By Tommy A. Purvis
If Sara Kruzan is the childhood victim of sexual exploitation—why is she being treated like a criminal?
Few can understand the life of horror that led Sara Kruzan to pull the trigger that killed George Gilbert “G.G.” Howard as he was plugging in a sex toy into an electrical outlet inside a Riverside motel in the spring of ’94.
Jurors would later convict her of first-degree murder. But others say Kruzan was the real victim, one who merely took drastic steps to escape the clutches of physical abuse and sexual exploitation.
Howard, Kruzan’s 37-year-old pimp, had been grooming the barely 16-year-old girl—who came from a disastrously broken home—for five years to turn tricks. He became a father figure of sorts, and used violence and sexual assault to control Kruzan, whom he first molested at age 11.
When they first met, Howard was driving a flashy red Mustang in which he picked up Kruzan as she was walking home from school, enticing her with promises of ice cream. They ended up at his Moreno Valley home, furnished with erotic art. Howard told her that they could make a lot of money together. Two years later, Kruzan was working for him as a prostitute, walking the streets as part of a multi-county sex-for-sale circuit.
Today, Kruzan is a 34-year-old model inmate eligible for parole in the Honor Dorm at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. Her life story is used by thousands of anti-human trafficking activists to highlight the plight of other women coerced into sex slavery.
Kruzan says she has learned to accept responsibility for her actions and forgive those who did her wrong, in part by reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl’s, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor.
“The Abuse She Suffered”
Riverside District Attorney Paul Zellerbach’s office has been granted both a 60-day and 30-day extension to prevent the release of Kruzan by Riverside Superior Court Judge Gary Tranbarger since July 19. The swipe of a pen by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s on his last day in office commuted her life sentence on a first-degree murder conviction—with the special circumstances of lying in wait during a robbery—to 25 years to life with the possibility of parole.
“Considering Ms. Kruzan’s age at the time of the offense, and given the abuse she suffered at Mr. Howard’s hands from age 11 to 16, her sentence is disproportionate,” Schwarzenegger wrote in his 2010 commutation statement.
The California Youth Authority had evaluated Kruzan at the time of her sentencing to find that she was “amenable to the training and treatment” the juvenile system offered. She could have been released at the age of 25 . . . but that’s not how things worked out. Kruzan’s then defense counsel—now Riverside County Superior Court Judge David Gunn—has submitted a declaration admiting he had misunderstood the law and didn’t know that the court had other options outside of sentencing her to life without the possibility of parole because of her age at the time of the murder.
Outside the slight chance that Gov. Jerry Brown will one day grant Kruzan clemency, supporters are pushing for a retrial of the case to argue Kruzan was the victim of Intimate Partner Battering.
“We have decided to let the criminal justice system runs its course,” John Hall, a DA spokesman, told the Weekly in response to inquiries regarding the rationale behind two appeals seeking to stop the release of Kruzan.
The Riverside County DA’s Office is scheduled to weigh in on the Kruzan case on Oct. 18.
Why has the DA’s office asked for back-to-back extensions, the Weekly asked.
“This is an old and complicated case,” Hall says. “The prosecutor who tried the original case is no longer with the office. We had to review some 18 years’ worth of documents, including her petition, volumes of exhibits, transcripts, motions and appellate decisions in this matter.”
Kruzan is not eligible for parole until 2017. The DA cannot recommend for her release, but the judge can order a retrial with the new evidence.
Cycle of Violence
The cycle of abuse in Kruzan’s life started early. She was first molested at age 5 by a man Kruzan’s mother—an “emotionally disturbed woman on public welfare” who had three other children from different fathers—brought home. Kruzan’s early childhood home in Monrovia was located across the street from her elementary school, and it was where strangers would often come to buy or do drugs. One of Kruzan’s earliest childhood memories was from age 4, being hit by her mother in the face so hard that “blood splattered from her nose onto the nearby dresser.”
When Kruzan was 13 she was brutally raped by three gang members after she took a shortcut through an alley on her way home from school. Her mother told her not to call the police out of fear of retribution
At home, the abuse continued. Kruzan’s mother would often throw plates of food at her or hot tea. Kruzan would also witness violence against her mother. One of her mother’s boyfriends beat her so hard her ear drum ruptured. Another man her mother brought home touched the younger Kruzan inappropriately in bed. Her mother blamed Sara for this incident.
When Kruzan first met her father, he was shooting up heroin in a bathroom.
Eventually, she and her mother moved to Rubidoux. Kruzan later ran away from home.
A year before Kruzan shot and killed Howard, Child Protective Services filed a petition to remove Kruzan from her mother’s custody.
Name in Lights
The Free Sara Kruzan campaign (its website is pink and yellow, Kruzan’s two favorite colors since childhood) has been the main catalyst behind efforts to free her.
The nonprofit has feverishly been raising the profile of the human-trafficking victim through the aid of a Human Rights Watch video that features an interview with Kruzan in prison. Petitioning, educating and demonstrating is the main goal of the organization for the time being. Free Sara Kruzan campaign event attended the San Diego Police Department’s “John School,” a program that teaches men arrested for prostitution about the negative impacts of buying sex. The Kruzan case can be seen as a somber reminder of the sex trade’s true victims.
In an effort to raise awareness of the case a light brigade held Kruzan’s name over the Clairmont Drive bridge over Interstate 5 in San Diego last month. Earlier this month, the group held a rally across the street from the DA’s office in Downtown Riverside the day before Judge Tranbarger issued the second extension in the case.
Carrie Christie—a Free Sara Kruzan activist who became a close friend to Kruzan after exchanging a stack of letters over the past year—delivered 25,000 signatures collected through the website change.org to Zellerbach’s office. These documents ask—no, demand—Kruzan’ immediate release.
Kruzan’s Case Reopened
“There are more nonprofits to combat animal abuse then there are organizations to fight human trafficking,” says freesarakruzan.org founder and co-executive director Kim Deanne. Deanne is a former cellmate of Kruzan that made a pact not to leave her friend to die in prison after she heard the details of her story. At the time the promise was made over six years ago, Kruzan had no legal counsel working on her behalf. Eventually, a Dear Kamala Postcard Campaign (through social media) resulted in getting 1,000 pieces of mail delivered to California State Attorney General Kamala Harris. Harris’ office took action.
The California Supreme Court ordered a review of the case. The Attorney General’s office said that the relationship between Kruzan and Howard should be explored for “further factual development and legal briefing.”
Deputy Attorney General James A. Flaherty, on behalf of Harris, wrote, “It is perverse to suggest that a minor who has been sexually abused and exploited since the age of 11 should be entitled to lesser defenses than an adult who has been in an abusive dating relationship.”
“Vulnerable to Exploitation”
Two medical experts have also spoken up on behalf of Kruzan: Dr. Linda Barnard, an expert on Intimate Partner Battering and the effects it has on trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder; and Dr. Nancy Kaser-Boyd, a clinical and forensic psychologist who is also an associate clinical professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine.
Barnard was able to evaluate Kruzan over a two-day period after six hours of intensive interviews that probed into her past sexual and physical abuse.
“Sara’s life was very much an issue in understanding the context in which these acts occurred,” Barnard said. “It was precisely because of Sara’s life, and the abuse and battering she endured, that she was vulnerable to exploitation and control by others.”
James Earl Hampton was another man who exploited and controlled Kruzan. It was Hampton—an uncle of one of Kruzan’s friends—that allegedly orchestrated Howard’s killing. The same pistol that Hampton held to Kruzan’s head was the same firearm that she later used—at Hampton’s prompting—to kill Howard. Hampton kept Kruzan in hiding in Long Beach for four days before dropping her off in front of her mother’s Rubidoux home. Kruzan told police what had happened.
Hampton is currently serving a life sentence for the brutal rape and stabbing of a California woman.
Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act—also known as Proposition 35—has captured the attention of Kruzan. The prisoner-turned-activist has endorsed the effort. If approved by the voters this November, the act will increase prison terms for human traffickers. Convicted sex traffickers will also be required to register as sex offenders. In an effort to curb virtual sex trafficking that critics say occurs daily on websites like Craigslist and backpage.com, the act will require registered sex offenders to disclose their Internet accounts. Criminal fines from convicted human traffickers would help pay for services for their victims.
Most importantly it would mandate law enforcement training on how to tackle human trafficking.
In her handwritten letter attached to the application for clemency to Gov. Schwarzenegger, Kruzan exhibits the wisdom that only a person who lost his or her innocence so young could have in their early 30s. She admits that it took time for her to adjust her attitude in prison. She was cited numerous times for misconduct. Kruzan said she now knows that her toughness was the struggle inside her looking for a way to develop and express itself.
It makes sense for Kruzan to have such an epiphany and move for progress. The most well-known verse from Man’s Search for Meaning reads “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story posted on Oct. 10 contained two incorrect details. Change.org was not involved in the postcard campaign to free Sara Kruzan. Also, the Free Sara Kruzan campaign was only an observer, not a panelist for the San Diego Police Department’s “John School.”