‘All I could do was scream': Leslie King, survivor of trafficking, has criminal record pardoned by Whitmer

Leslie King’s attorneys at Warner Norcross + Judd believe she may be the first human trafficking survivor to receive a gubernatorial pardon, which cleared her criminal record.
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Posted at 8:26 PM, Jan 10, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-10 21:44:24-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Leslie King still can’t believe her record is clear. She and her attorneys tried for years to get her record expunged, considering she hadn’t been arrested in over two decades.

“I kept getting rejected because of the severity of my record. So, just like to me, it was just no hope,” King said during an interview with FOX 17 on Tuesday afternoon. “And that was one part of my life that I was trying to repair. I’ve repaired so many things and that was the only thing that was left.”

Two weeks ago, it was repaired with a single phone call, she said.

“I was sitting in my office at my desk, doing some work, and I received a phone call and it was someone for the governor’s office. She asked me my name and she said ‘Leslie, Gov. Whitmer has granted you a pardon,’" Leslie said with tears filling her eyes. “All I could do was scream.”

Leslie cried that day. She still does.

She said the pardon was made possible with the help of the Jospeh Project and her attorney Madelaine C. Lane at Warner Norcross + Judd LLP. She said they’ve collectively worked over the last two years to get her record expunged. When that didn’t work, they sought a pardon.

“You got to go through a lot of hoops,” Leslie recalled. “Then I have to meet with certain people from the parole board and my record thrown back up and so many questions. It was intimidating and it was a lot.”

Leslie said her criminal record began at 15 years old when she was forced into human trafficking on Division Avenue.

Leslie, a Grand Rapids native, said she was born into a dysfunctional home and was a runaway child. Then she met a man who became her “knight in shining armor.” He comforted her and bought her new clothes and took her to bars, until one day he made her have sex with someone.

“I’m looking for my man, the guy who says he loves me, ‘nobody would ever hurt me,’ and he standing up [and] he looked like Satan himself,” Leslie said. “Then he just called me out my name and told me to get his money. So, when the act was done, he grabbed my hair, threw me in the car, and took me around to a house where there was more women.”

He then said to Leslie that if she told police, her whole family would be killed. She was trafficked, which then led to a life of crime for 20 years, she said.

“I had a quota I had to make. I traveled the United States, state to state, city to city, selling myself. If I didn’t make what I was supposed to make, I would get beaten,” Leslie said. “I had some CCWs — carrying a concealed weapon — on my record. I was made to carry pistols, icepicks, whatever. If he had drugs, I was made to carry those too.”

Leslie also had a few assaults on her record, she said.

She was able to get away from her pimp after he was sent to prison. However, in July 2000, she tried to take her own life.

“I remember vividly as I’m dying and I felt my heart just, I screamed with all that I had and I said ‘if there’s a God in heaven, if you’re real, help me now,'” Leslie said. “It’s hard for me to describe what I felt. But the hug that I received as a child, I felt that.”

Leslie said she felt a supernatural hug. She then called her mom who immediately picked her up. She went home, ate, bathed, and slept. When she woke up, she put herself into detox.

“I actually fought for my life,” Leslie said. “And I had to go back and meet little Leslie, that little wounded girl. I had to go back and work on those issues.”

She did.

Leslie began repairing relationships, and started attending Grand Valley State University, pursuing a degree in social work. However, she stopped when she learned that her record hindered her from getting a license.

“I just felt defeated,” Leslie said. “I just felt very defeated. I’m like 'why I should even continue going to school, paying all this money when I can’t have the dream that I want which is to become a licensed master social worker?'”

So, she founded Sacred Beginnings, a drop-off site for survivors like herself, getting them connected to women’s shelters and resources. She also began advocating for justice for other survivors. In 2019 she traveled down to Nashville to rally for Cyntoia Brown, a survivor who was convicted of murdering her pimp at 16 years old. Later that year, the Tennessee governor granted Brown clemency.

However, throughout the years, Leslie ultimately longed to have her record cleared. Now that that’s happened, she said she’s forever grateful to Whitmer for setting her free.

And, she is ready to go back to school.

“My life is complete. I feel whole. I feel whole,” Leslie said with emphasis. “That little dark secret part it’s no longer there. I know God has forgiven me. But I feel like society has forgiven me also. I’m free to pursue any career that I want to pursue, any dream that I have and nothing can stop me.”