PRINCETON — EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story comes from an interview with a reformed prostitute who used to work Mercer Street in Princeton. Due to the nature of the story, the Daily Telegraph has agreed to protect the identity of the woman by not using her last name.
A runaway from Ringgold, Ga., Catrina traveled up the East Coast, looking for a place to hide from an abusive family situation. She met a man who promised to take her to Princeton. She was 15 years old.
“I decided to settle there after being informed that it was not illegal to run away in West Virginia, therefore I could not be extradited as I had so many times before. What I discovered there was a drug culture that paled in comparison to any other I have ever seen to this day. I spent the latter half of my teenage years under the wing of drug dealers, drug users, prostitutes and thieves,” she said.
Now 35, Catrina, a bride-to-be, lives in Tennessee. She is a student at Chattanooga State and is majoring in human services. A drug court graduate, she has been clean for three years. But she will never forget her time in Princeton. She wants people to open their eyes to the problems and issues surrounding Mercer Street and prostitution. “A lot of people look at the girls walking down Mercer Street and they see trash. They see the bad in people but I want people who live there to know that underneath all of the dirt, the drugs, and the sad eyes, there may very well be a strong, independent, loving and caring woman who is literally dying to get out,” Catrina said.
She didn’t intend to become a prostitute. She left the man who brought her to West Virginia.
“I decided to leave him so I started walking down Mercer Street. I was approached by a man who kept circling the blocks and I thought he wanted to help me. He put me in his car and he wouldn’t let me out. He took me to a hotel in the mountains somewhere and I escaped from him the next morning by running to the hotel office and calling the police,” Catrina said.
She was placed in a runaway shelter, but left. She went back to Mercer Street and met Jeff Meadows, who was later found guilty of murdering Princeton resident Heidi Brown in 2005. Meadows took her in and gave her a place to stay.
He also gave her a lot of drugs, she said. Catrina stayed with Meadows for years, often leaving Princeton, always coming back. When she turned 18 she got a job at a strip club. She also accepted $1,000 from a lawyer out of Roanoke, Va. It was her first act of prostitution.
“After being kicked out of all the strip clubs for heavy drug use, I turned to Mercer Street and prostitution thinking I could make that kind of money. I found out quickly that I could not. But I was so addicted to opiates by that time, in my eyes, I had no choice but to succumb to the lifestyle,” she said.
Catrina was arrested once or twice in Princeton, but went back to prostitution. She recalls the violence and abuse on the streets — of being raped at gunpoint, robbed, beaten and left in the middle of nowhere. She was also friends with Adrianna Vaught, a woman who was murdered by Floyd DeGraw in 1993."The situation with Adrianna Vaught was the closest call I had ever had.
If I had not been arrested and extradited, it would likely been me who was stabbed to death when Floyd DeGraw crawled in our apartment,” Catrina said.
Catrina was devastated when her friend Meadows was accused of murder. But looking back, she said she realized his behavior toward women was not normal. Recently, she heard another girl who walked Mercer Street passed away.
“This breaks my heart and I just hope and pray with all my strength that the women who walk the streets today are somehow given the same opportunity that I was,” Catrina said.
Around 2002, she left Princeton for Tennessee and found herself facing a three-year prison sentence for aggravated prostitution. Drugs once again took her body and mind. She said she called on God.
“I told Him maybe a prison time was what I needed in order to be relieved of the overwhelming desire to use,” she said.
She spent seven months in jail and when the DA offered her a chance of drug court, she took it.
She spent 28 days in in-patient rehab and then transferred to a halfway house. She chose to stay at the house for a year and a day. She went to Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous meetings and started college on court orders.
“I don’t know if anyone has ever been ordered by the court to go to college before, but it was the single greatest thing anyone has ever done for me,” Catrina said.
She said her life has changed drastically since her days on Mercer Street. “I am a daughter of a loving God and I know that now. The main difference between me and the girls who walk Mercer Street today is that they are unable to feel the love from God through the ever-thickening veil of drugs and prostitution,” Catrina added.
She believes prostitution has become part of the culture on Mercer Street. “Something has to be done to help these women,” she said. “Laws need to be enforced. There needs to be mandatory rehabilitation for these women. Aside from drug addiction, these women suffer from a history of abuse and neglect. These women need rehabilitation, a stable environment, a supportive atmosphere and job placement.”
When she lived in Princeton, she said no one reached out to help. “There were no organizations that I knew of that were designed to specifically help prostitutes,” she said. “The soup kitchen on Mercer Street was a big help when I was hungry, and the Salvation Army was a big help because I could afford their clothes, but as far as someone helping me specifically to get off the streets, there was no one.”
In Chattanooga, she said church women would bring bottled water and pray for many of the prostitutes on the street. Now, Catrina is bringing the same support to her hometown.
She knows it is a challenge and not all women will commit to a program. But she believes the root of the issue is the drug problem.
“There needs to be harsher laws for drug sales and possession. The laws concerning prostitution need to be strengthened. Start putting pictures of all the johns in newspapers and on the news. I guarantee that men will think twice about picking up a prostitute. Around 90 percent of my clientele were married, successful men,” she said.
When she graduates from college, Catrina would like to be a drug and alcohol counselor. She is also interesting in working with women who are caught up in prostitution.
“One thing I would like the girls walking on Mercer Street to know is that I love them and I pray for them and there is hope,” she said.