records indicate he paid no bail but was told he would be summoned to court.
The court summons never came.
Volar spent $20,000 to hire a criminal defense attorney, but three months passed before police sent the case to the district attorney’s office. The file showed what was found in Volar’s house: “hundreds” of child pornography videos, featuring girls who appear to be as young as 12, and more than 20 “home videos” of Volar with underage black girls.
The office of District Attorney Michael Graveley, right, received evidence that Volar was abusing underage girls 12 days before Volar’s death. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Still, Volar was not taken into custody. No sex crimes case was entered into the Wisconsin court system.
Twelve days later, Volar was dead.
Kenosha police declined to comment for this story. Graveley, the district attorney, said his office assigned a sex crimes prosecutor to the case who was working to determine the identities and ages of the victims involved.
“In many and most of the cases, we didn’t know the age,” he said. “So we literally did not know whether we had misdemeanors or felony.”
Although police hadn’t tracked down all the other girls in Volar’s videos, they did describe most of them in their reports as “mid teens” or “early teens.” Investigators wrote that one appeared to be 13 or 14. Another, they thought might be as young as 12.
Rachel Monaco-Wilcox, who runs a legal clinic for human-trafficking victims in Wisconsin, said police and prosecutors who are unfamiliar with these issues regularly fail to recognize that under federal law, there is no such thing as a “child prostitute.” Children, especially children of color, are still seen as willing participants in the sale of sex, and research shows black girls are routinely perceived as older and more sexually mature than their white peers.
“[Investigators] think, ‘My 14-year-old daughter would never do that, so there’s no excuse,’ ” Monaco-Wilcox said. “ ‘They knew what they were doing. They put themselves out there.’ ”
In the case against Volar, the lead investigator described the 15-year-old who ran from his house as “prostituting herself out” in his report.
When police searched Volar’s home, they found multiple hotel key cards, including one from the Ambassador Hotel in Milwaukee. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
After Volar was killed, homicide detectives quickly learned more about his activities. On the day of his death, police received a call from TCF Bank, where most of Volar’s money — $800,000 in assets — was housed. Prosecutors would later say that Volar’s funds came from legal trading in cryptocurrency. The bank, police reports show, suspected something else was going on.
A bank official called the police to flag that between November 2017 and May 2018, Volar had almost $1.5 million in transfers — in a pattern of activity the bank associated with human trafficking.
Confused, the detective who took the call asked whether someone from his department had called the bank to request this information.
“No,” the bank official said. He was just making a “cold call,” according to the police report. He had no idea Volar was dead.
Days later, the detective opened Volar’s file. The videos taken from his home had been edited into still images, showing his victims’ faces.
The detective started flipping through the pictures, searching for one face in particular. And then, he found it.
There was Chrystul Kizer, her arms wrapped around her body, smiling at the camera.
‘He was a grown-up’
Chrystul as baby with her mother, Devore Taylor. (Family photo/The Washington Post)
Chrystul is the oldest of four siblings. She is pictured here with her younger brother. (Family photo/The Washington Post)
Chrystul as baby with her mother, Devore Taylor. (Family photo/The Washington Post) Chrystul is the oldest of four siblings. She is pictured here with her younger brother. (Family photo/The Washington Post)
Sixteen months later, Chrystul was looking into another camera, this time from inside the Kenosha County jail. A phone was pressed to her ear.
“Hey,” she said, and so began each call to a reporter through the jail’s video visit system. In more than five hours of calls, Chrystul shared her story of what happened with Randy Volar, which began not in Wisconsin, but in Gary, Ind., where she was born.
Her mom, Devore Taylor, was 16 when she had Chrystul. Taylor took jobs at fast-food joints to support her daughter, a burgeoning artist. Chrystul was delighted by watching cartoons and even more entertained by drawing worlds of her own.
For junior high, she earned a spot in Gary’s performing arts academy. She chose orchestra as her specialty. Taylor couldn’t afford a violin — by then, she had three more children and a boyfriend to support — so she put $100 down and paid a little at a time. While Taylor took classes at night, Chrystul started practicing at all hours, trying to learn Beethoven and “Silent Night.”
Even now, Chrystul describes herself by talking about her music. “I’m a violinist,” she said. “Some instruments, like the guitar, my hand is too little for the board. So I like instruments that I can play.”
But while she learned the violin, Chrystul’s childhood started to unravel as her mom’s boyfriend turned more and more violent. Taylor never thought he would hurt her kids. Chrystul remembered differently. “We would get in trouble and he would take it too far, and do extra,” she said.
Chrystul learned to guide her brother and two sisters into their bedroom, close the door and wait for her mom to say she could call the police.
“They would just take him and tell him to leave,” Chrystul recalled. “But he would always come back.”
At the end of 2015, Taylor and the kids left almost all of their belongings in Indiana and moved to Milwaukee. They stayed at a Salvation Army shelter for months before they found an apartment.
While Taylor was working at Denny’s, her son started stealing cars. Chrystul started skipping school and hanging with Delane Nelson, who was three years older than her.
Soon, Chrystul and Nelson were physically fighting. Once, a witness saw Nelson holding Chrystul in a headlock and striking her “with a stick more than 10 times while dragging her through the parking lot.” Nelson — who did not respond to requests for comment — pleaded guilty to a charge of battery. Chrystul stayed with him.
Chrystul and her family spent months at the Salvation Army Emergency Lodge when they moved to Milwaukee. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
In the fall of 2016, she met someone who told her she deserved better: Randy Volar.
Chrystul first said she met Volar at a bus stop. Later, she confessed she met him after he responded to an advertisement she had posted on Backpage.com. She needed money for snacks and school notebooks, she said, and a girl she knew showed her how to use the site. Volar was the first to respond.
She was 16, but she told him she was 19.
“At first, I was nervous,” she said. “And then I told him okay.”
Before long, she was seeing Volar every other week. She said he was always complimenting her brown eyes, her colorful wigs, her 104-pound body. He took her on dates and let her order steak. He bought her a heart-shaped locket, got her a phone and let her drive his cars. She didn’t need to post on Backpage.com again; he took her shopping and gave her cash she could share with her sisters, sometimes $500 at a time. She made excuses to Nelson and her mom about where the gifts were coming from.
She knew what Volar expected in return. But she didn’t think it was wrong.
“He was the only friend that I actually had,” she said.
Chrystul Kizer, 19, gave more than five hours of interviews to The Washington Post in 2019. (Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)
She is sure Volar knew her real age because in the summer of 2017, he invited her to his house to celebrate her 17th birthday.
“He had bought me cupcakes,” Chrystul recalled. “And he had gave me this new drug I had never heard about called acid. It made me feel weird.”
A few weeks later, Chrystul was arrested. Milwaukee police said she was driving a car that her brother had reportedly stolen when they tried to pull her over. According to police, she sped away, then ran. She was charged with fleeing an officer. In Wisconsin, 17-year-olds are charged as adults.
After 55 days in jail, her bond was reduced to $400. Volar paid it.
Chrystul said he made clear what specific sex acts he wanted in return.
“I told him that I never wanted to do that,” Chrystul said. “He said that I had to owe him that.”
She began to try to cut Volar out of her life. To her mother’s dismay, she had moved in with Nelson. Chrystul said she told Volar she wanted to get serious with Nelson, so she couldn’t see him anymore.
“He had started to talk violent and stuff,” she said. “I was going to stop talking to him, and he said if I did that he was going to kill me.”
She never confided in anyone. She didn’t call the police.
“They didn’t help my mom,” she explained.
Chrystul said she didn’t know about the other girls, Volar’s arrest or the videos confiscated by police. She said she didn’t know Volar filmed her.
Volar, 34, was arrested in February 2018 for charges including child sexual assault. (Kenosha County Sheriff)
Chrystul, 17, was arrested in June 2018 on charges including first-degree intentional homicide. (Kenosha County Sheriff)
Volar, 34, was arrested in February 2018 for charges including child sexual assault. (Kenosha County Sheriff) Chrystul, 17, was arrested in June 2018 on charges including first-degree intentional homicide. (Kenosha County Sheriff)
Eventually, those videos and the sex crimes file on Volar would be shared with Chrystul’s lawyer, who came to believe Volar’s involvement in sex trafficking went beyond just buying sex. Volar used cryptocurrency and anonymous browsers to access the dark web — tools popular with distributors of child pornography.
In the videos Volar made, Chrystul’s lawyer told the judge, he describes himself as an “escort trainer.” He instructs one girl, the lawyer said, on “what she could do to keep body parts of hers in working order to be a better prostitute.” In another video, Volar tells a girl, “Do you want to post to Kenosha/Racine and see if anybody calls you and I’ll give you a ride.”
Only after multiple interviews with The Post did Chrystul describe, quietly, what that meant. Volar, she said, sold her through Backpage.com to other people. She said he would post ads, then drive her to hotels in Milwaukee, where men his age or older would spend 30 minutes with her. She gave Volar the money she earned. Sometimes, she said, Volar would arrange for her to meet more than one man in a day.
“He told me to get the money first and then to text him once I was finished,” she said.
Once talkative and smiling during interviews, Chrystul grew more and more upset as she spoke. To most questions, she answered: “I don’t know.” She did not know the hotel names or how much the men paid. She did not know when it started or how many times it happened. She said she did not know how it made her feel.
But she did know why she kept doing it.
“Because he was a grown-up, and I wasn’t,” she said. “So I listened.”
In May 2018, Chrystul’s boyfriend started to grow suspicious. Nelson told Chrystul, and later the police, that he thought someone might be following her. He bought her a .380 pistol and taught her to shoot it in his backyard. He told her to carry it everywhere.
On June 4, she appeared in Milwaukee court to plead guilty to the fleeing charge she had picked up nearly a year earlier. She said Nelson went with her, and by the afternoon, they were fighting. Worried he would hit her again, Chrystul said she texted Volar to ask whether she could come over.
At 8:42 p.m., an Uber picked her up. The pistol, she said, was in her purse.
“I had went into the house. … He had ordered some pizza. We were smoking, and he asked me if I wanted to drink any liquor. And then he had gave me this drug. I don’t know what it’s called. And after that, we started to watch movies. … And then, the drug, it made me feel weird or whatever.”
She said Volar came to sit next to her. “He started to touch my leg and then like I had jumped and tell him that I didn’t want to do that.”
“I just thought that I didn’t want to do that stuff anymore because I was trying to change,” she said.
Volar, Chrystul recalled, told her what she owed him.
“I tried to get up, to get away from him but I had tripped, and I fell on the floor, and he had got on top of me,” she said. “And he was trying to like, rip my pants off, my jeans that I had on. … I was, like, wiggling. Cause once me and [Nelson] had fought, he had tried to pin me down, but I’ll wiggle to get loose.”
She doesn’t remember going to get the pistol. She does remember the sound it made.
“Like a pop. A high pop,” she said. “I started to panic.”
Police tape hangs in front of Volar’s burned house in Kenosha on June 5, 2018. His body was found inside. (Bill Siel/Kenosha News)
This was a different story than what she initially told detectives. On the day she was arrested, Chrystul said she didn’t know Volar. Then she said she saw another woman shoot him. Months later, she would tell police that Nelson had been the one to kill him.
But eventually, during her first interview with detectives, she confessed. She told them she was tired of Volar touching her.
“Kizer said that she watches the show Criminal Minds, and she decided to make a fire,” an account of the interview states. “Kizer said she poured red liquor everywhere … grabbed tissue or toilet paper and started the fire.”
Chrystul said she doesn’t remember the fire. She said Volar was planning to give her a laptop and a new car for her 18th birthday, and that’s why she took them. She said she lied to detectives at first because she was scared.
But she knows a jury will examine those actions when they ask the central question about what happened between Chrystul and Volar: Who was the real victim?
To Chrystul, the answer is clear.
“Both of us,” she said. “Because of the stuff that he was doing to me. And, that he should have never died.”
‘The capacity to consent’
Cyntoia Brown at 18, two years after she was charged with murder. (Simon & Schuster)
Brown was released in 2019 and published a memoir, “Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System.” (Mark Humphrey/AP)
Cyntoia Brown at 18, two years after she was charged with murder. (Simon & Schuster) Brown was released in 2019 and published a memoir, “Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System.” (Mark Humphrey/AP)
While Chrystul was sitting in jail this fall, someone with a story much like hers was walking free.
Cyntoia Brown was 16 years old when the man she believed to be her boyfriend started selling her for sex. First, just to his friends. Then, she told herself, she was just “pretending to be a prostitute.” Before long, she spent each day hoping that if she could just bring in enough money, he’d let her stop. She never called it “sex trafficking.”
“I thought it was okay for me to be with adult men,” Brown, now 31, said in an interview. “I didn’t think I was being taken advantage of. … It never crossed my mind that I didn’t have the capacity to consent.”
On a summer night in 2004, a 43-year-old picked up Brown at a Sonic Drive-In and took her to his Nashville home. A .40-caliber handgun was in her purse. Prosecutors argued that she wanted to rob him. Brown said she feared for her life when she shot him in the back of the head. She stole two guns and cash from his home and fled in his truck.
She was sentenced to life in prison. But 13 years later, in the midst of 2017’s #MeToo movement, Brown’s story went viral. Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and thousands of others spread the word about the campaign to #FreeCyntoiaBrown.
By then, there was a growing movement against sex trafficking. Advocates armed with research on brain development, racial bias and the impacts of trauma were working to educate police officers, judges and prosecutors, including Preston Shipp, one of the attorneys who argued that Brown should spend her life in prison. Shipp was so moved by what he learned, he testified on Brown’s behalf at her clemency hearing. Four months ago, she was released.
But other child-trafficking victims involved in violent crimes are still behind bars. Some have been there for decades. For many, the abuse they experienced was never brought up in court, or it was dismissed as irrelevant, making it impossible to know the number of cases that exist across the country.
They were sex trafficked as teenagers. They were involved in a murder. Some have spent decades in prison. Some are walking free.
Barbara Hernandez, 16
Tried as an adult, found guilty of murder
Sentence: Life without the possibility of parole
Current status: 45, still imprisoned
Hernandez has been in prison for nearly three decades for her involvement in a robbery that led to the death of 28-year-old James Cotaling. Hernandez was being trafficked, and it was her alleged sex trafficker who killed Cotaling while she was in another room. But prosecutors argued she bought the knife and led Cotaling to the attack. At a resentencing hearing this year, a judge ruled against Hernandez. If she does not win her appeals, she will remain behind bars for the rest of her life.
Alexis Martin, 15
Tried as an adult, pleaded guilty to murder
Sentence: Life with the possibility of parole after 21 years
Current status: 21, still imprisoned, seeking clemency
Alexis Martin didn’t pull the trigger. She was in another room when her alleged sex trafficker, 36-year-old Angelo Kerney, was killed during an attempted robbery. Judges acknowledged her status as a victim of human trafficking, but prosecutors say evidence shows Martin participated in the robbery plan. In 2018, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the juvenile court mishandled Martin’s case, but it upheld her conviction. She is seeking clemency from the governor of Ohio.
Mark Berrios, 14
Tried as an adult, found guilty of murder
Sentence: Life without the possibility of parole
Current status: 40, still imprisoned
Berrios had run away from a juvenile detention program when he met Olen Lee Hepler, 47. Two weeks later, Berrios shot him. He took his car and ATM card. Police had been investigating Hepler for his molestation of young boys, but hadn’t yet taken him into custody. Prosecutors argued that Berrios was trying to rob Hepler and imprisoned him for life. He was resentenced in 2013 to 30 years in prison. He is scheduled to be released in 2024.
Michelle Benjamin, 16
Tried as an adult, found guilty of murder
Sentence: Life without the possibility of parole
Current status: 42, released in May 2019
Benjamin and a friend were approached on the streets of New Orleans by Martin Hecker, 25. Because she had been raped when she was 11 years old, Benjamin carried a gun to protect herself. She said Hecker followed her and tried to get her to go to a hotel for sex, and when he lunged for her, she shot him. Prosecutors argued that the teens killed Hecker to steal his wallet. After being resentenced in 2016, Benjamin was freed this year, 25 years after going to prison.
Sara Kruzan, 16
Tried as an adult, found guilty of murder
Sentence: Life without the possibility of parole
Current status: 41, released in 2013
Kruzan testified that George Gilbert Howard forced her into commercial sex at age 13. Three years later, she shot and killed him. She stole money from his wallet and the keys to his Jaguar. She served 19 years in prison before being resentenced and released in 2013. Today, she is the namesake to “Sara’s Law,” a bill in Congress that would allow federal judges to reduce sentences for child sex-trafficking victims who commit crimes against their abusers.
Cyntoia Brown-Long, 16
Tried as an adult, found guilty of murder
Sentence: Life in prison with possibility of parole after 51 years
Current status: 31, granted clemency in 2019
Brown had been forced into commercial sex by a man she believed to be her boyfriend. One night, her buyer was 43-year-old Johnny Allen. Prosecutors argued she intended to rob him, but Brown said she feared for her life when she shot and killed Allen. In 2017, her story went viral thanks to attention from celebrities including Kim Kardashian and LeBron James. Earlier this year, Brown was freed after 15 years in prison. She published a memoir about her experiences called “Free Cyntoia.”
Patrice Smith, 16
New York (1998)
Tried as an adult, found guilty of murder
Sentence: Life with the possibility of parole after 25 years
Current status: 37, still imprisoned, seeking clemency
Smith has spent 21 years in prison for strangling Robert Robinson Jr., a 71-year-old minister. Prosecutors argued that Smith and her friend went to Robinson’s house with a plan to steal money and his Cadillac. Smith told the court that Robinson had been paying her for sex since she was 15 and that once he had raped her. She said that on the night of the murder, she was acting in self-defense because he had threatened to kill her. Two decades later, she is seeking clemency from the governor of New York.
At least 35 states have passed affirmative defense laws, which allow victims to try to prove in court that their crime occurred because of the abuse they experienced. Most of those laws only apply to prostitution charges; some can be used for other crimes traffickers often force their victims to commit, such as truancy, theft and drug possession.
But in a few states, including Wisconsin, the affirmative defense law is broad. It doesn’t specify which crimes the defense can be used for.
“A victim of a violation of [trafficking] has an affirmative defense,” the Wisconsin law states, “for any offense committed as a direct result of the violation of [trafficking] without regard to whether anyone was prosecuted or convicted for the violation of [trafficking].”
In the years since the law was enacted in 2008, it has been used by lawyers seeking plea deals for clients charged with prostitution. But neither side in Chrystul’s case could find an instance in which the law was used as a defense in court.
With no other cases to serve as precedent, and no further clarification written in the law, the judge in Chrystul’s case would be the first to decide which crimes the affirmative defense can apply to — and whether that includes violent crimes.
Siding with Chrystul could open a door for other trafficking victims prosecuted in Wisconsin and fuel the creation of new affirmative defense laws across the country. And it would give Chrystul’s lawyers the chance to try to convince a jury that even if she killed a man, she deserved to go free.
‘The true story’
Volar’s father, Randall P. Volar Jr., attends a hearing Nov. 15 in Kenosha. He was accompanied by Volar’s mother and other relatives. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Judge David P. Wilk peered down from his bench at Chrystul. He’d seen her in court eight times now. Her mother and the activists sat behind the Volar family: aunts, a grandmother, Volar’s mother Diana and, seated closest to Chrystul, his father Randall P. Volar Jr. The family declined to be interviewed for this story.
“The true story has yet to be told,” Volar’s father said in a statement. “And when the truth comes out, I hope people’s perceptions of my son will change. My son was a good man, loved by his family and respected for his kindness and intelligence. We all miss him dearly and would do anything to turn back the hands of time so we could be with him. What happened is a tragedy for both families the Kizers and the Volars.”
At the hearing, prosecutors once again argued that the true story was a calculated attack that ended a man’s life and endangered the lives of his neighbors. “We know,” Graveley told the judge, “that the preplanning predates the incident.”
His court filings show that a few days before the crime, Chrystul sent a Facebook message to a friend saying, “I’m finna get a bmw.” Her friend asked when. Chrystul replied, “Soon.”
“And then,” Graveley said, “there is a real-time communication.”
An activist stands outside the Kenosha County Courthouse on Nov. 15. A group of supporters from the area has been showing up on Chrystul’s court dates and writing letters to her. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
The night of the crime, according to prosecutors, Chrystul was texting two people about where the key to “the car” was and that she had learned how to start it.
At 10:42 p.m., she texted: “When u want me to do it bae.”
At 11:09 p.m.: “Nun but I’m finna do it rn [right now] doe.”
11:13 p.m.: “I’m finna do it.”
12:03 a.m.: “Just order some pizza some ima wait…It’s just gone splatter every where I looked it up on google and it’s a pillow ima wait until she asleep.”
As Graveley spoke about the texts, Volar’s mother began to cry. His father set his head in his hands. Chrystul’s expressions changed by the minute: a blank stare, a forehead scrunched, her eyes wide and staring at her lawyer, Carl Johnson, waiting for him to interject.
Compared with Graveley’s booming confidence, Johnson sounded quiet and cautious. He took long pauses to review his notes. Chrystul’s case was one of more than a dozen he was overseeing.
In jail, Chrystul has started praying and reading the Bible each day. She wore a rosary to her hearing. To her right is her public defender, Carl Johnson. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Johnson didn’t address whether the crime was premeditated. The broadness of the affirmative defense law, he argued, means Chrystul has a complete defense to the charges.
If the judge agreed with him, it would be up to a jury to decide whether her crimes were a “direct result” of being trafficked.
If Wilk said the affirmative defense didn’t apply to cases like hers, Johnson would have to come up with an entirely new strategy for defending Chrystul.
She sat beside him, still pulling at her rosary while trying to read his notes.
“The court,” Wilk said after 40 minutes, “is not going to rule today. The court is going to come back in approximately 30 days.”
Chrystul stood and turned toward her mom. Then she shuffled across the room, out of the courthouse and back to her cell.
Chrystul’s mother, Devore Taylor, 36, holds the violin her daughter used to play. Chrystul attended a performing arts school in Indiana before moving to Milwaukee. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Two hours later, Chrystul’s mom thanked the activists who drove her to and from Kenosha and climbed out of their car. Taylor, 36, didn’t like asking for their help, but her truck was broken, and court was the only time she could see Chrystul in person.
Inside her Milwaukee apartment, Taylor looked at the notes she had taken that day. At the bottom of the page, she’d written, “Affirmative defense. Find statute.”
For a year and a half she’d been going over it all in her head. Why hadn’t she stopped Chrystul from going to live with her boyfriend? Why hadn’t she asked more questions about those new clothes? She reminded herself that she had three other kids, worked long hours and moved to Milwaukee to survive. Only sometimes did it make her feel any better.
Here, Chrystul was everywhere. Photos of her taped to the walls. Her violin in storage, gathering dust. A box of belongings from the women’s prison — where Chrystul served nine months this year for her fleeing charge — stashed where Taylor wouldn’t have to look at it.
When Chrystul finished that sentence in September, she was transferred back to the county jail in Kenosha to await her murder trial. She couldn’t bring her possessions with her, so they were sent to Taylor.
Taylor looks at a list of goals written in the Bible that her daughter had in prison. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
That evening, for the first time, Taylor started to go through the box. Beneath drawings and coloring books, she found a leather-bound Bible. Inside was a list titled, “My goals.”
“Finish school,” Chrystul had written. “Gain 20 to 25 pounds.” “Get out and do better!!”
Beneath the Bible, Taylor found a large yellow envelope. Inside was a stack of documents and a letter from Chrystul’s lawyers.
“Dear Ms. Kizer, Please find enclosed the materials you requested,” it said. “They include the police reports from the investigation into Mr. Volar.”
Taylor flipped to the next page. And the next. Here was the search warrant for Volar’s property, a list of all the computers and DVDs and flash drives taken from his house.
“But I looked up his arrest records,” Taylor said. “And this was not on there?”
She started to read what was on one flash drive. After a moment, she had to wipe tears from her eyes so she could see the page. She started to read out loud, her voice cracking.
Taylor holds the police file on the sex crimes investigation into Randy Volar. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Taylor reads that Volar possessed “hundreds” of child pornography videos. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
The file states police obtained footage of Volar abusing multiple underage black girls. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Taylor begins to scream. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Inside the file, Taylor finds a photo of Chrystul. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
“Numerous home videos recorded by the suspect of him having sex with numerous females. … Most appear to be in their teenage years from 14 to 17 years old.”
She kept flipping, and then she was shouting.
“Twelve? Twelve? Come on, man, 12 years old? Little kids? They ain’t even in their teens?”
She turned to another page, listing the child sexual assault charges against Volar.
“So why,” she yelled, “are we here?”
There were dozens more pages, and on one, she saw a copy of a photo. It was a still image from a video.
Taylor started flipping through the pictures, searching for one face in particular. And then, she found it.
There was her daughter, her arms wrapped around her body, smiling at the camera.
Taylor holds artwork Chrystul created and mailed to her from prison. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
In December, Chrystul went before the judge again.
“The court,” Wilk announced, “is satisfied that a blanket affirmative defense to all acts leads to an absurd result.”
He decided: Chrystul did not have access to the affirmative defense law for trafficking victims. In his view, neither would other trafficking victims charged with violent crimes.
Johnson plans to appeal the ruling — a process that could delay the jury trial for months. Chrystul returned to jail, where she is still trying to figure out how to pass the time.
Sleeping gives her night terrors. Seeing a counselor makes her agitated. Calling home only works when her mom can pay to answer the calls.
Drawing, Chrystul says, is what makes her feel like herself. This fall, she spent weeks working on a board game of her own creation with a colorful, winding road like the one in Candy Land. She called it “Jail Land.”
With two friends, Chrystul molded and colored dried toothpaste into game pieces shaped like a book, a pack of cigarettes and a bag of money. As the pieces moved down the road, they met opportunities and obstacles: church, Alcoholics Anonymous, a padded cell. Chance cards let a player jump forward or sent them to “the hole.”
Players who made it to the end of the road went free. Each time Chrystul played the game, she made sure to reach the end.
For weeks, she kept working to make the board more colorful, adding more pieces and trying to find other inmates who wanted to play. And then, she was moved to another unit. Almost all of her belongings she said, were thrown away or left behind.
She hasn’t bothered drawing the game again.
Instead, she uses her small supply of paper to send letters to her supporters, including a 29-year-old white man who read about her case and wrote to her from another Wisconsin prison. Their letters have become so frequent that Chrystul has started calling him her boyfriend. She knows he is serving time for the charge he pleaded guilty to in 2011: child enticement.
He told her the crime was the result of a misunderstanding. He is scheduled to be released next year, but will remain a registered sex offender. Chrystul says he is going to marry her.
Chrystul’s mother and members of Volar’s family watch her walk through the courtroom during her November hearing. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Susan Berger, in Kenosha, Wis., contributed to this report
Jessica Contrera is a reporter on The Washington Post’s local enterprise team. She writes about people whose lives are being transformed by the major events and issues in the news.
About this story
Editing by Lynda Robinson. Photos by Sarah L. Voisin. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Video editing by Amber Ferguson. Copy editing by Whitney Juckno. Design and development by Brandon Ferrill.