Nicole Sesker Was More Than Just a Drug-Addicted Prostitute Murdered On The Streets of Baltimore
In 2004, a woman told her story in the pages of this newspaper. She talked about the life she had lived, just one year earlier, as a prostitute on the streets of Baltimore, selling sex to buy drugs. She was frank with the reporter, Afefe Tyehimba, about the dangers and desperation of that life, and she said she was proud to have moved on. In that story, she went only by the name Danielle because she didn't want her real identity to be revealed--not because she was embarrassed but because she wanted to protect her family, particularly her stepfather, who had connections in the Baltimore Police Department. Just last month, on June 27, Danielle was strangled to death in an alley in Northwest Baltimore. Her real name, which has since been in the media frequently, was Nicole Sesker.
In the 2004 articles ("Along Came a Spiral," Feature, March 31 and April 7, 2004), Sesker recounted her downfall, from a good student from a middle-class, churchgoing family to drug addiction and prostitution. Her first serious boyfriend, she told Tyehimba, turned out to be a drug dealer, and her relationship with him led to her estrangement from her family. Over time, she started selling drugs as well. Eventually, she also started using and worked as a prostitute to feed her habit. "If you need a dime bag and you've got $8, you will perform oral sex for $2," she told Tyehimba, "because you can't take a short to the man."
Sesker endured the all-too-common cycle of using, then getting clean, falling back into old habits, using again, going to jail, and, finally, getting clean again. By the time she talked to Tyehimba, she had been clean for a year and out of jail for six months. She was engaged and raising her daughter. She was telling her story as a way to help others, to make them aware of the plight of Baltimore's prostitutes and to give that plight a personal story--even if she was unwilling to give it a name and face because she didn't want her problems to further affect her family.
Sesker's stepfather was former Baltimore police commissioner Leonard Hamm, who at the time of the City Paper story headed up the Morgan State University police department. Hamm had raised her since she was a small child, and people who knew Sesker refer to him simply as her father. In 2005, Hamm was hired as police commissioner, and Sesker's story was revealed to the world--but it was not the same story she had told Tyehimba. By 2005, Sesker had relapsed and was once again working the streets. In a New York Times article from August 2005, the personal details of Sesker's life were little more than a plot device to frame a story about Hamm: She was the prostitute who taught her stepfather about drug addiction by being hopelessly mired in it. The headline for that story read: "Police Chief Sees Drug Toll With Father's Eyes."
A column written by Dan Rodricks in The Sun the day after the Times piece began with, "Dear Nicole Sesker: Your stepdaddy must love you a lot." The piece talked to Sesker as if she was a naughty child, admonishing her, "Nicole, here's a news flash: You can live a better life. You can get help."
Of course, Sesker didn't need to be told that, because she already knew. She also knew that recovery isn't as simple as having that knowledge. What Rodricks and the Times failed to acknowledge was that Sesker was not just another drug-addicted prostitute. She was an activist, and in her work she fought for the rights of women in jail. She educated the public about prostitution through public-speaking engagements. She worked with the Baltimore Prostitution Task Force, a now-defunct coalition of activists and city leaders that looked at the city's prostitution problem from health, law-enforcement, and community perspectives.
Jacqueline Robarge, founder and director of Power Inside, a nonprofit organization that works with women who are or have been incarcerated, first met Sesker when she was in the city jail in 2002 or '03.
"She immediately struck me as incredibly open and honest about her shortcomings as well as her dreams," Robarge recalls. "With all the women go through, you don't blame them for tuning out, but she never tuned out."
Robarge says Sesker started advocating for women in jail while she was still locked up. She spoke out against the dismal conditions at the Baltimore City Women's Detention Center, which in 2002 the U.S. Department of Justice declared violated inmates' constitutional rights. Sesker later convinced Power Inside to include cancer education within its women's groups in the jails, an issue she was keenly aware of because her mother had recently died of cancer. "That was Power Inside's first experience with Nicole's way of advocating," Robarge says, "her way of using her own personal experiences. It fed her in a way. It empowered her."
Sesker secured an early release from the jail in September 2003 so she could be with her daughter. After she got out, she volunteered with Power Inside and soon earned a paid position there as a peer advocate. She also earned a full scholarship to a leadership training institute in Atlanta, in conjunction with the 2004 Roundtable for Women in Prison conference. Robarge, who also attended the conference, says Sesker was very at home in that environment.
In 2004, not long after Tyehimba's article came out, Sesker took a leave of absence from Power Inside and never returned--at least not as an employee. She had relapsed again. Robarge was in touch with Sesker off and on over the past several years, she says, but it came as a shock when she heard the news of Sesker's violent death.
On an afternoon a few days after Sesker was killed, the small office of Power Inside was mostly deserted. Robarge talked a client through the process of applying for a job, but they were the only two people there. The rest of the staff had taken the day off, to recover from a vigil for Sesker held the night before on the streets where their co-worker and friend lived and died. The vigil was attended by police officers, community activists, and people Sesker knew from the streets, all of whom shared stories about her life.
"People were telling stories about it being the dead of winter and Nicole sharing a blanket," Robarge says. "One guy spoke about her calling him her son and how they had this friendship that just sounded so endearing and so nurturing to him."
Sesker's death has clearly shaken Robarge, even though losing people comes with the territory in her line of work. "I have a file drawer of client folders," she says. "It's a graveyard of women that we won't see anymore." She says that, for a time, she couldn't bear putting Sesker's file in that drawer. Instead, she carried it around with her, adding things to it as she remembered or came across them.
Tyehimba, who now works at a Miami law firm, was surprised and saddened to learn of Sesker's death. Tyehimba spent two months talking to Sesker, recording her story, and retracing the path of her life. "I just remember how it felt to stand on those streets with her at that point of walking away from the life, and I could not imagine her being back on those streets," she says. "Knowing that a couple of years in the future, on those very streets she would lose her life, just the horror of that and the irony of that was mind-blowing."
Tyehimba says the coverage of Sesker's life and death since Hamm became a public figure angers her.
"I detest the fact that she seems to have been portrayed as the stereotypical victim," she says. "And I detest the fact that Hamm seems to have been portrayed as this heroic figure who was always on the sidelines, suffering in silence and taking this hard line that she was going to eventually just bottom out and come to herself."
Robarge says Sesker always portrayed her stepfather as someone who was there for her. "He was a touchstone for her in trying to get herself together," Robarge says. "He was as present as he could be in her process. It's just a lot of the work she needed to do on her own."
Hamm, who has not been discussing his stepdaughter's death with the media, did not return phone calls for this story.
Robarge says she does take issue with how the media has portrayed both Sesker and the four other women with prostitution arrests who have been murdered this year. Stories about their deaths focus on the fact that they were drug addicts or prostitutes, as if that's all they ever were or could have been, she says.
While some activists believe the recent murders of prostitutes are connected--or even the work of a serial killer--the BPD says the murders of these women are likely not linked. Police are looking into the homicides, and the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office is hiring a social worker to help women arrested on prostitution charges.
Whether just one person committed the crimes or not, the deaths of these women are connected and should not be swept aside, Robarge says. "It's serial killing," she says. "Wouldn't there be a state of emergency if five suburban joggers were snatched off the street and murdered?"
Although another woman suspected of prostitution has been murdered since Sesker's death, attention to the murder of Sesker and the others is already fading. That, both Robarge and Tyehimba say, is the last thing Sesker would want.
The flier for Sesker's vigil includes a quote from a March 2004 essay she wrote as an application to the Round-table for Women in Prison Conference: "I have had the ability to spread the word--WE DO MATTER. Wherever I go, I have tried to help all women to see that no matter what, we don't have to be a victim--only victorious."
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