Home Cops Who’s The Victim: The Tragedy of Latesha Clay

Who’s The Victim: The Tragedy of Latesha Clay

Latesha Clay cries at her sentencing. (Screenshot from MLive video of the sentencing.)
Latesha Clay cries at her sentencing. (Screenshot from MLive video of the sentencing.)

Content warning: This piece contains general discussion of child sexual abuse.

Reading about the plight of Latesha Clay, the child in Grand Rapids, MI sentenced to nine years in prison after being used as live bait in a robbery scheme, the thing that struck me was the use of the word “victim.” Of course, referring to Latesha Clay as a victim of human trafficking and the rampant racism of the criminal justice system makes sense. However, in this case, the 15-year-old mother is being painted as a villain. Every time I’ve seen the word “victim” used in relation to Latesha Clay, it’s been used to describe the men who responded to her Backpage ad, which featured the words “teen sex.”

To give you a quick rundown, in case you haven’t been exposed to this case in the media (and how could you have been? Almost all the coverage on it features the same news story that ran last October on a local crime blotter), Latesha Clay was used by two older teenagers, Trayvin Donnell Lewis, 18, and Monee Duepre Atkinson, 17, to lure men to their motel room. Both Lewis and Atkinson await criminal convictions, and like Clay, have both been charged as adults, though legally only Lewis is no longer a minor. Charging Black children as adults for crimes less severe than their white juvenile counterparts have committed is nothing new, but it is especially disheartening in the case of Clay, who, at 15, is a long ways off from adulthood.

Mlive, the website that initially ran her story, asserts that a man came to a hotel room expecting to have sex with a teenager. Upon arrival, he was greeted by Clay, who took the agreed upon payment and stepped aside. Lewis allegedly then came forward brandishing what investigators later said was an Airsoft pistol with the orange tip removed—not even a real firearm. He ordered him to the ground and requested the man’s money and cellphone. The older teens then allegedly forced the “victim” to drive to an ATM and withdraw a mere $300 before taking them back to the hotel. The teens also allegedly cleared the history from the victim’s cell phone.

After the man—unharmed except for his pride—called the police, a search of the hotel room turned up the three suspects as well as $650 in cash and the doctored Airsoft gun. Lewis is being charged with possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, even though an Airsoft gun was the only firearm found on premises. All three teenagers were hauled in and interrogated.

Something that stands out starkly in this case is the police department’s total exoneration of the men who were soliciting sex from a teenager over the internet in the first place. Kent County Undersheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young has gone on record assuring “robbery victims” that the department is not focused on investigating them for solicitation of prostitution in this case, urging them to come forward.

Latesha Clay fits the profile for a victim of sex-trafficking—she is under 18, her body was advertised over the internet as available for men to violate, and she appeared to be working with—more likely working for—older men. Clay’s father has been reported to have as many as 32 biological children. Father Theresa of Father Theresa’s Wine Cellar, a social justice news and commentary podcast, speculated that Clay’s father was forcing Latesha to have sex with men for profit. But because the men robbed did not engage in sexual activity with her, she was tried as an adult on armed robbery and unlawful imprisonment charges.

I’ll give you a minute for that to sink in.

Because this child was not raped by the adult men who came to the motel room expecting “teen sex”, she is being charged as an adult for an armed robbery she did not personally commit, an armed robbery that was not even committed with a legitimate firearm. The court system in Michigan decided that Latesha Clay’s freedom was worth a $50,000 bond, but that her body was only worth the $650 recovered in the hotel room. The men who wanted to buy access to an underage girl’s body are the victims. The girl desperately trying to provide for her two young children is the perpetrator.

Kent County Circuit Judge George "Jay" Quist sentencing Clay. (Screenshot from MLive video of the sentencing.)
Kent County Circuit Judge George “Jay” Quist sentencing Clay. (Screenshot from MLive video of the sentencing.)

Although I have an incredible amount of sympathy for Latesha Clay, we have very little in common. I’m childless, ten years her senior, and in possession of both white and class privilege. Had I become pregnant at the age Latesha did, my whiteness would have made me the victim of a horrible crime. I would have been offered an abortion and counseling. Clay wasn’t offered any counseling for the trauma of being sexually abused and impregnated at the age of 11. In fact, she was impregnated again a year later at the age of 12. It’s not clear whether she was offered the option to terminate her pregnancies, but the state of Michigan requires the written parental consent of one parent for abortion, or, failing that, a judicial bypass. It’s unlikely that Clay, with her probably sexually abusive father, would have been able to manage that.

Latesha Clay and I share one thing in common, though: I was an escort at 15 as well. I didn’t have anyone to provide for. I lived in a middle-class neighborhood, in my parent’s house, and never had to wonder where my next meal was coming from. All of the money I made when I was having sex with adult men at 15 was spent on cocaine, clothes, makeup, and marijuana.

I mention this to tell you that I was objectively more of a criminal than Clay, yet I never saw the inside of a courtroom. I was approached a few times by men hoping to profit off of my labor, but I was never put in a situation so desperate or dangerous that I felt I had to give in to them. I was not in any way a victim of human trafficking. But my own experience with law enforcement on the job was limited to one chance encounter with an officer who decided to wait until my friend and I were naked and belly down on his bed to tell us he knew our full names and where our fathers worked, and that he was letting us off with a warning—after we performed oral sex on him, of course.

Recent stings in some states have arrested men as traffickers in cases where a child victim did not even exist—an undercover officer drew them in by posing as a minor online. The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act asserts that anyone involved in patronizing or soliciting underage sex workers will be charged as a sex trafficker, yet no men who attempted to solicit sex from Clay are being charged with anything at all. Faced with a real victim, confronted with a sexually abused poor child of color, Michigan’s criminal justice system decided not to take Clay’s victimhood seriously. Instead, it sentenced her for it. Under these circumstances, how can we believe in the War on Trafficking’s purported concern for children?

Clay’s mother, Melissa Strickland, started a fundraiser for Clay to hire a new lawyer for her appeal here.


  1. Great article. Clay’s prison sentence is so unfair that it breaks my heart, and I have no idea how any adult with life experience–like, say, a JUDGE–can see a 15-year-old girl with two children as a mendacious predator instead of a vulnerable person who has been FAILED and EXPLOITED by every adult in her orbit (including her “father,” who needs to do the world and himself a favor and slice his dick off).

    And of course institutionalized racism plays a factor in this. I know a white guy who stupidly robbed a 7-11 with a real gun in order to pay back his weed dealer $550 (he got $400 in the robbery; the rest of the cash was in a safe and he was too nervous to wait for it). He was 19. His jail time? Two years, and he was released at 18 months. The DA thought he needed to be punished, but didn’t want to “destroy his future.”

  2. “Criminal” in law, author. Getting drugs at 15 doesn’t make you a real criminal at any age. Decrim for drugs and sex work.

  3. Also calling a child 17 a man is kind of not cool. You can’t call her a child yet call one of the underage BOYS a man. You are falling prey to the same racist story that children of color are adults.

  4. There are obviously some huge issues with this case, involving her race, her age, and so forth, but the gun issue is a non-starter.

    Years ago, as some of the increased penalties for gun use kicked in, miscreants started using fake guns for robberies, thinking they couldn’t be charged with using a gun if it wasn’t a real gun. Legislators worked around that by basically saying that if the victim thought it was a real gun, they’d charge it as a real gun. People have been successfully charged with using a firearm when all they had was a finger gun under a shirt, and I don’t really have a problem with that.

    But other than that, you’re right on target with the issues you’ve raised. Beyond disgusting that Undersheriff LaJoye-Young is ignoring the child sex aspect for the robbery victims.

  5. Multiple pregnancies, abortion, miscarriages is a red flag of human trafficking. Children don’t know the rules if they are never taught. They don’t know what’s appropriate or inappropriate if nobody tells them. How can she be expected to have life figured out at age 15, especially when she was forced to be a mother at 12????? Letesha didn’t sign up for this kind of life. She was born into it; forced into it; she had no choice
    How can a 15 year old put her life on the right road when she is dependent on adults for everything?. Every adult in her life, every professional in her light-field her. I’m a 62 year old white woman who was arrested as a child for
    prostitution and Runaway. I thought the cops were my heroes when they finally showed up. They turned out to be the opposite just like with Latesha. r. It takes a community to raise a child, it takes a community to faill them. Has anybody in her life ever been concerned about her future? Child Protective Services? Where were they? There had to be people who saw this girl was totally neglected and be abused. No one stepped in, no one stepped up and no one intervened on her behalf her whole life! What do we expect from our children when we fail them so miserably? My mother was a battered woman herself. my father had post-traumatic stress disorder from the war. the community failed them too. Back in my day human trafficking was unheard of. I suspect latesha and her whole family didn’t have any resources either. I know my parents loved me but no one knew what I was going through they didn’t have any resources or the education either. and no one reach out to them. Educating everybody on human trafficking is the key here. Family, parents, churches, law enforcement, medical staff, schools, without that education We are failing these victims. I was a victim of human trafficking. Even I am learning a lot more about myself and about human trafficking since the anti-human trafficking movement. We need to make a shift from our strong shaming culture before we can get a handle on this thing.education is the key.

  6. Any further word on ways to possibly help/donate for this girl? Heartbreaking. She needs care and support and options, and help with her education and her young children not jail. And deserves to be kept safe from pimps and gross men who answer ads intending to pay to rape underage girls.

  7. As a teen mom, I have several objections to your article.

    First, white girls aren’t all offered abortions when they are found out to be pregnant. Many are told to raise the child, or more often are pressured heavily into adoption, which can be extraordinarily traumatic (mothers love their children, even if they are teen mothers).

    Second, you call the teenage boys in this scam “men” but they are only 17 and 18. It does seem like they used the girl, but you don’t know that yet. In fact, you make a TON of stuff up in your article that is not fact but basically what you think might have happened. You shouldn’t do that when writing news articles, even on a blog.

  8. For one my fathers has 32 kids and I the oldest ain’t no way in hell my father told my sister latesha clay it was fine to have sex for money I was molested at the age of 10 years old when my father found the man that did that to me he beat he ass so therefore I can’t believe he said that to her my father was willing to take a lie detector test to get him clear of saying those things to my Lil sister latesah clay so out of of his daughters why would he tell latesha is fine to have sex for money unbelievable so know im raising my Lil sister latesha’s kids we stick together we are a very close family and I see the media making it worst then want it is about our father and but I do know they gave my Lil sister more time then a murder she could’ve got a Lil time to teach her right from wrong a Lil discipline yes but decades not okay she’s a child did you all see her side noooo y’all just charged her as an adult

  9. 3 things–1) I believe this is the current fundraiser for Latesha Clay: https://www.gofundme.com/27cbahg
    2) The author wasn’t stating sexual abuse by the father as fact, but was quoting another op-ed’s theory on the matter.
    3) Throughout the piece, the author refers to the boys involved in the robbery as “boys,” or “teenagers”, and at one point they refer to Clay and the boys collectively as “Black children.” The one time they refer to “working for older men”, I believe they were talking about the conjecture around the father.


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