The teenager said she had been forced on the night of May 31, 2020, to go to 38-year-old Zachary Brooks’s apartment, where he allegedly bent her with alcohol and drugs and sexually assaulted her repeatedly. Seeing him sleeping afterwards, something snapped in her.
“I suddenly realized that Mr. Brooks had raped me yet again,” Lewis wrote in pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter and willful injury, “and was overcome with rage.”
She stabbed him dozens of times and was arrested on murder charges a day later. Prosecutors did not dispute her trafficking allegations, and a Polk County judge said in court documents there was evidence that appeared to support them. Still, in a case with parallels to other sex-trafficking teenagers who killed their assailants, she faced up to 20 years in prison.
On Tuesday, Polk County District Judge David M. Porter sentenced Lewis, now 17, to five years of probation to be served at a residential correctional facility, in what he called “a second chance.” He deferred Lewis’s judgment, allowing her record to be expunged if she completes probation. In a requirement that Lewis’s attorneys argued against, he said he lacked the discretion to avoid requiring her to pay $150,000 in restitution to Brooks’s family.
Before the judge handed down his ruling, Lewis took the stand. She read from a powerful statement, opening with, “Today, my voice will be heard.” Over several minutes, she described the trauma she had endured, along with her attempts to take ownership of her actions and move forward.
“I wish the events that took place on June 1, 2020, never occurred,” she said. “But to say there’s only one victim to this story is absurd.”
The man she named as her trafficker has not been charged. A Des Moines Police Department spokesman did not respond to The Washington Post’s questions about whether investigators had looked into Lewis’s claims.
Across the country, other teenagers who were allegedly sex trafficked and involved in a killing have spent years in prison, their abuse in many cases either unmentioned or dismissed in court. In Ohio, Alexis Martin pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life in prison after prosecutors said she participated in a plan to rob her alleged trafficker, who was shot to death during the crime. In Wisconsin, Chrystul Kizer faced a life sentence for killing her abuser.
The state of Ohio vs. a sex trafficked teenager
Cyntoia Brown spent 15 years in prison for killing a man who paid for sex with her while she was trafficked at age 16. Then, in 2019, after advocates rallied to her side in the wake of the #MeToo movement, her sentence was commuted and she was released. Her story helped draw attention to teenagers with similar stories, leading some authorities to reconsider how they should be treated.
Lewis’s case has also sparked attention, outrage and calls for her release. She has been held in juvenile detention since her arrest in June 2020.
“No one has ever denied that she was a victim, and yet the way that she’s being treated is not the way that we would expect a victim of trafficking, let alone a minor victim of trafficking, to be treated,” said KellyMarie Meek, coordinator of prevention and public health initiatives at the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
In the years before she met Brooks, Lewis’s childhood was frequently marked by trauma, according to court records.
Days after being born, her attorneys wrote in court documents, she returned to a hospital severely malnourished. She was placed in foster care, her parents’ rights were terminated and then she was adopted by Billy and Leslie Lewis. When the couple divorced in 2019, Pieper Lewis, then in middle school, began acting out. Her mother reacted with what Lewis’s attorneys called “draconian parenting measures,” removing her bedroom door and forcing her to sleep on a mattress on the floor.
Rules posted on her bedroom wall said she could not have contact with her siblings and must stay in her room until told to come out.
In her guilty plea, Lewis laid out the series of events that led to the killing. She said she ran away three times in the early months of 2020 — and for good in March 2020. With nowhere to stay, she bounced from the apartment of one adult to the next, at times facing abuse.
She spent the first few months at the apartment of a classmate’s older sister, babysitting in exchange for shelter, until a disagreement that ended with Lewis sleeping in the apartment complex hallways. A 40-year-old man took the teenage girl in, but when he turned violent, she was back to the hallway.
In April 2020, another resident of the complex, a 28-year-old man, moved Lewis into his unit in the building. He began arranging for her to have sex with men, she wrote in her plea. Among them was Brooks, with whom she was forced to spend three days in May 2020. She said he assaulted her multiple times.
“I did not want to have sex with Mr. Brooks because I believed that [the 28-year-old man] was my boyfriend,” she wrote. “I did not want to go to Mr. Brooks’ apartment but I had no other place to go.”
On May 31, Lewis’s alleged trafficker told her she needed to “turn that trick” with Brooks again to get marijuana. She cried and said she didn’t want to go, according to her plea, but he held a knife against his neck. Frightened, she got into Brooks’s car and went with him to his apartment.
He gave her alcohol and told her to undress. She wrote that she hoped he would fall asleep: “I tried to remain calm and kept thinking he will pass out and I will leave his apartment at first light.” He assaulted her five times before falling asleep, according to what she said in her plea.
Lewis was looking for her clothing when she noticed a knife on a nightstand and rage took over. She stabbed Brooks 37 times and then fled in the early-morning darkness.
“My intentions that day were not just to go out and take somebody’s life,” Lewis said in court Tuesday. “In my mind, I felt that I wasn’t safe. And I felt that I was in danger, which resulted in the actions. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that a crime was committed.”
Prosecutors had previously indicated that they might request prison time, but in court on Tuesday, they called instead for probation and placement in a women’s facility.
They said the case required balancing rehabilitation against protection of the community. While noting that they had not disputed Lewis’s claims of being trafficked, they said that in killing him, she had taken matters into her own hands, leaving Brooks’s children without a father.
Chrystul Kizer, the Wisconsin Supreme Court and a watershed sex-trafficking case
Matthew Sheeley, one of Lewis’s lawyers, argued that her actions were directly tied to her status as a victim of human trafficking. He argued against the requirement that she pay Brooks’s estate, telling the judge, “I don’t believe that the Iowa Legislature intended to require a 15-year-old girl … to pay her rapist’s estate $150,000.”
Placed in a safe environment with support, Sheeley said, Lewis would not pose a risk to the community. He pointed out that she had recently graduated from high school while in detention — a year ahead of her class.
He said the Pieper Lewis who was prosecuted for first-degree murder “is not the Pieper Lewis that we know.”
In her statement in court, Lewis said she would prevail no matter what the judge decided. She rattled off goals for herself, like becoming a fashion designer, looking out for other girls like her and telling her story. She called herself “a phoenix.”
“Some days I feel like giving up,” she said, “but yet again, I am the light at the end of the tunnel. I flicker brighter than the simple thought of my own future. I must prevail.”