What's next for Pieper Lewis, the Des Moines teen convicted of killing her alleged rapist?
Des Moines sex trafficking victim Pieper Lewis was sentenced to probation instead of prison Sept. 13, 2022, for killing a man she said repeatedly raped her.
Lewis, now 17, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and willful injury after killing Zachary Brooks, a 37-year-old father of three, who she said sexually assaulted her multiple times in the weeks leading up to his killing. She had faced up to 20 years in prison.
Lewis, then 15, stabbed Brooks to death using a knife she found on a bedside table in Brooks' apartment after another alleged assault in the early hours of June 1, 2020.
After running away from what Lewis said was an abusive relationship with her mother early in 2020, Lewis lived for a short time with a 28-year-old small-time musician she called her "boyfriend," who she says forced her to have sex with older men for money. Prosecutors never disputed claims that Lewis was sexually assaulted or trafficked.
The Register is not naming that man because he has not been charged with a crime. But Polk County Attorney John Sarcone confirmed the day after Lewis' sentencing that the case "is still in the investigative stage," and that any possible charges remain well within the statute of limitations.
Statute of limitations on human trafficking allegations
Under Iowa law a person is guilty of human trafficking if they:
- Engage in human trafficking by threatening to cause harm to another person.
- Benefit financially or receive anything of value from knowing participation in human trafficking.
Lewis said in her plea agreement that the 28-year-old man put a knife to her neck when she told him on May 31, 2020, that she didn't want to go to Brooks' home. Lewis also said the man created a dating profile for her and forced her to have sex with older men for money.
Human trafficking in Iowa is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison in most cases. If the victim is under age 18 it is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
A 2021 law removed the statute of limitations for sex trafficking claims committed against minors, including human trafficking crimes. However, the law took effect on May 12, 2021, about 13 months after the musician allegedly began trafficking Lewis in April 2020.
Under the old version of Iowa law, a human trafficking claim had to be prosecuted within 10 years of a victim's 18th birthday. Lewis turns 18 on Sept. 28, 2022.
More about Pieper Lewis' sentence
A presentence investigation report recommended that Lewis go to prison, according to her legal team. Matthew Sheeley, one of her attorneys, argued for a deferred judgment, which would allow her record to be expunged if she successfully completes her probation.
Prosecutors were expected to also recommend prison time because they argued during the two-day sentencing hearing that Lewis was at times uncooperative and broke rules during more than two years of juvenile detention. Assistant Polk County Attorney Meggan Guns ultimately recommended five years probation for Lewis, which is what Polk County Judge David M. Porter ordered.
Lewis must also serve 1,200 hours of community service, which will cover more than $4,000 in fines. In addition, she must stay at the Fresh Start Women's Center, a residential facility, while she is on probation, will be subject to GPS tracking and must provide $150,000 in compensation for the death to Brooks' estate. If Lewis violates her probation, she could be sentenced to 20 years in prison.
“Well, Ms. Lewis, this was the second chance you asked for. You don’t get a third. Do you understand that?” Porter asked Lewis.
Why does Pieper Lewis have to pay $150,000 to Brooks' estate?
The Iowa Legislature in 1997 enacted a law relating to "restitution for death of victims" which required people convicted of felony charges where people die to pay $150,000.
The law reads, "In all criminal cases in which the offender is convicted of a felony, in which the act or acts committed by the offender caused the death of another person, in addition to the amount determined to be payable and ordered to a victim for pecuniary damages ... the court shall also order the victim to pay at least $150,000 in restitution to the victim's estate if the victim died."
Porter, the judge, based his decision on a 2017 Iowa Supreme Court case that found a 15-year-old who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder had to pay the $150,000 required by Iowa law, and that the law does not allow a district court judge to waive this form of restitution and it is not unconstitutional when applied to juvenile homicide offenders.
"The court is cognizant that you and ... your supporters will be frustrated with the imposition of the $150,000 in restitution to Mr. Brooks' estate," Porter said to Lewis during sentencing. "This court is presented with no other option, other than which is dictated by the law of this state."
Brooks had three children with two women, but it was not immediately clear who would receive the restitution. Lewis' attorney Matthew Sheeley said after Tuesday's ruling that they may appeal the restitution ruling; he argued to Porter that Brooks was more than 51% responsible for his own death, and therefore Lewis should not have to pay his estate anything.
Matty Tate-Smith, who was a spokesperson for the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault in 2021, said last year that similar victim restitution statutes are "pretty common" in other states and that this debt effectively makes people convicted of homicides second-class citizens.
"For people in poverty or documented histories of trauma, which Pieper would definitely fall into, this kind of debt tends to follow them the rest of their lives and can have a really negative effect," Tate-Smith said in 2021. "It's good intent I think, but a lot of times it can force people with very little means to commit more acts of crime, just to survive."
GoFundMe set up to support Pieper Lewis
A GoFundMe fundraiser to support Pieper Lewis had more than 5,000 donations totaling more than $250,000 about 24 hours after her sentencing.
Leland Schipper, who taught freshman math to Lewis at Des Moines Lincoln High School, organized the fundraiser.
What is next for Pieper Lewis?
Lewis will remain at the Polk County Juvenile Detention Center until a bed is available at the Fresh Start Women's Center in Des Moines. Opened in 1993, the 48-bed facility houses female offenders who must pay rent, get employment and participate in treatment programming on topics like job seeking, stress management, financial education, nutrition, parenting and trauma.
"The mission of the Fresh Start Women's Program is to provide a safe and holistic approach to supervision that seeks to educate, support and advocate for all women to transform their lives," according to its website. "The program emphasizes gender responsivity and a trauma informed approach to case management."
Porter said testimony from Dr. Robert Kinscherff, a neurologist, and Lewis' therapist, Megan Hoxhalli, influenced his decision to send Lewis to the center instead of prison.
"Until you reach the age of 25, your life will be highly structured," Porter said. "Particularly for the next three years."
Lewis dreams of being an artist, going to college and having a business named "Pie." Fresh Start can provide her with a proper support network, according to Magdalena Reese, another of her attorneys.
"The world has been hard to Pieper," Reese said. "Instead of being hard, she made the conscious choice to be soft and to make her story make a difference in her life and the lives of others. Instead of turning silent and being hateful, she turned it around."
What did Pieper Lewis say during sentencing?
Lewis, who earned her GED while being held in juvenile detention, acknowledged in a statement prior to her sentencing that she struggled with the structure of her detention, including “why I was treated like fragile glass” or wasn't allowed to communicate with her friends or family.
“My spirit has been burned, but still glows through the flames,” she read from a statement she had prepared. “Hear me roar, see me glow, and watch me grow.”
“I am a survivor," she added.
Asked by the judge if she had made mistakes, Lewis responded: “I took a person’s life. My intentions that day were not to just to go out and take somebody’s life. In my mind I felt that I wasn’t safe and I felt that I was in danger, which resulted in the acts. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that a crime was committed.”
How did Pieper Lewis meet Zachary Brooks?
Brooks grew up in Des Moines and attended Des Moines Public Schools before getting his GED. A father of three children, he worked as a bus driver in Ankeny, then at a transit company in Fort Dodge, according to his obituary. Six weeks before his death, he moved back to Des Moines.
Brooks' brother, Deondre Calaway, described Brooks as a loving father and proud dog owner. Calaway told the Register he saw Lewis at Brooks' apartment once; Brooks told him she was over 18, he said.
Lewis initially met Brooks at a party at a house near Weeks Middle School, she told Des Moines police detectives. The musician, with whom Lewis was living, first sent Lewis to stay with Brooks sometime in May 2020, according to her plea agreement. Brooks gave her alcohol and marijuana, she became intoxicated, and he had sex with her five times while she was unconscious over the weekend, she said in her plea.
Iowa's age for sexual consent is 16, though teens ages 14 and 15 can consent with people who are no more than 48 months older than them, according to Iowa law.
"I did not want to have sex with Mr. Brooks," Lewis said in her plea. "I did not want to go to Mr. Brooks' apartment, but I had no other place to go."
The day before the killing, on May 31, 2020, the musician threatened her at knifepoint to force her to go to Brooks' apartment again, according to the agreement. It said Brooks picked Lewis up at the musician's apartment at 10 p.m. and planned to give him $50 worth of marijuana in exchange for her performing sex acts, her attorneys wrote.
Once Lewis got to Brooks' apartment, he ordered her to take her clothes off, according to her plea. Brooks and two other people pressured her into drinking vodka and smoking marijuana while they watched a movie, according to a search warrant.
“My initial thought was that Mr. Brooks was drunk and would likely fall asleep while watching the movie,” Lewis wrote in her plea. “I thought that this was the only way to stop him from having sex with me.”
But Lewis fell asleep first. When she woke up, Brooks was raping her, she said in court documents. She screamed for him to get off her, but couldn't stop him, she said.
Afterward, she gathered her clothes while Brooks slept, she said in her plea. She said that's when she saw the knife on the nearby nightstand and snapped.
“I suddenly realized that Mr. Brooks had raped me yet again and (I) was overcome with rage,” Lewis wrote in her plea.
After the killing, Lewis said, she fled from Brooks' apartment in his Dodge Charger and ended up back at the musician's apartment. A maintenance man found Brooks’ body that evening. Police arrested Lewis at the musician's apartment the next day.
Pieper Lewis' case is 'perfect example' of the control used by human traffickers
Patrick Waymire, Iowa Department of Public Safety intelligence director, told the Register last year the relationship Lewis described with the musician is a "perfect example" of human trafficking.
"It's a perfect example of control," said Waymire, who was not involved in the investigation of the killing. "That's a way people control somebody else."
Lewis said in her plea that she considered the musician her boyfriend. Traffickers make victims feel like they're part of their family so they will never leave, Waymire said.
Victims often do not realize they are victims, said Gretchen Brown-Waech, victim rights and human trafficking coordinator in the Iowa Attorney General's Office.
"Force is what people think of. That's not very common," Brown-Waech said. "Fraud is slightly more common and easier to prove. Coercion is the one that's most common, least understood and least proven."
Under federal and state law, anyone under age 18 who commits a commercial sex act is a trafficking victim, Brown-Waech said.
“It does not require proof of force, fraud or coercion,” she said.
Philip Joens covers public safety, city government and RAGBRAI for the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at 515-443-3347 at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Philip_Joens.