Portrait of Tom, by Tim Matsui

Portrait of Tom, by Tim Matsui

He’s a big man, tall and broad in the shoulder, with large hands. They are no longer rough and calloused, like I imagine they were when he was a trucker. The deep huskiness of his voice, a smoker’s, lends itself to the cadence of his speech. Deliberate, thoughtful, and paced so a drag on the cigarette feels natural.

Except that night.

Tom was speaking fast, a fluid stream-of-consciousness monologue. The window to the rental car was cracked, drawing his smoke out into the evening air. Rap played loudly on the satellite radio.

“To be a hunter,” he said, “you need to think like your prey.”

“I hate this music,” he gestured toward the dash, “But I used to listen to it. It’s what they listen to.”

Tom was showing me what he used to do, every day, while his daughter was missing. He would start in Tacoma, amongst the seedy motels and clubs, then drive Highway 99 north until Everett. The old highway changes names along the way; Pacific Highway South, International Boulevard, Aurora. But for many it is just one thing: The Track. It’s where one goes to find prostitutes, and Tom knew his daughter was one.

At 15, Natalie (not her real name) was turned out by a pimp. He first raped her then forced her to work for him; she had sex with men who paid him for the opportunity. Not that it should matter where she came from, but Natalie was from a good home, with loving parents, and she excelled in academics and sports. The point is, this is any girl’s story.

I spent several days with Tom and his family in December; it was emotionally trying for all of us, but we worked through the story of what happened. Natalie said she doesn’t want this to happen to other girls, which is why she shared her story. But it was difficult enough that she’s declared the interview she gave is the only one she’ll do. There was a lot of trust shared and, by the end of the week, I felt like I knew them, and they me.

 

Tom, father of 17 year old "Natalie," a survivor of domestic minor sex trafficking, in the southwest where they relocated after surviving the ordeal. Natalie was sold for sex by a pimp for over three months through the website Backpage.com. (Tim Matsui)

Tom, father of 17 year old "Natalie," a survivor of domestic minor sex trafficking, in the southwest where they relocated after surviving the ordeal. Natalie was sold for sex by a pimp for over three months through the website Backpage.com. (Tim Matsui)

 

While Tom turned to the streets, hunting for his daughter, her mom, Nacole, turned to advocacy. Everyone in the family dealt with it in their own way, she told me.

And so this past spring, they were asked to participate in a fundraiser in Seattle; for Nacole to tell the story of what happened to their family. Which is why Tom and I were speeding south to Tacoma, to the start of his northward cruise along the highway. It was his idea, hatched in the darkness as the fundraiser began.

Tom grew up on the streets and knew what kind of a world his daughter was walking into. He drove the highway, posting pictures of his daughter, stopping at businesses she might visit, scanning the sidewalks. Looking for her.

Tom did this until his rage grew so intense he nearly killed what he thought to be a pimp and a prostitute. Pointing his truck at them and accelerating, he braked hard at the last moment, stopping just in time. And then he hit the bottle, and didn’t find the bottom until months after his daughter returned home.

I worried that driving down the highway, a memory lane of nightmares, would leave Tom in a bad place. What I was witnessing was a character transformation.

Most people would see him as a gentle giant; this is Tom today. But he’s the first to admit he was a different person then, and I was witnessing the change, like a flashback in real time.

Apparently Tom shot some video from one of those nights looking for his daughter. He didn”t remember shooting them, but it was on the tapes he sent. But my editor, Tim McLaughlin at MediaStorm, said they are so visceral, so powerful; they show what a father would do for his daughter.

I was watching Tom become the man he needed to be to look for his youngest child. His daughter. It was intimidating.

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