The letters come, one after the other, from the Otero County Detention Center in New Mexico to a bungalow-style home in Dundalk that is encircled by a chain-link fence and festooned in a ribbon of Ravens purple.
The letters are from Shelby Nichole Smith, who was an altar girl at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church and a top graduate of the old Southern High School before enlisting in the Army. Now she's known by her childhood nickname, BeBe, and authorities refer to her in official documents as "the gossip girl."
She has been writing relatives while awaiting trial on federal charges that she was the enforcer for a violent sex ring run by her boyfriend. Police say the ring lured women with the promise of a singing career and instead forced them to work as prostitutes and strippers across the country, but Smith remains defiant and has refused to cooperate with prosecutors.
"They put me in solitary confinement now," Smith, 25, wrote in her latest letter home to Youngstown Avenue. "I guess they think that if they make me miserable I'll start lying for them. … They locked us up already. Why do they gotta torture us?"
Her mother describes Smith as a "victim just like the other girls," trapped, threatened and forbidden to leave or even call home while with the group. Her lawyer says there are no victims or suspects, or any coercion — that all of the women participated in the activities willingly.
The case also has raised a debate among prosecutors, defense attorneys and advocates who treat battered women about whether Smith, described by police as a "bottom girl" — a name for enforcers — should be helped or imprisoned.
"There is discussion in our community of whether the 'bottom girls' should be prosecuted for trafficking or treated as victims," said Melissa Snow, director of the anti-trafficking program for TurnAround, a Baltimore center that helps abused women and is working with some victims in this case.
"They could've been victims in the past, but shifted roles," Snow said, adding that women in the role of "bottom girls" can "be just as cruel" as the leader. She said the women who told police they escaped from the group "are true victims" and she's confident evidence "will show the amount of manipulation and abuse they had to endure."
Shelby Smith's story is told through interviews with her mother and her attorney, as well as newly filed court documents, transcripts of bail hearings, and her own jailhouse letters and poetry. Together, the words add another dimension to a case that broke in October with the arrests of five women and five men at a house off Harford Road in Northeast Baltimore.
Many of Smith's letters are written on stationery with intricate, pastel-like background drawings of characters from cartoons such as Winnie the Pooh and the 101 Dalmatians. Her mother keeps them stored in a shoe box labeled "Shelby's letters and more," with a sketch of balloons and a warning: "Only Shelby's stuff."
They're heartfelt inquires about home — how her 10-year-old brother did on the soccer field, and about getting back her four children scattered in foster care. But they also have an angry tone, a feeling of being singled out by other women who she said lived a life similar to hers and have now turned on the defendants.
"I didn't do anything wrong and now I'm sitting here because of some lying jealous [expletive]," Smith wrote in one letter to her mother. She accused police and prosecutors — who list five women as victims — of "just taking the word of these junkies."
Despite the pleas from Shawn Smith, her 45-year-old mother, Shelby Smith is not cooperating with prosecutors, who have charged her, her boyfriend and eight others with human trafficking and prostitution-related charges.
"Just speak up, please," pleaded Mark Andreasik, her mother's companion, who works as a bail bondsman in the city. "She got herself into a predicament, and we're trying to get her out. I tell her to talk, that it will help her, and maybe then she could come home."
Advocates who work with abused women have said this case underscores the seediness of the sex trade and helps show that strippers and prostitutes are not usually willing participants but have been forced by pimps or by circumstance into the trade.
The Baltimore Sun interviewed one of the victims in November, and she described beatings, forced sexual encounters and punishment for failing to earn enough tips at strip clubs in cities stretching to El Paso, Texas. She also described harrowing escapes, as did others in court documents.
Federal prosecutors say the suspects are dangerous and authorities have worked hard to keep witnesses safe. In January, the U.S. attorney's office in Texas convinced a federal judge to issue a "protective order" limiting the amount of information the defendants can have to prepare their defense.
"Witnesses have already been contacted and intimidated by defendants and/or family," according to the order. "Moreover, each defendant has demonstrated they are capable of committing acts of violence and intimidation."
The alleged ringleader has been identified in court records as Alarcon Wiggins, known as "Alarcon the Don." The Baltimore man has been charged with human trafficking and transporting for the purpose of prostitution.
According to court records, Wiggins and Shelby Smith were in a relationship and he is the father of three of her four children, including a nine-pound boy born while she was in federal custody in Baltimore. She was moved to a jail in Texas for a time but is now being held in New Mexico.
Prosecutors, who declined to comment but have detailed their case in hundreds of court documents filed in Baltimore and in Texas, describe Shelby Smith as an integral part of the alleged trafficking organization.
The prosecutors in Baltimore and El Paso said she helped keep other women in line as they traveled from motel room to motel room, strip club to strip club, through Maryland, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Illinois.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Clinton J. Fuchs argued in a Baltimore courtroom that Shelby Smith should be incarcerated until trial, saying she, like the victims, danced at strip clubs and turned her money over to the alleged leaders, but also enjoyed a spot in the hierarchy as the ringleader's girlfriend. Wiggins' attorney in Texas did not return repeated inquiries seeking comment.
Fuchs said Shelby Smith's title was "Bottom girl for Mr. Wiggins" and that she and four other women charged in the case "assisted those leaders of the organization in directing and monitoring other victims … ensuring their obedience ... and preventing them from escaping the group." He also wrote that Smith "shared in the proceeds of the conspiracy."
But Smith's attorney in Texas, Richard D. Esper, said he plans to argue at trial, scheduled for January, that no one was trapped in an organized human trafficking ring. He said, if anything, his client acted "more like a spy" than an enforcer, and he noted the blond's petite, 5-foot 3-inch stature.
"I think all these girls who are purported victims were there voluntarily, and wanted to engage in topless dancing and prostitution," Esper said. "I would dub it as the underbelly of society, but these girls weren't lured into that type of life. I think they were already engaging in it."
Shawn Smith said her daughter met Wiggins in Baltimore Highlands, where they both grew up, living around the corner from each other near her home on Conkling Street, north of Canton. Back then, Smith was a straight-A student, her mother and attorney said.
She graduated from what was then Southern High School in 2004, in the top 5 percent of her class, and earned a scholarship but joined the Army instead. After basic training, she made her way to Fort Polk, La.
A pregnancy cut her military career short and she was honorably discharged in 2006. She returned to Baltimore, where, her mother said, she got reacquainted with Wiggins.
Much of Shelby Smith's background was released in court in unsuccessful attempts by her attorneys in Baltimore and El Paso to free her pending trial. Twice, federal judges agreed to send her home or to a halfway house, but then changed their minds after prosecutors presented new information.
Her latest child is a complicating factor. The defendant was six months pregnant when she was arrested in Baltimore, sparking rounds of courtroom debate about whether to move her to Texas, let her stay jailed here or release her on home detention.
The court decided it was unsafe for Shelby Smith to fly, and a three-day cross-country bus trip with the U.S. Marshals Service, involving 70 stops, was equally questionable. Smith delivered her child on Dec. 29 under police guard at Johns Hopkins Hospital and was then flown to Texas. The infant is in foster care, Shelby Smith's attorney and mother said, but there are custody disputes involving Wiggins' family.
Now, from her jail cell, Shelby Smith describes her predicament in poems posted to an Internet site that invites feedback from readers.
About her life now:
"I have pain; Sorrow, and fears; I don't know what to do; I don't know what to say; I can't seem to do this any other way; All I know to do is cry; And let just the tears go by."
She wonders why her family can't accept her devotion to the father of three of her children:
"I don't get it; Why don't they get it; I'm hurting; I need help; I call the best name of all; And He gets it; He knows; He understands; He helps; That's why He's here."
Shawn Smith remembers her daughter the altar girl, the proud student with stellar grades, the graduate with a scholarship, the enlisted private in the Army. The mother does not want to remember her daughter dancing on The Block.
"It's horrible," Shawn Smith said. "I know what she could have been."