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After Woman Spends 18 Years In Prison For Killing Her Pimp, She Starts Anew

First of two parts: Sara Kruzan’s life after prison

Evening Edition

Aired 8/12/14 on KPBS News.

Sara Kruzan says she's glad society is more knowledgeable about child sex trafficking than it was 20 years ago when she was prosecuted at age 16 for killing her pimp.

Sara Kruzan lived the latter part of the nearly 20 years she spent in prison for killing her pimp pretending she was free.

“I was in room 12 in the honor dorm with eight ladies at Chowchilla and we decided we were going to live as if we were already part of society,” Kruzan said.

Actual liberty came on Halloween last year after a seven-year legal fight, a fight that pitted child sex trafficking victim advocates, grandmothers and politicians against prosecutors who sought to prevent her release.

Now 36, Kruzan’s first act as a free woman was a trip to Santa Monica Beach.

“I dove into the water because I felt like it was a cleansing process, all the trauma, the experience of incarceration,” Kruzan said. “I wanted to start anew.”

Kruzan is 10 months into her freedom. Despite two decades of imprisonment, laughter comes easily, a twinkle sits in her eyes and freedom’s thrill remains.

“It’s like waking up everyday and feeling like Christmas for me because there’s just so much to choose from,” she said.

Options were a rarity in Kruzan’s life. Her mother abused her. Her mother’s boyfriends molested her. When she was 11, her mother kicked Kruzan out. Around the same time, a notorious neighborhood pimp named G.G. Howard noticed her walking from school. He pulled up in his red Mustang and offered to buy her ice cream.

Kruzan’s lawyers said Howard raped her when she was 13 and forced her into prostitution. For a time, she lived in San Diego with family. But at 16, the attorneys say Kruzan dated a boy whose ex-con uncle ordered her to murder Howard and threatened to kill her family if she didn’t. She complied. Kruzan shot Howard dead in a motel room.

“At first, I didn’t know how to feel,” she said. “All I knew is that I was extremely sorry for what I did the minute it had happened. That grief and remorse has always stayed with me.”

A Riverside jury convicted Kruzan. She was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The next several years were searing. She said she swung from anger to grief to depression and contemplated suicide.

“I thought I don’t want to do this,” she said. “I don’t want to grow old here. I can’t do it. I can’t do it.”

Then acceptance followed.

“I came to terms with it and embraced all the feelings with it,” Kruzan said. “There was some kind of relief for me. And I thought, ‘OK, now what?’ ”

Curiosity about her peers in prison set in.

“When you have to be forced with sitting at a table with someone who killed their kid, do you just stay isolated or do you push back the judgment and say, `OK, I can’t think of that. What caused this person to think this way and do that?’”

She said she did just that and answers appeared.

“Drugs, desperation, a lot of it had to do with men, wanting to be accepted and loved,” Kruzan said.

Understanding turned into compassion toward Howard, the man she killed -- the man who prostituted her as a child.

“He was a person,” Kruzan said. “And he was a father of course and I think about what happened to him that made him make those decisions in his life. I mean no one wakes up and says, `Hey, I’m going to go traffick children.’ ”

Howard's mother, according to Kruzan, has forgiven her.

Kruzan also views her own mother differently now, not as her first abuser but as a woman with her own demons.

“We are Facebook friends and I talk to her every now and then,” she said. “I know my mother has a lot of trauma and abuse in her life. I love her.”

Kruzan looks back at her life without bitterness. There’s gratitude for mentors and ties she’s forged with people who were so moved by her story they wrote her while she was in prison. She said she received thousands of letters from a range of people — police officers’ wives to schoolchildren in San Diego.

“I feel like I’m one of the richest people in the whole world,” she said.

She said she’s heartened by increased awareness about child sex trafficking.

“Good for America to say, `This is happening,’ as opposed to saying it only happens in other countries,” Kruzan said. “It happens here all the time. It’s been ongoing.”

When Kruzan first went to prison in 1995, Bill Clinton was president, cellphones were not pervasive and the Internet was just taking off. But she said integrating back into society has mostly been challenge-free.

Kruzan is taking a year off before she renews work on her bachelor’s degree. She wants to be a social worker, help sex trafficking victims and advocate for youth in prisons with cases similar to hers.

She says it shouldn’t have taken a team of six lawyers and seven years to win justice for her.

One of those attorneys – Melora Garrison – said the effort was rife with disappointment.

“We had failure after failure,” Garrison said. “We tried so many different avenues. We got shot down by the trial court in Riverside, shot down by the court of appeal, we went to the (state) Supreme Court, we went to the governor with the clemency petition. We were trying everything we could.”

Wednesday: In the second of two parts, Garrison and another lawyer describe their pro bono work on Kruzan’s case.

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