Pamela Villarreal grew up as a sheltered child in a middle class home in upstate New York. But at age 15, one act of youthful rebellion ended up with her abduction as a sex slave for three weeks and not knowing on a daily basis whether she was going to live or die. By escaping the very day she was supposed to be sent by train to her new "owner" in New York City, Villarreal got the second chance at life she prayed for.
Healing from the traumatic experience didn't come easily. Though her life was no longer in danger, Villarreal couldn't find the comfort she needed in her family, as she had been a victim of incest, nor could she find it in marriage, as she was in two abusive relationships before reaching her mid 20s. It was only by starting her own businesses that Villarreal started the recovery process.
In fact, Villarreal started two of her businesses specifically to get over what happened to her. Her industrial maintenance business, Texas Property Control, was created out of her attempt to overcome her fear of men and large crowds, and helped to instill in her a sense of empowerment as a woman entrepreneur in a male-dominated field. More recently, she decided to turn her therapeutic hobby of candle making into a business, Revelations Candle & Christian Gift Shop, as a means to give back. After moving to Texas, Villarreal found out that nearby Houston is a major hub of human trafficking, and she wants to use her candle business to help other human trafficking victims in the area to start a new life after sex slavery.
Was your childhood in Angola, N.Y., pretty typical?
We were pretty sheltered. There was a lot of control. My father was a Navy man, so a lot of our discipline was military style. My sister and I had a very difficult childhood -- we had good times, but the discipline was hard. We weren't allowed to do a lot of things with other friends.
But when you were 15, you took a bus ride with a friend, without your parents' knowledge? What was your intention?
I would never normally have done this, but this girl I met at school, who I thought was my friend, talked me into skipping school. We took a bus from Angola to Buffalo, and we were supposed to spend a couple of hours at the restaurant where her boyfriend worked and then come back. I did not know at the time that this girl was supposed to pick me up -- that was her job. Well, we missed the bus coming back, so she called her boyfriend to pick us up. I was not street wise at all. I just knew I did not want go with him. He decided to go home first and change his clothes -- they told me to come in and I would be fine. I was going to wait in the car, but I was in an unfamiliar neighborhood and didn't want to stay by myself. As I was going up to the door, I wondered why there were bars on the upper windows, but thought, "Never mind, I'll be alright." I followed them upstairs to his apartment on the second floor, and when we got inside, he locked the door, and that was the turning point of my life.
Your instincts told you something was wrong, but you ignored your instincts?
Yes, I ignored them because I was afraid to call home. My grandmother lived in Buffalo but I didn't know her number. I felt like I had no choice, nowhere to go. I just needed to follow this girl and hope to get home, but I knew something was wrong.
After he locked the door, what happened next?
They started drinking, and I was in tears. I just wanted to go home and they kept giving me excuses and saying, "We'll go in a little bit." He said, "Why don't you lie down in the spare room? We'll wake you up later and take you home?" By then I was scared to death, because I didn't think I was getting home. I woke up the next morning and asked, "What happened, why aren't we going home?" And he looked at me and said "You're not going home. You're here to stay."
What was the first thing that went through your mind?
"I'm going to die." And I fought it -- I cried, screamed, tried to get out of the door, but I couldn't. By that night, I had fallen asleep again, and when I woke up, I was tied to the bed and that's the night I was raped. I kept thinking, I'm going to die, my parents are not going to know where I'm at, they're never going to find me, I'm never going to see my family again. And I screamed and he just kept forcing himself on me. After it was done, he told me to get up and take a shower and keep my mouth shut. I was in tears and I had blood all over. And he told me if I ever got out and if I ever said anything, he would go after my family, and he would kill me. I was there for three weeks. After one week, he started bringing people in and forcing me to have sex with them as well. I had no escape so I told myself I just need to give in or he's going to kill me, and some time there will be a chance that I will be able to get out but for now I just have to give in, and that's what I did. After the second week, he started bringing people in to look at me to buy me. I never knew what was going to happen -- whether I was going to get raped, bought or taken away then and there. I was drugged and got beaten every day, and I still fought as much as I could, but there wasn't anything I could do.
Going through that, did you ever want to give up on living?
I didn't know what to think -- I had nobody to turn to, nobody to talk to. It looked like this was going to be my life, and I was never going to get out of it and had to accept it, but I didn't want to accept it. I wanted to get out. I always had that in my mind. I was pretty strong willed. I didn't want to die. I still don't know how I made it through. I prayed all the time that God would find a way to come and help me, take me, save me, show me a way out.
And then when a woman from New York City bought you, that was actually what allowed you to escape?
[The abductor's] brother found out about it, and he had a key to the apartment, which was locked from the outside. He came up when the other girl and I were alone and said he didn't know this had been going on and told me I had just been sold and I was supposed to leave on a train that evening to New York City. He asked what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to go home. So that man saved my life. He got a taxi and paid the taxi money to take me as far as it would take me. I was able to get to my grandmother's house.
And what happened to the girl?
He set us both free but a block down the road, she got out of the taxi and said she had to go back -- she couldn't leave.
What happened? Were your family members looking for you?
Yes, they were looking for me, but they had no idea where to look.
How did you find out that this man was caught years later, on your 26th birthday?
He was arrested on several counts of rape and sodomy. I was watching the news and talking to my mother on the phone, and the man's name and picture came on the TV.
So how did you go back to life as normal?
It's been a roller coaster ride until about five or six years ago. Now that I'm older, I can look back and say that girls have to be careful of new friends -- you don't know who they are. It's just like being married to a man. You never really know somebody. You have to be careful, strong. These relationships hurt me in one way, but made me strong in another way.
Where did candle art come into play?
A local candlemaker in Angola taught me, and I loved it. The candles came at a time in my life when I started opening up and feeling more confident. Anything creative, anything I could do with my hands was therapy.
I went through a lot of different things and forced myself into situations to get to this point where I could deal with my fears and overcome them, but it was my church that opened my mind to how I could reach out to other people and give back what God has given to me, and that's where the candles come in. I wanted to be able to sell these candles and give some of this money to Home of Hope in Houston, so I've slowly been getting involved in that. Eventually I'd like to set up an organization to house victims of sex trafficking, so they can start recuperating. Until I get to that point, I'm going to do whatever I can to help these girls. I have girls coming here to the shop talking about their experiences that they've never talked to anyone about before.
So at your shop, you want to not just sell candles but keep the door open for girls who want to talk, so they know they're not alone?
Exactly. And I have compassion, but I'm not going to feel sorry for them, because I have gone through every experience you can possibly think of. So if they come to me, I'm going to tell them to be strong, there is life after this, you can turn your life around. You can even own your own business. You are still a human, and it doesn't matter what people say about you or how they look at you, you need to be proud that you made it through. You lived.
Do you think you started your businesses as a way to regain control because of this experience where you felt so out of control and powerless?
Yes. I'm in control of myself. You get to the point where you're confident in yourself and you don't want to let anyone take that away, and that's the point I'm finally at.
Name: Pamela Villarreal
Company: Revelations Candle & Christian Gift Shop, Texas Property Control
Location: Port Lacava, Texas
Founded: TPC: 2007. Revelations: 2010.
Employees: TPC: Seven. Revelations: None.
2012 Projected Revenue: For both: More than $150,000
Website: www.wix.com/texaspropertycontrol/tpc, www.wix.com/texaspropertycontrol/native-lights
Villarreal (right) with sister Carole. Villarreal says they lived a sheltered life in a strict home, which did not prepare her for the atrocity of being tricked into getting abducted.
Starting to Heal
Villarreal at a craft show in 2002. She found that doing crafts was therapeutic for her while recovering from being a sex slave. "Anything creative, anything I could do with my hands was therapy," she said.
Making Sand Candles
Villarreal in her studio making candles from sand. She learned the process from an artist she admired and turned it into a business she hopes will help other human trafficking victims to overcome adversity.
Mother and Daughter
Villarreal's mother was looking for her for the three weeks she was abducted, but "had no idea where to look," Villarreal said.
Villarreal With Daughters
Villarreal subsequently had two daughters. "I am very lucky to have those two children," Villarreal said. "I was told I couldn't because of everything I went through."
Villarreal enjoys having her grandson Dillon help her around the shop.
Villarreal's 50th birthday celebration with family. She had a lot to celebrate, considering she thought she would be dead at age 15.
Villarreal sells her handmade candles as well as crafts in the hopes of one day being able to help other human trafficking victims.
Jar candles plus sand bowl bases in Villarreal's shop.
Variety of Products
More of Villarreal's handmade candles
One of Villarreal's popular candles.
Camo Sand Candle
Beach Glass Pillar Candle
Texas Property Control
Villarreal's maintenance company stemmed out of her desire to overcome her fear of men and crowded places. Today, she is a successful woman entrepreneur in the male-dominated field.