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.