RIALTO, Calif. (KABC) --
A human trafficking victim who spent 22 years wrongly imprisoned for murder is now helping to free others from modern day slavery.
Maria Suarez, who now resides in Rialto, is a counselor. She shares her story everyday, hoping to put a face on the often private hell that is human trafficking.
"It's a miracle for me today being alive," Suarez said.
She grew up in Mexico and came to the United States as a teenager. Suarez says she thought she was being hired as a housekeeper, but it turns out she was sold for $200 as a sex slave to Azusa resident Anselmo Covarrubias.
"He said if I tell my family what he had done to me, he will kill my family," Suarez said.
Investigators say he physically, sexually and emotionally abused Suarez.
"It's just like living one day at a time to see if you wake up the next day because you can be killed at night," Suarez said.
After several years of abusing Suarez, Covarrubias was killed by a neighbor, but that neighbor pointed the blame at Suarez.
"Due to all the damage that I had emotionally, I was very disturbed. I did not defend myself, I did not say anything," she said.
Suarez was then arrested and convicted of first-degree murder.
"To be honest with you, I felt secure in prison and in jail," Suarez said. "I felt like he couldn't get me in there anymore."
While behind bars, Suarez learned English and studied her case closely. She found out that her original attorney was so bad, he was disbarred.
"I always knew that it was freedom for me. When? I didn't know when," Suarez said.
She teamed up with new legal representation and was granted parole by then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Advocates lobbied for Suarez to be granted the first ever special visa for a victim of human trafficking, allowing her to avoid deportation. Her sanctuary was granted.
"It feels like it's a dream, this is a dream," Suarez said.
Suarez wants to share the lessons she's learned with more people and has founded a non-profit called the Maria Suarez Foundation.
"If I can save one person that will be wonderful," Suarez said. "I used to dream about this long tunnel, long, long, and I see this light at the end. About fighting about human trafficking, I also see that light. We're gonna do it."
The launch of the Maria Suarez Foundation will be held at Loyola Law School Wednesday night. For more information, visit http://mariasuarez.org/.
Q: So you were telling us the dream that sustained you.
A: Yeah, I used to always like I dreamt that I was in a tunnel. You know a tunnel that starts with the big ring, huh, and it's so far, so far away. I used to like uh, little dot of light and um, that was my freedom to me. Every time that I had that dream, I knew that was my freedom.
Q: Did you ever lose your, you were saying that your dreams were crushed when you were a slave. When you were a slave did you ever, then did you ever lose hope that you would get away from him.
A: um, no I didn't and I did. Because I have no way out. I just, I used to pray a lot. I thought God had forgotten me. I asked him why, why, I used to ask him give me a sign, show me something that I can see, I can feel, I can touch, to know that you're giving me a sign that I'm going to be okay, my family's going to be okay if I leave this house. I always ask. I remember spending nights crying and praying on my knees. And it was very, I did lost faith in God. When I chose words. I feel like he forgot me, because I was begging for him to show me a sign, just a something to be able to get out of there and save my family and um, I never felt that, I never, the only thing I felt was fear. Fear all the time, so I figured God has forgotten me. I used to ask God, why did you forget about me, I'm your child. And uh, I keep on going like that, day after day, day after day. Um, you know, he, after I reach 18, he sent me to work in the factory and I was bringing my check , so in a lot of times I was just wanting to die, just die. That was my only way out. I didn't want to provoke my own death, but I was wanting to die. And I one time I said, If I stay in the bathroom and I work in here, and then the next day I do the same thing, you know, my mind was kind of like a wanting to stay there and not come out so he can't find me. But it was not a way because one day I stayed until the last person there and they go in and check in the bathroom. And then he was checking and found me in there and he goes, we're closing. So I got out of there. And I did that and I knew it was not going to be a way. So at the end I was just living, just living, okay, one more day. As long as I can last, either he's going to kill me or I'm going to die.
Q: Now what you're telling me is so horrifying, but it actually gets even worse. How did you end up in prison?
A: The way how I end up in prison was because he had a house in back of the house. He rented. He had other people renting. But at this time he rented to a young couple. He tried to pursue the wife. He was trying to get to do witchcraft to them and the house inside. He was opening the house and going inside. And doing things. Uh, he put so much rage on this young guy because he was instigating between them two. One day he killed him. He killed him and I hear the noise. I came out. The victim was on the floor, the ground. And so I just felt like something sweep me up from my feet and I was on air. And the only thing I remember of that, it's the like, I said, he told me to grab the stick and put it under the house, I did that. He gave it to me in my hand and I did it. I put the stick under the house. I did it. I didn't know anything else but to follow rules, commands and I did that. So when the police came, he got killed in there, so my sister. I don't even know if I called my family or how my family got there. But my family got there and the police was there. My family, my sister took me with her, but I was like zombie. And she said I didn't talk, I didn't want to eat, I couldn't sleep and I just was very fearful, thinking that he was coming to get me. I got arrested and I when I got arrested, I felt the same way, that he was coming to get me. I was not at peace, I felt that he was going to come and get me. I spent one year in county fighting my case, while I was fighting my case, I didn't know what was going on. I didn't understand the terms of law. Attorney law. I didn't understand, I didn't speak English, I didn't understand what they were saying. Um, my family didn't know anything about laws or attorneys either, so they got ripped off with the attorneys. The attorney that represent me, he was disbarred and he was using someone else's bar number to fight my case. He was insecure. I'm not sure if he's selling and using drugs, or just selling. I don't know exactly. But he had his own bill to fight while he was fighting my case. He promised my family that I was going to be free by Christmas. I never got free. I was sentenced to 25 to life. That was the worse, besides what happened before to me and then that, it was just like another um, shot to my family, they were like, what's going on in here. And um, I went to prison to do 25 to life and I ended up doing 22 and a half. Then I did another 5 months and 7 days when I was released from state, INS picked me up and I did 5 months and 7 days.
Q: I read that the newspapers reported that the neighbors said that you didn't have anything to do with the aggravation. Even the people that went to jail for it said that you didn't do it. But at first did they say you did do it? How did that work out?
A: Remember when they, when they felt in the hot chair, that's how I feel now. They felt that they need to blame someone in order for them to be safe. And I didn't have, I didn't felt that I done anything wrong, so I didn't say anything. So they say whatever they want to say. I keep saying no, no. So after all when they got, they didn't do time or anything, they finally said that I didn't have anything to do. Because like I told, when the parole members used to come see me for the parole hearing, they were wanting me to say that I was guilty. They mistreat me. They were wanting for me to say yes, I did this, yes I did that. And I was not going to say anything like that. First thing because they asked me to put my hand on the bible and told me to swear that I was going to tell them the truth. Second thing because it was not the truth that they were wanting to hear from me. They were wanting me to lie to them. And third thing, I'm glad I never did that. Because after so many years, they did um, an investigation, did an investigation on my case. And they find out that I haven't done what they said that they were wanting me to say. That even the victim family didn't want him, they said they didn't want him killed. Two of them said that they knew that their father was bad. And the daughter said that she's just in the middle. But a lot of people were very against him. They went in and interviewed people at my job and asked them if they knew me, how I look, how I was and they told them. So they find out that I've been telling them the truth and because of that, my last parole hearing, they totally changed on me, the parole members. They didn't mistreat me anymore.
Q: Charles [the attorney from The Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking based in Los Angeles] said that when he met you that you were looking for just a little bit of justice after all of this. After all you've went through, what are you looking for?
A: for people to believe in me. Justice.
Q: Because for all those years, you held true to yourself.
A: Yeah. I told him that I , I felt um, I just want somebody to listen. To believe in me. And to know that I been telling the truth, and uh, just a little but if justice, that's what I told him. I just was wanting to get out of there. I felt that I have done more than enough time because if I had something to pay for it, I did, more than enough. It was just the fact that people believed in what I said. That I have been telling them the truth and the truth was what I had told them and uh, I felt a lot of, I felt neglected by a lot of people. Not people in, but people in the law and parole members and things like that, because they had a power of just saying, okay, we're going to look for this case and they didn't. and not adding all that I went through. I was not adding that, just running to them to hurry and I want to be free. I just want a chance. I just want an opportunity. But I'm not going to go out and do like just go crazy, I'm going to be a normal person. I think I can feel society and I think I can be an assess to society, to people who needs me in here. Better than what I was doing in there.
Q: You actually accomplished a lot when you were in prison.
A: Yeah, I did a lot of things while I was there. And while I was there, I figure, I'm not going to be here one year or two, I'm going to be longer. Just by hearing stories about other people. Uh, I chose to use my time productively, I chose to be a better person and uh, to work on better myself, not to get worse. And I just was wanting to show the outside that not because I was in prison, I was going to be admirable. I was going to be a decent human being. And I had a family who every time that I did something good that I share my good experiences, they were very happy. That was my payback. To see how happy they used to get when I got my GED, when they hear me speaking English, when I used to write them in English, even though it was hard for them to understand, but I was going to show them that I was doing something. Then when I started my jobs, because after I got my GED, it's like um, no more, it's not more for me until I go to University there. They have university there. Professors used to come in there and teach us. So I took classes from university. I learned a lot of trades. I learned computer, the basics, I learned how to work with people, I did, I work with people a lot. I work in an office and at the same time my free time, I work with people, I was teaching people, learning the basics in English. I teach people, I was HIV educated, I got involved in that because it was a lot of education that people needs to know and be aware of certain things and not to put the people with that disease down. But they need love, they need help, they need care. Not because they have the disease, we're going to put them in the corner and just forget about them. They are also human beings. And we don't know, I could be next in having Aids. We never know. It can be not the way how it is supposed to be, an open cut, from an open cut I can get it. And um, I just feel a lot of compassion for people who are ill and elderly people. I work with doctors, with people who are mentally distraught and I get so much joy from doing that. I felt the need to be there. It was, I felt that I couldn’t be without those ladies. I use to go on my days off just to go and check on them. Saturday and Sunday were my days off from there. I used to go and play music for them , just to lift their spirits up because it was they felt better. Every Friday, are you going to come in tomorrow, are you going to come Sunday? And it was, it's like I look forward to see them.
Q: When you talk about your time in prison, and how you did make use of this time, you are such a survivor, do you see anything positive that came out of all of these experiences, which just honestly sound beyond horrible.
A: Positive things is that I'm still sitting here in front of you, I have my family with me, I have a lot of people around me who have been supporting me, helping me in different ways. They don't know me, they just hear about me, they haven't never, not even shake hands, not a word, but they believe in me. Their support, their caring, just their wanting to help, means a lot to me and that's positive. And I will keep that forever because why I'm sitting here today is because of all of those people, who are positive towards me and that is what I get.
Q: Tell me, now you got , you did all this time, you got an early parole which is not very early, then you get to walk out free, right? or did you get taken someplace else. Tell me what happened.
A: My freedom. I owe my freedom to all the people, but the main pieces of this puzzle is two people in there, who changed, my attorney, Charles, Jessica and of course my niece, was the straw in the whole pot, yes
Q: So you thought you were going to go free from prison, right? but didn't they pick you up and take you someplace else? That just seems beyond unfair
A: I was there in, while I was waiting, they told me that I was going to receiving, which is called where we go in and out of prison. And they told me I was going to wait for INS to pick me up. It was 9, 10, 11, I think it was 11, I was praying, I was saying, if they don't show up, I'm just going to go walk up the hill, please do something. And then at the end, I said, do your will, not mine. You know what you're doing. And I got busy with the officers, working and helping them and then they show up. So they came and they pick me up . but then the time that I did in INS, it was not in vain, I did something productive in there. I had people who I was helping, I also was wanting to start my classes in there. I did my aerobics in there, I took English with certain people, the ones that were willing. I was, I had put my mind on that, that I was going to help them.
Q: Now tell me, what did CAST, how did you first become affiliated with CAST and how has CAST helped you?
A: CAST, I got to know CAST by Jessica, my attorney. She has this um, way of knowing people around her. I don't know how she knew Charles, but she send him to me and that is how I got to know CAST. And CAST became my family. It's part of my family. It's, I actually come and see them sometimes 3 times a month, sometimes I can't, sometimes it's one time, but I'm always wanting to see them. It's like part of my family. And they are a family.
Q: Talk to us about Charles
A: You know Charles, when I met him, he, he inspired me about trust. I felt that I was in the right hands, I felt that he was the right one, the same thing when I met Jessica, these are the right people. Eventhough he came and told me one day, he was very quite and he said, Mary, I came to tell you that if you're not happy with me, you can fire me. I looked at him, in my head I said, crazy or what. I didn't tell him that. I just said, fire you, I said, no, I think I told him you're going to stick with me till the end or I don’t' remember what I said, but I say something, because I said I'm very happy with you and I have faith in you and I know you going to do something. I have that trust and that faith in him. Of course god was putting that faith in me, but he was the vehicle that he was using. And I really believe in him. I knew that he was going to do something. Um, not only that he was going to do something,, but the way how he used to listen to me. He felt like me, like a human being. He never treat me like a, he was up here and I was down there. He always treat me like a human being, and that is what he got my trust because he is a very, he is such a beautiful man, there's just no words.
Q: It sounds to me, listening to you talk, that when you were 16, you had a strong sense of intuition, don't go into this house, this house doesn't feel good, and that you over rode your intuition and you spent a lot of time since then to make sure you don't over ride your intuition like you immediately your intuition told you that Jessica was great, the same about Charles, so you learn to really listen to your own heart maybe?
A: Yes, I believe nature, spiritual, my heart and I believe in the heavenly father. And that's , I can tell you why I believe in nature and spiritual. The day that they told me that I was going to be free, a bird came and told me at the window. I was very sad that day and the bird came and with his little beak, knocked the window and I knew I was going to have some good news. And I told the person that was in front of me, I'm going to have some good news today. I didn't know anything. The bird came and confirmed it and came and knocked the window again with his beak. And I said, I'm going to get good news today. We went out and came back it was lunchtime, I was going to sit down at the table and put my plate at the table to eat and they called me, they knocked at the window and they told me. The officer told me to call my attorneys. She usually say my attorney, that day she say attorneys.
Maria: So I was going to sit down and they told me to call my attorney's. And I said, my attorney's, he said yeah, you have attorney's. I said, yeah, well but isn't an attorney a specific one? He said no, your attorneys. I felt like, from heard to toe, like response, like something is happening, something is happening. I couldn't talk in the cafeteria because it was very noisy. I wanted to call my attorneys, but I didn't know which one to call first, so I called Charles. Charles was very nervous and I noticed that he was nervous. I have something to tell you, but I can't till I connect with Jessica and he was trying to do the three way, and I was from there, so then we got Jessica, Jessica was quiet, like, so I said what happened, and uh, and they told me you got approved. Your TB says approved. I just start crying, screaming, yelling, laughing and jumping. And then they tell me not to tell anyone. I'm going to keep it a secret. I couldn't hold it. And then at the moment someone comes to the room and sees me crying and laughing and screaming and she comes and are you okay, are you okay. I couldn't help it, I said, I'm going home, I'm going home. I said, but don't say anything. So four people in the dorm knew I was going home. Only four. They kept the secret like it was the only thing. Like it was theirs. Then later on, they call me in and they no, you're going home tomorrow. I said oh my god, I haven't eat since Saturday. Cause I was not feeling and I hadn't been able to sleep, so it was heavy, everything was very hard for me. And then we had a very nice staff, I couldn't hold it, I went and told her, I'm getting out tomorrow. I told her lets pray together, so everything in here stays good, because sometimes it's very rowdy and crazy, so I told her to pray for the peace and for me to go well, so we did.
Q: So I've seen the picture of you walking out, it's a fabulous picture, Nadia sent it to me, that is the greatest picture, what was going through your head and heart right then?
A: I, you know, I was wanting to hug everybody. I see my family, I see my friends, I see all these people and I just was wanting to hug everybody. But I think it was so many things, I couldn't believe it and free, fresh air or free air or however you want to call it, got into my brain, that I just felt like I keep walking, but I felt that it's like, like a balloon, when instead it's air, it's water, well I felt like water was in me and I couldn't move. I was very, I felt heavy, I felt like somebody was pulling my legs down. And I was starting to walk and I was feeling a lack of oxygen. And it was very emotional uh, very heavy for me, emotional heavy.
Q: So how are you today, what's your life like today?
A: Today is getting up, getting ready to go to school or getting ready to get or eat breakfast with my family, my sisters, sometimes one of my sisters comes and visit us and we have breakfast, I love fruit, so we cut fruit. I love rice, just rice with no milk cooked, then I put the milk, oatmeal. Or a piece of toast, just eating breakfast.
Q: And you're going to school, so what do you want to do with your school?
A: I want to get um, I want to get some more units. The first thing I was to get my AA degree. Cause I'm anxious to get my AA degree. I have enough units, but I want to raise my GPA, so that is what's holding me. I want to master in something that I really love to do, which is working with people. I would love to work with teenagers, I would love to work with teenagers. And people who needs me, mentally ill peoples is also my passion. I think they need special care and love. Um, I want to be a social worker, either a counselor or psychologist.
Q: What would you say to people who are trapped in slavery like you were. If you could give people a message, what would it be?
A: It would be that they, they still be loved, even though people don't know what they're going through. They're loved, they're human beings, and they need to find a way to send a message, what they're going through. It's not easy to get out, this is from experience, but to find a way to get out of there, it's a lot of help, it's a lot of people out here who's helping and willing to give them the best. Help them to get out of slavery, because they cannot be like that. It's not for people. If we treat animals so good, why are we treating human beings like that? They don't deserve to be treated like that. And people who are doing that, I don't know how they can live with their conscious. I don't even know if they have conscious or they have heart, or their muscle, cold heart can have love for human beings.
Q: What do you hope and pray and dream for now?
A: To have strength to keep my family strong, healthy, all my people around , my loved ones and to accomplish my goals.
Q: Charles said you were looking for a little bit of justice, did you ever get it?
A: I'm touching it, feeling it, I'm living it. I think finally something is happening to my way, and I'm 45, but I believe I'm 16. I'm starting to live my life. I had my first birthday in this world and I couldn't believe it, all my family calling me, singing happy birthday, everybody wanted to have a party for me, everyone was wanting me to be in their house, and um, I felt like cutting myself in pieces and sending a piece everywhere. The way how they, they care for me, I feel it so deep inside of me, that I knew I was missed and I know that even though I was so far away from them, because the walls, not in distance, but the walls that divide us. I was in their lives, I was in their hearts, I was in their daily life and they always had me in there with them.
Q: Can you stay now? Are you a ok now? Or are there ongoing things for you to get your permanent residency and green card?
A: I'm still on T Visa. That's, but my legal case is another issue.
Q: Anything else, anything I've missed, anything you'd like to add?
A: I just want to say that CAST is a wonderful program. Wonderful program. That if somebody is in the situation that I was, any kind of slave trafficking, they just need to get in touch with CAST and they will feel like me, I feel like a new person. I actually, I can do, decide whatever I want. I can choose what food I want to eat. I can choose what kind of clothes. I can chose where I want to go. And do everything. I can choose I can have my hair down.
Q: How long were you away from your family, between the slavery, between the prison and then the INS?
A: Almost 28 years , for a couple of months. Almost 28 years.
Q: Do you have a love in your life since you got out?
Q: How long since you got out?
A: on the 25th of this month, it'll be a year.
Q: How old are you Maria?
Q: Maria, can we start off with you just telling us a little bit about your story? Where’d you grow up, what was that like, how’d you end up in LA?
A: How, the way how I grew up, I grew up in a village. It was uh, around, between 500 or 700 people. And it was, uh, most of the people in there was family; cousins, my grandpa, my uncles, everybody was family. Uh, so it was a very, very nice life, for me, growing up with my parents, on the farm, with my brothers and sisters.
Q: What did you dream of when you were a little girl, did you, when you looked forward at your life, you know how we all think we’re gonna do different things” What did, did you dream?
A: When I was a little girl I, I saw my parents working hard, my dad, my mother, and my dream was to one day have, become somebody have money and give them the best of the life; treat them like king and queen
Q: So you really wanted to take care of your parents?
A: I always wanted to take care of my parents, that was my dream.
Q: Um, so when you were a little girl, you wanted to do what?
A: I was wanting to take care of my parents, help them out with everything and to treat them like a queen and a king.
Q: And then how did you come to be in the LA area? How old were you, how’d you get here?
A: I was gonna be 15, I was gonna be 16, I was 15. And, my father came to this country.
Q: So you came to LA. What was that about? You came to live with your family? You came to do what? Talk to us about that.
A: Actually, I didn’t come to live in here. I came just with my dad. He came to get his residential card, and I came with him. And uh, then, uh he left, I stayed here, but I, it was not my plans to stay here. I was wanting to go back to my parents, to my mother, my dad, together. So I stood, I stood here with my sister, and...
Q: Okay, so it wasn’t your intention to move here?
A: It was not my intention to come and live in here. Ya know, I thought I was gonna go back with my dad. And uh, I, he left after 2 weeks. And I stayed here with my sister.
Q: And then what happened?
A: And then, probably about um, I was about um, a month later, after 2 weeks, and then another two weeks, um, that’s when I got a job offer, offering a job to me, from this woman that I didn’t know. She offered me a job, and, uh, you know, coming from my country where it’s a village, and people offering you a job, it was like, wow! I’m gonna get a job! I’m gonna have a job, and uh, I believed her, I thought it was real, it was a job. But it was not a job. It was just um, a trick, a trap that I fell into. Um, she told me that, if I was wanting a job,
Q: I told her, yes! I want a job, and uh, she chose um, I told, she told me it was a chance to clean and it was with, I didn’t even ask how much they were going to pay or anything. And she told me not to tell my family, that she was coming very soon, and to me, it sound good because I said I was going to surprise them with job. And uh, she didn’t show up for another, probably a week or so. I forgot about it; I thought she just came and say something like that, I just forgot about it. Then later on, she came back again. I can’t remember if it was a week or two or less. And then she came and, and asked me, it was around the evening, she asked me if I still wanted a job, and I said “Yes. I want the job.” And, she told me to um, to go and meet the people.
My sister was working, I was at the house by myself, my brother in law was from work, so I was gonna go and tell him that I was gonna go to this place, but she told me not to do anything, told me just let’s go, we’re coming very soon. Um, I kind of didn’t want it, but at the same time, I, she said I was gonna be soon, figured it was gonna be quick coming back, so I went with her, and uh, she took me to the place, and it felt forever to get to the house. It was, by then I didn’t know the area still I was new, and I just knew how to get to my niece’s school and, to the store, you know, just a few things. Around the little area. So she took me all the way to Azuza. I was living in Sierra Madre and and they in Azuza. So it was a long drive. But um, it felt like it was, the longest drive.
Because it was a stranger, we were gonna go and meet somebody that I didn’t know, and it was gonna be a job. So when we got there, I met this man. He was an old man. Probably he was in his 65 or 70, I don’t know. And uh, when I met him, he was with a big smile. They say
“Hi”. And uh, she introduced me with him. It was kind of nice, but at the same time, when we were working in the house, the house was like, uh, creepy, like, you don’t wanna be there. But I didn’t follow my instinct. I didn’t. And I should have followed my instinct.
They um tell me to sit on the couch, I sit down, they went back to the and uh, they talk. I don’t know what they about it. They came back and I’m, ready to go back. I’m ready to go back to my house, and I tell them I wanna go back to my house. She chose uh, he told me not to go, stay there, and start working. I didn’t wanna stay there. They keep telling me, you stay here. You meet my wife, cause he had a wife. And then, I take you to your house tomorrow. I didn’t want to, but, between them two, they convinced me. So, they told me to call my sister. I called my sister, but the funny thing was, the um, the phone had a, a lock. It was one of those little phones that had a lock.
I didn’t know that there was a lock, I didn’t know that uh, that was for a purpose in there. So, he removed that thing from the phone, and he let me call my sister. When I called my sister, she asked me, she didn’t want for me to stay there. She goes “No, you’re coming home.” And I told her, I explained to her it’s an, an old couple, elderly couple and uh, she’s not here, she’s coming and I explained to her, everything, and uh, she asked me for address, for the phone, for the names. And the man keep saying, I take you tomorrow. Tell her that I take you tomorrow. And he just keep saying things like that. So my sister didn’t want it for me to stay there. She kept telling me to come home and I don’t want you to stay there.
So finally, she got convinced. Okay, you’re coming tomorrow. I said, “yeah, I’m coming tomorrow.” That tomorrow never came, never came til a year ago, a year ago I came home. Yeah.
Her story is heartbreaking and inspiring. Read for yourself below or see Maria's compelling story. She was interviewed for the film, ''Dreams Die Hard''.
Interview from: https://www.freetheslaves.net/page.aspx?pid=369