You probably wouldn’t notice her if you passed her on the street. By all accounts, Mackenzie Baldwin is enjoying a totally normal life. A huge animal lover, she lives in a warm apartment with her German Shepherd puppy, Nova, balancing college, family and friends. She likes exploring coffee shops with her boyfriend and going hiking every chance she gets. Highly adventurous, she grew up learning martial arts and dreaming about skydiving. But just a couple of years ago, she came extremely close to losing it all. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile her with her story.
“People think it’s crazy. They think they’d never fall for it.” She smiles wryly. Nova bounces around with a chew toy at her feet. “I have to prove it wasn’t my fault for being stupid.”
During her senior year in high school, Mackenzie fell deeply in love with a man from Kosovo, the country that’s second in the world for human sex trafficking. That man is referred to as “Aadam” in Almost Gone, the book she and her father, John Baldwin, wrote after the fact. Over the course of one year, corresponding online and over the phone, Aadam convinced Mackenzie to change her religion, abandon her former life and make secret plans to run away to Kosovo to marry him. She is a living example of just how easy could be to disappear.
Mackenzie is lucky. One of her friends broke down and told the Baldwins about her plans, including a secret second passport Aadam had instructed Mackenzie to acquire. Three days before she was to board a one-way flight to Kosovo, FBI agents met her at her home to talk her out of it.
Aadam was possibly what law enforcement calls a “Romeo,” usually an older, attractive person who acts as charming bait, luring people in with promises of love, before easing their mark slowly into prostitution. They are highly experienced conmen who make their living selling other people. Another term is “pimp.” Mackenzie was a senior in high school. Aadam was an older guy who, more than likely, had played this game before.
“This happens to people all the time,” Mackenzie says, well aware than most people don’t get last minute interventions like she did. “I loved him at the time. At first I was like, ‘Why would he spend so much time with me if he didn’t love me?’”
The answer is simple: money.
A person on the human market is worth millions of dollars. Unlike drugs, people are not one-time-use products. Instead, one human being can be sold over and over, day after day, night after night, for decades. Romeos are very willing to run long cons. A year of his time spent on one girl could net millions over a lifetime.
“I was so wrapped up in him and believed he was the only one for me,” she recalls. “And then all at once it shattered. It would be like if you were married and he treated you well then someone showed you a video of him cheating on you. You don’t understand it; you don’t want to believe it.” She pauses. “This person I loved had no intention of loving me back.”
Mackenzie remembers sitting in her room after blocking Aadam, missing him and feeling like a fool for it. She was unmoored, still unravelling the psychological damage left over from a full year of Aadam’s attention.
Even after she cut off contact, he continued to reach out. About half a year after blocking him on social media, he somehow slipped through her security and sent her the lyrics of a love song. Just a few months ago, he scrolled through her Instagram to a two-year-old picture and commented on it.
“First of all, it pissed me off that he had an Instagram at all,” she says. “When we were together he told me not to have an Instagram, so I deleted it for him. But it also freaked me out. It was like he was just trying to tell me he was still out there.”
Her own reaction surprised her. Even after she wanted nothing to do with him, she felt compelled to respond because while they were in a relationship, if she didn’t reply quickly, he got angry with her.
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“Thirty minutes went by and I got scared thinking that he’d be mad at me for not responding.” She snorts. “Which makes no sense. He wasn’t who he said he was, so who cares if he’s mad? But I still felt like I needed to talk to him because he’d conditioned me to respond immediately.” She never replied.
Mackenzie’s dad suggested they write a book to heal from the experience, so Mackenzie began to rebuild her life around a new purpose.
“Human trafficking isn’t just in Kosovo,” Mackenzie admits. “It happens in Dallas. There are sex traffickers you’ve probably walked by.”
That idea stuck in her mind. She had lost a piece of herself, coming away with a broken heart and a string of severed friendships. But day after day, other men and women were losing their lives.
“Originally I didn’t want to speak about it. Once it happened, I tried to put it behind me and not think about it,” she remembers. She was worried about people finding out. “If you’ve been through something traumatic and embarrassing, you can run from that or you can own it. After a lot of thinking I decided I was going to own it.”
Mackenzie began booking a few small gigs to talk to teenagers about the book and her experience. To her surprise, she was uniquely well-placed to impact teenagers. She’s very unassuming, with a girl-next-door vibe and smile that puts people at ease. However, she has a sharp mind and ox-strong spirit.
It’s fascinating to watch Mackenzie speak because the moment she steps onstage, people are always surprised.
“It’s important for people to understand that their preconceived ideas aren’t always true,” she explains. “I wasn’t somebody who needed to be told I was beautiful. I had good friends. I wasn’t lonely. It bothers people to find out that when I met Aadam, I had a boyfriend and my parents were great.”
It especially bothers parents.
“It makes them feel better if they can say, ‘Oh this happened to her because she was shy or she didn’t have a boyfriend or her parents messed her up.’” She shrugs. “That way they can say it wouldn’t happen to their child.”
She’s waiting for the day some girl comes up to her at the end of a conference and confesses that she’s been talking to Aadam too.
Mackenzie’s small speaking gigs have ballooned into spots on CBS, WFAA and interviews with people like Megyn Kelly. Right before Thanksgiving, she, her family and her boyfriend flew up to New York for a week of interviews. Ironically, lifetimes ago, Mackenzie and Aadam had plans to meet in New York City.
In her spare time, Mackenzie is also training to be a trauma psychologist who can help people navigate after their world has been blown apart.
“I want to work through people’s trauma with them. Whether it’s something like the Las Vegas shooting, or an accident, or something like what happened to me. The people that feel lost,” she says.
Published by Simon and Schuster in November 2017, Almost Gone is a testament to the worst year of Mackenzie Baldwin’s life. She’ll never get that time back. For example, on her 18th birthday, a few weeks before she was supposed to run off to Kosovo, her parents offered to take her skydiving, which she’d begged for since she was a little girl. But Aadam didn’t want her to go skydiving. He said it was too dangerous. So she gave up on the idea.
Today, Mackenzie has her skydiving license and has gone, at her last count, 47 times. She dives every chance she gets.
Originally published in Plano Profile’s January 2018 issue under the title “Restored.”