On a recent night in Detroit, Aziah “Zola” Wells returned to where it all began: Hooters. As the petite 20-year-old beauty in a pink blouse and tight blue jeans clacked her high black heels past the hostess stand, a curvy bartender shouted, “Zola!” It was her first visit back since she quit her waitressing job three months earlier, not long after finding out she and her fiancé were pregnant, but that wasn’t the reason for the excitement. The week before, on October 27, Zola tweeted, “Okay listen up. This story long. So I met this white bitch at Hooters…” What followed was an epic 148-tweet tale about her harrowing road trip to Florida with said “white bitch,” Jessica; Jessica’s maudlin boyfriend, Jarrett; and Jessica’s violent Nigerian pimp, “Z”. Tricks get turned, a hustler gets murdered, Jarrett leaps from a four-story window. It reads like Spring Breakers meets Pulp Fiction, as told by Nicki Minaj. “That nigga lost in the sauce,” Zola wrote in one of her more popular tweets, “& that bitch lost in the game.”
The saga got hashtagged #TheStory and trended worldwide. Missy Elliot, Keke Palmer, Solange Knowles joined the legions obsessing online. “Drama, humor, action, suspense, character development,” Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma, tweeted. “There’s so much untapped talent in the hood.” (“I’m not from the hood tho Ava,” Zola replied. “Ima suburban bitch. Still love you tho”). There were Zola Halloween costumes, Zola feminist think pieces, Zola comics, and parody movie trailers for a rumored Hollywood project: In a world where stripper fingers turn to Twitter fingers… One of her 108,000 followers anointed her the “Queen of hoeism.” To which, Zola replied: “Title of my autobiography.”
But what really happened that weekend in Tampa? Here, for the first time, is Zola’s exclusive account. I went to Detroit to meet with her and her tight-knit family, and also spoke at length with the other main players, many of whom are eager to set Zola’s story straight. “She’s ruining my life,” Jessica tells me.
As outrageous as #TheStory seems, many of the details line up, though a few key points don’t. Jessica insists she has never prostituted herself, and says that Zola was the one who wanted to turn tricks in Florida. Zola admits to embellishing some of the more sensational details — Jarrett’s suicide attempt, Z shooting the pimp — for entertainment value, but denies the allegation that she sold sex for money on the trip. When she posted the story on Twitter, she was caught up in the moment, she explains, riffing on the reactions of her followers who were responding in real time. She had posted and removed the story twice before and no one cared. To garner more interest this time, she made it darkly funny while preserving the gist of what happened. And she has no regrets. “I made people who probably wouldn’t want to hear a sex trafficking story want to be a part of it,” she says, “because it was entertaining.”
That’s the one thing each of the participants agree upon: the real story behind #TheStory, of how young girls and women are held against their will by sex traffickers, is more fucked up and unconscionable than any one person could invent. There are currently an estimated 4.5 million victims of sex trafficking worldwide. “It’s common and it happens,” Zola tells me, as she cracks open a crab leg at Hooters. “It could happen to anyone.”
Zola’s family calls her The Enforcer. As the oldest of eight in a family that cycled through fathers and cities, Zola was always, as her mother Nichelle Watkins tells me, “putting everybody in their place.” This went beyond telling her sisters to do the dishes. She was a tough precocious girl who fought often. A boy once smashed a bottle over her head in math class because she was answering too many questions correctly; another time, when a girl spit on her, Zola says she earned a few hundred hours of community service for slamming the girl’s head into the ground.
On her 18th birthday, while still in high school and living at home, she began waitressing at Hooters. She wanted to be a singer and was saving money to move into her own place, when another waitress told her about the lucrative world of exotic dancing. “She’s like, ‘I make two grand a weekend,’” Zola recalls. “I was like, ‘Okay, I’m coming!’” Her mother, a successful paralegal, balked, but also treated Zola like an adult. “You got to be careful,” Watkins told her. “I can’t tell you to stop, but what I can say is you need to come to me if there’s any trouble. And don’t do anything outside of your dancing.”
Zola was quickly earning up to $1,000 a night in tips, but the job came with its share of trouble. She saw a bouncer get shot, and was briefly involved with an older guy who, while they were sleeping, got raided by the police. At one point, she and another dancer fell in with a gang of credit card thieves. She recounted each episode to her mother with a mix of wisdom and world-weariness. “I am good,” she repeatedly said. “I learned my lesson.”
One afternoon in March, Jessica Rae Swiatkowski, a bisexual 21-year-old blonde with collarbone tattoos, walked into Hooters for lunch with a friend. Zola caught her eye. “She walked past and she was pretty,” Jessica recalls. “I just brought her over to the table.” The two of them got to talking, and Zola showed Jessica her Tumblr blog on her iPhone. Jessica scrolled through nude pictures of assorted models and images of unicorns until she came to a shot of Zola in a red sequined thong with a rack of lingerie behind her. “Are you a dancer?” She asked. They swapped stories about clubs where they’d both danced, and Jessica showed her photos of her little girl. “We should work together sometime,” Jessica said. They exchanged numbers.
“She was really nice,” Zola recalls. “She was sweet, she was cute.”
A few days later, Zola was watching Powerpuff Girls on Netflix when she got a text from Jessica: “Do you want to come to Florida with me?”
“What for?” Zola replied.
“Well you said next time I dance that you’d come and I’m going to dance in Florida,” Jessica said, adding her boyfriend was coming along.
Part of the stripper game is going on the road, milking money from a fresh crop of guys when the locals grow tired. If they were going to make good money in some upscale club, Zola was in — but her boyfriend, Sean King, was out. Sean, a tall, mellow 20-year-old who works as a loan processor at a mortgage company, had known her since sixth grade. Her dancing didn’t make him jealous, but he was hoping she’d stop. He also didn’t like the idea of her road tripping with a stranger. “You don’t really know her,” he said. “You just met her.”
Zola reassured him, “She’s a really tiny white chick. What can happen?” Sean was still unconvinced, so, as Zola wrote, “I had to fuck him calm.”
“It worked,” Sean tells me with a grin. “I believe I took a nap.”
The black SUV pulled up at her house around 8 p.m. Zola had packed her favorite stripper gear: French maid and schoolgirl outfits, and 10-inch stilettos with heels of rhinestone-covered pistols. Jessica’s boyfriend, Jarrett Scott, a scrappy 22-year-old white guy with diamond stud earrings and a broken front tooth, politely put her bags in the back of the car. But there was another guy along too: Jarrett and Jessica’s roommate, Rudy, a tall, brawny Nigerian whose fiancé was living and dancing in Tampa. (Zola calls Rudy “Z” in #TheStory). “We’re gonna have fun,” he told her.
They road tripped through the early hours of March 26, flipping stations — “listening to Lil Wayne, listening to Gucci,” Zola says — and chowing down McDonald’s drive-thru. Jarrett was talking about how he and Jess wanted to get their own place. Rudy hyped up all the money they were going to make that weekend, cracking jokes the whole time. “He was like the clown in the car,” Zola says. “He kept everyone up or laughing.”
But their first stop in Tampa turned out to be a dingy shithole. “It was a really, really, really cheap motel,” she recalls, “The lights were not all on, and outside of the motel there were like three guys lined up standing with girls walking the strip.” Zola eyed Jessica dubiously, and says Jessica told her that the room was just for Jarrett while they worked. “I was like yea bitch okay,” she tweeted in her story. “But trust I am NOT laying my head here.”
After dinner, Rudy drove Jessica and Zola to the Tampa Gold Club, a low slung yellow building with a sign out front that read Topless Full Liquor. Unlike Detroit, which requires licenses to dance, all they had to do was fill out an application, show ID and pay a nominal house fee. “As long as they look the part and aren’t too hood rat, we’ll let them work here,” says Gold Club hostess, Casey Walsh. Zola and Jess changed into the club’s uniforms — tiny black shorts and pasties — and took a selfie by the lockers. It was a slow night, but Zola says she cleared $800 in a few hours. Afterwards, standing outside the club, Jessica called Rudy to get them. Then, Zola says, Jessica turned to her and said, “If you made any money, put it in your bra because he’s gonna ask you what you made.”
Zola again eyed her dubiously. “Okay,” she said, “who is he really?”
“He’s taking care of me,” Jessica replied. Zola had heard other girls say the same thing about their pimps. She thought about the fact that Jessica, Jarrett and Rudy all lived together. “I was starting to put two and two together,” she says. But in the moment, Zola just wanted to stay clear of trouble. “I was just like if that’s what she wants to do, that’s fine,” she recalls. “I’ve been around that before.”
When Rudy returned, Zola says, he asked how much each of them earned. “The club was slow,” Jessica replied. “Neither of us made anything.”
Three years earlier, when Jessica was 18, she began stripping at a club in Detroit. One night, a customer beckoned her over for a lap dance. By the time the next song started and she turned to face him, he had taken down his pants and pulled her on top of him. He raped her then walked out the door. Jessica had dealt with her share of misfortune. She’d been born to a 15-year-old mother, and raised in what she describes as a troubled home, surrounded by drugs and alcohol. “I was bouncing from abusive relationship to abusive relationship,” she says. But when she left the club after being raped, she says she finally found a man who seemed to have her best interests at heart: Rudy. “He sat with me the entire night while I was crying,” she says.
Rudy was the best friend of her booking agent. He found her work at a different club and let her crash at his duplex near Hooters. Jessica had lost custody of her daughter, and Rudy helped cover the cost of an attorney to try to get her back. Jessica says they slept together two times. He took her to visit his parents, who Jessica says are successful doctors. At the same time, she says, he kept her in the dark about how he made a living. “I never really asked what Rudy did,” Jessica says. “It never mattered to me.”
Before long, though, it became obvious to Jessica that he was pimping. “He goes to parties and finds the dumbest drunk girl,” she says. “A week later, they would be on Backpage” — a classified ads site often used by pimps.
What happened next in Tampa is entirely based on Zola’s account. According to her, Rudy asked Jessica, “Well, you want to trap?” Trap, Zola knew, was slang for prostitution. “He was telling Jess what she was going to do,” she recalls. “I realized he could be aggressive.” As Zola tried to remain calm, she says Rudy checked them into a suite at a nearby hotel, and he and Jessica soon left to buy beauty products. “Send Jess the pictures that you took when you were getting ready for the club,” he added on the way out, Zola says. When they returned a bit later, Zola says she learned why he wanted those photos; he used them to place ads on Backpage for both of them. According to her, he tossed Jessica a burner — their “trap phone” — and said, “You guys have both been getting a lot of calls. Get ready.”
Zola had known girls who’d been raped, drugged and held captive in hotel rooms. (“I just never thought that it would happen to me,” she says.). Jessica looked sluggish as she picked out something to wear. Zola flipped. As she chronicled in her tweets: “BITCH U GOT ME FUCKED UP. IM NOT ABOUT TO PLAY WIT U HO. IM GOIN HOME.”
Jessica, she says, burst out crying. “Don’t leave me by myself,” Jessica pleaded. “The only reason I invited you was because I wanted another girl on this trip.” Zola couldn’t figure out whether Jessica was a willing participant or a victim. “I didn’t want to leave her by herself,” Zola says. “I kind of felt bad for her.” Plus, she says she was afraid of what Rudy might do if she left. “He knew where I worked and where I lived,” Zola says. She told Jessica that she would stay, but she wasn’t going to trap. When the phone buzzed with a text from a john, Zola says, Jessica told her to act as security. “You check and make sure he’s cool,” Jessica allegedly said. “Make sure it’s not a cop-type thing. See if there is a wire. Ask him to lift his shirt up.”
Zola opened the door to a heavyset middle-aged white guy. “Turn around,” she said, searching him. She asked for his wallet — no badge. “Ok,” Zola said, “she’s right there.”
Zola went to the other side of the suite, too nervous to head to the lobby. “I just stayed up there and looked at the wall,” she says. As she heard Jessica having sex, she says she felt the trap phone buzzing in her hand. Whenever she saw a request for her, she’d reply that “Zola’s not available,” and delete the text.
As the guy left, Zola says she saw how much Jessica had been paid and her protective instincts took over. “Jess, u selling puss for $100????” She later recounted on Twitter. “Pussy is worth thousands.” She told Jessica to make her own ad and charge more money — Rudy would be none the wiser. “Just completely play him like that,” Zola said.
She snapped a few photos of Jess — “Cuter pictures,” she says, “no face, just body shots” — and says she put a new ad online, charging a minimum of $500. The phone blew up. Half a dozen guys came one after the other, she says, including a handsome older Italian. “I was, like, ‘Go girl,’” Zola recalls. “He can get a discount.” Zola followed the same routine, she says: check for badges, go across the suite, leave them to their business. “Most of the time they would just literally be unbuckling their pants at the door,” she says.
When Rudy returned to collect his money, Zola says she tried to play it cool. “You haven’t gotten any calls?” he asked her. “Those were good pictures I put up.” He took Jessica’s wad of cash — not seeming to care how many clients had visited her or how much they had been charged — and slipped Zola $500. “If you make your own money, give that back to me,” he said. Then he had sex with Jessica on the couch. (Jessica confirmed this.) Afterwards, Rudy left to rejoin his fiancé. According to Zola, Jessica then said, “That’s how I pay my rent.”
Back at the dingy motel, Jarrett woke up alone around 4 a.m. He tried Jessica repeatedly, before getting her on the phone. She told him they’d gone to another club that was open until six a.m. Six came and went, and Jarrett texted her again. She told him that Rudy had forgotten to get them, so she and Zola checked in to a hotel up the street. “I was like, ‘Alright, I basically already know what’s going on now,’” Jarrett tells me. “She either went home from the club with a customer, or she’s out doing something that she’s not supposed to be doing.”
He went outside for a cigarette and met a tall skinny black guy at the gas station across the street. “Do you by any chance smoke or anything?” Jarrett asked. “I kind of need to smoke. I’m on edge.” At the guy’s house, they got high and drank beers. As seven came around, still without word from Jessica and Zola, Jarrett admits he lost it. He logged onto Facebook and posted a message on her wall: “Hey, sucking old man dick for dollars? You’re the true MVP. Go Jessica!”
By the time Jarrett got back to the motel room, Jessica was on the bed, crying, and Zola was sitting in the corner. The door slammed behind him. “Give me your phone!” Rudy shouted, quickly deleting the Facebook post. “I ought to whoop your ass and kill you right now, motherfucker!”
“Do it!” Jarrett replied. “I don’t care. I have nothing to live for. The girl I love’s a whore!”
According to Zola, that seemed to give Rudy a better idea. “I should fuck her right here, just show you who she really belongs to,” he said, then seemed to reconsider it. “You know what? I’m going to kill your manhood. You’re going to watch your girl go on all these calls. You’re going to take her.”
Zola could feel her eyes welling up with tears. She was afraid what might happen next, but for some reason also couldn’t help but laugh. “It was not the proper response,” she admits. “I still felt that Jess was afraid of Rudy, like she felt like she didn’t have a choice.”
Rudy moved them all to another hotel — now that Jarrett had been smoking weed with some guy, telling him the girls were out making loads of cash, Rudy assumed they were about to be robbed. After they checked in, and Rudy returned to his fiancé, Jarrett lashed out at Jessica, slapping and punching himself in the face. Jessica was screaming for him to stop. “Everybody calm the fuck down!” Zola shouted.
She grabbed her bag and headed down to the pool. (As she later tweeted, “I mean, I am in Florida!”) Despite the insanity, Zola was still afraid to leave. “I don’t want it looking like, ‘You left her, you didn’t call the police, you went back home, now this girl ended up dead,’” she says. “That’s why I stayed. Just so that if anything went bad for her, she has somebody.”
When Rudy returned to the hotel that evening, he was furious to find Zola asleep. “Hey, you don’t want to be a part of this fucking team?” He said. “What the hell are you doing here if you don’t want to do this shit?” He told Zola to get dressed. It was time for them to get to work. Rudy tossed Zola the trap phone, and told her to let Jarrett know where he had to drive Jessica. “I cannot wait for this night to be over,” Zola thought, “so I can go home.”
Zola, Jarrett, and Jessica tell different versions of how the night unfolded from here. Jessica says only Zola took outcalls that night. Jarrett says both women went together on at least one trick, but quickly left when the johns didn’t have the money. Zola says the only thing she did that night, while Jessica visited multiple johns, was try to talk Jarrett out of his relationship with her. “You’re trying to be Captain Save-a-ho,” she told him as they waited in the car, “when she clearly doesn’t want saving.”
Zola says a guy then answered Jessica’s ad with a special request. “Jess,” Zola told her, “there’s five of them. Are you okay with that? Should I just not respond to this?” For $5,000, Jessica agreed to do it. Zola says she waited in the car, while Jarrett walked Jessica inside. Moments later, he came running out. A guy had snatched Jessica, he said, and slammed the door in his face.
They called Rudy, who hurried over. “Where’s my bitch at?” He shouted, pounding on the door with Zola and Jarrett behind him. “You’ve got five seconds to open the door, and then I’m going to shoot.”
The door opened. There were fake designer purses and lingerie on the bed. Jessica was cowering in a corner. The guy wasn’t a john at all, but a rival pimp. He offered Rudy $20,000 to buy Jessica. Rudy scoffed. “She makes that for me in a weekend,” he said. “Just give her here.”
At least, that’s Zola’s story. Jarrett offered a different version. According to him, there was no confrontation between Rudy and the pimp. He also denies Zola went with them on the outcall at all, saying it was he and Rudy alone who drove Jessica to that hotel. When they went to pick her up, Jarrett says, Jessica was already in the lobby. The pimp never offered Rudy $20,000 for Jessica, he says, and she hadn’t been beaten. The only thing Rudy did in retaliation, according to Jarrett, was tell the hotel clerk to call the police because a man had tried to snatch his girlfriend. (Jessica’s story closely mirrors Jarrett’s, except, she says, it was Zola, not her, who was in the room with the other pimp that night).
Either way, Rudy gave Zola and Jarrett plane tickets to go home that morning. But Jessica, Rudy said, was staying behind. Jarrett begged her to go with them. “This isn’t the life you want,” he said. “Go get on that fucking flight with me right now, because you can leave if you want to leave. You’re choosing not to leave.” Jarrett was again hitting himself in the face and pulling at his hair, but Jessica appeared unmoved. He pointed at the fourth floor window and said, “I’m going to fucking jump off this balcony if you don’t come.” Zola, Jessica and Jarrett all say it was clearly an empty threat.
“I need to do this for my daughter,” Jessica said.
Jarrett took his bag and stormed out the door. Zola followed behind him, but Jessica stopped her. “I hope you don’t feel like I set you up,” she said. “I hope we can be friends.”
Zola searched her eyes, and said. “I will never see you again.”
A few hours later, as their plane took off, Zola turned to Jarrett. “I really tried to hold this back,” she said, “but you’ve got to know.” Then she handed him her phone. “I took this picture the first night we got here,” she said. It was Rudy and Jessica having sex on the hotel couch
Jarrett, who confirms he saw the picture, turned away. “You know what, Aziah?” he said. “I really appreciate that. I know I’ve just gotten to meet you and everything, you don’t have to look out for me like this, but thanks.”
Sean was at the airport in Detroit to meet them. Zola didn’t seem like herself, he thought. He could tell she hadn’t slept much, and seemed shaken. Helping her with her bag, Sean asked, “What’s wrong with y’all?”
A few days later, Jessica and Rudy allegedly coerced two other young women into trapping. On April 1, Breeonna Pellow and her best friend Jessica Forgie were driving back to Michigan from a vacation in California when Pellow’s pickup truck broke down on a desolate stretch of highway, three hours west of Reno. When they tried to use their phones, they couldn’t get a signal, but they could connect to a gas station’s WiFi network. They got on Facebook to send an SOS to all of their friends. One response came from someone they thought might actually be able to help: Jessica Rae Swiatkowski.
Pellow, a 21-year-old single mother, had hung out with Jessica a couple of times back in Michigan, and had flirted with the idea of meeting up with Jessica to strip — something she had never done before. “Girl I wanna know what you’re into,” Pellow had messaged Jessica a few days earlier. “Cause I’m a freak bitch that loves money and will do anything for it.”
Jessica told them to sit tight. Her agent was sending a car, and they’d take the next flight to Reno. He was more than happy to front them the cash.
After they all checked into the Atlantis Casino Resort in Reno, Rudy snatched Forgie’s phone. She was 19, and had not been interested in stripping, let alone prostituting herself. “I need you to make a page,” Rudy said.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Pellow replied.
Pellow and Forgie say Jessica tried to calm them, while Rudy scrolled through pictures on their phones and posted ads on Backpage. He set the price at $200 each. “Rudy just made it clear that he’s not one to mess with,” Forgie says. “I definitely wasn’t thinking.”
A call came in from a john who wanted two girls together. Rudy took Forgie to the nearby Peppermill Resort, leaving Pellow and Jessica to work. Pellow says she hid in the bathroom while Jessica and the john had sex. But Jessica claims Pellow and Forgie both prostituted themselves willingly. “They told me multiple times they wanted to do it,” Jessica says. “They asked the second I saw them: ‘What if I don’t want to have sex with a black man?’” Jessica says, “‘What if they want to have sex a certain way?’”
At the Peppermill, Forgie says when she pleaded with Rudy to let her go home, he said, “Oh, you think you can go home for free? I have an idea. You can fuck your way home.” Forgie thought he meant that she’d have to turn tricks, but realized he was talking about having sex with him. “That’s when he assaulted me,” she claims.
Rudy then brought Pellow and Jessica back to the Peppermill Resort, where Pellow was terrified to discover Forgie wasn’t inside the room. “I kicked that bitch to the curb,” Rudy told her. Then Rudy’s phone rang. Another john wanted a date with Pellow, but something wasn’t right. The phone number in the ad was Forgie’s. Why was this john calling Rudy’s phone? “Screw this,” Rudy said, hanging up. “We’re going back to Florida.”
When the elevator door opened onto the lobby, a swarm of cops tackled and cuffed Rudy. Forgie, who had escaped from the room earlier to get help, had been taken to the hospital after reporting the rape. At the station, where police suggested Pellow and Jessica hold hands to comfort each another, Jessica turned to Pellow and said, “Don’t say anything.”
Akporode “Rudy” Uwedjojevwe wears a brown t-shirt in his mugshot, and the tired gaze of a man at the end of his run. The 35-year-old, who is being held in a Nevada jail, has been charged with sexual assault, sex trafficking, battery, attempted pandering and felony counts stemming from a fight in jail. His trial is slated for January 19. Pellow and Forgie say they plan to testify against him. He could face life in prison. Though the accounts vary, everyone agrees that the man who manipulated them is rightfully behind bars. “It’s a real thing, and it happens all the time,” says Forgie, who has since struggled with depression to the point of threatening suicide. “People need to understand that.” (Rudy didn’t return requests to be interviewed for this story.)
Bradley Myles, CEO of the Polaris Project, a non-profit that fights human trafficking, calls Rudy’s enterprise a textbook example of how women get swept up in sex work. “We’re still not where we need to be yet as a country in terms of understanding how real sex trafficking is in our daily midst,” he says. Polaris receives an average of 100 calls a day to its helpline (888-373-7888) and text service, BeFree. “They were designed to help girls exactly like the ones in this case,” Myles says.
As to why the stories diverge, sometimes so fundamentally, it could be a variety of reasons: post-traumatic stress, the fog of time, covering up misdeeds. Pellow, Forgie and Zola each insist that Jessica was as culpable as Rudy in conning them. “She knows how to get in peoples’ heads,” Jarrett says. “She’s a deceiving girl. She knows how to say everything you want to hear.”
But now that she is free of Rudy, Jessica accepts some responsibility for her actions. “I was helping other girls be put into that situation,” she tells me, “and as someone who’s been sexually abused, why would I do that? All I can say is that I was literally brainwashed by Rudy.” And though she continues to assert that Zola’s story is false, Jessica, who is expecting another child soon, hopes the widespread attention it’s receiving helps curb sex trafficking. “If even one girl looks at this and says, ‘This can happen to me, I need to change,’ then it will be worth it all in the end,” she says. “It could be my daughter. She could be talked into this in the future, but maybe because I made these mistakes she won’t.”
As for Zola, she has not spoken to Jessica since Tampa, but also hopes their story will continue to raise awareness about sex trafficking in the U.S. “For whatever reason, people feel like it doesn’t happen, not in their world at least,” she says. “But it does.” She is also launching her own line of “Hoeism” t-shirts, and is keeping close tabs on her social media reign. While she’s still interested in being a singer, she says, this experience has bolstered her confidence as an author as well. “And a reality show would be kind of cool,” she tells me. “I think I’m funny and entertaining.”