DES MOINES, Iowa — In what a judge described Tuesday as a “second chance,” an Iowa teen who pleaded guilty in the fatal stabbing of her alleged rapist will not go to prison, and could escape having a felony record.
Pieper Lewis, 17, received five years of probation and a deferred judgment,which means her record could be expunged before completion of the sentence.
Polk County District Judge David M. Porter ordered her to also serve 1,200 hours of community service, which will cover more than $4,000 in fines.
She was ordered to stay at the Fresh Start Women’s Center while she is on probation, will be subject to GPS tracking, and will have to provide $150,000 in compensation for the death Zachary Brooks.
“Well, Ms. Lewis, this was the second chance you asked for. You don’t get a third. Do you understand that?” the judge asked Lewis.
Before her sentencing, Lewis gave a statement, saying she, too, was a victim.
“I wish that never happened,” Lewis, who was 15 and homeless at the time, said of the June 1, 2020 killing. “But to say there’s only one victim in the story is absurd.”
Lewis pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and willful injury in June 2021. Held at the Polk County Juvenile Detention Center since her arrest the day after the killing, she could have received up to 10 years on each count.
Prosecutors recommended probation, and Lewis’ attorneys asked for the deferred judgment.
Brooks, 37, of Des Moines, allegedly raped Lewis five times in the weeks before she killed him. Lewis said in her plea agreement she stabbed him 30 times with a knife she found on his nightstand the morning after he raped her yet again.
Her attorneys argued that Lewis was a sex trafficking victim manipulated by a 28-year-old man she lived with at the time. Prosecutors never disputed the claim Lewis had been sexually assaulted or that she was a victim of sex trafficking.
The Des Moines Register, part of the USA TODAY Network, is not naming the man who allegedly trafficked Lewis because he has not been charged with a crime.
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Lewis: ‘My story can change things’
Lewis said during her sentencing hearing that she never intended to kill someone, but that she felt unsafe in the aftermath of the alleged rape.
She said she did not fear the prospect of going to prison, and that she hopes to go on to be a fashion designer and open a business. She also said she will become a juvenile justice advocate.
“My story can change things. My story has changed me,” Lewis said. “The events that took place on that horrific day cannot be changed, as much as I wish I could. That day a combination of complicated actions took place resulting in the death of a person, as well as a stolen innocence of a child.”
“You have a story to tell,” Porter told her. “If you’re willing to tell that story in front of me and the members here in this courtroom, you should be willing and be able to tell that story to other young and vulnerable women in our community.”
Lewis initially was charged with first-degree murder. Asked in August if other charges could be filed, Polk County Attorney John Sarcone said only that “law enforcement continues to actively investigate all aspects of this matter.”
Iowa law requires people convicted of homicides to pay $150,000 in compensation, but Lewis’ attorney Matthew Sheeley argued that Brooks’ rape of Lewis made him more than 51% responsible for his own death. The judge rejected this argument and ordered Lewis to pay $150,000 to Brooks’ estate.
“The world has been hard to Pieper,” Magdalena Reese, another of Lewis’ attorneys, 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.”
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Lewis told the Des Moines Register she experienced a “mentally and emotionally abusive” home life after being adopted out of foster care at age 3 and after her parents divorced.
She was sexually assaulted at the Youth Emergency Services & Shelter facility in Des Moines after running away from home, according to her plea agreement.
After a series of unstable housing arrangements, Lewis slept in the hallways of an apartment complex where an acquaintance lived. There, she met the 28-year-old man who allegedly trafficked her.
Who was Zachary Brooks and how did he die?
Brooks, the man Lewis killed, was a father of three children, and worked t a transit company in Fort Dodge, Iowa. 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 met Brooks at a party, she told Des Moines police detectives. The man who allegedly trafficked Lewis first sent her 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 man who allegedly trafficked Lewis threatened her at knifepoint to force her to go to Brooks’ apartment again, according to the agreement. It said Brooks picked Lewis up at 10 p.m. and planned to give the man $50 worth of marijuana in exchange for Lewis 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 apartment of the man who allegedly trafficked her. A maintenance man found Brooks’ body that evening. Police arrested Lewis at the man’s apartment the next day.
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 man is a “perfect example” of human trafficking. Lewis said in her plea that she considered the man her boyfriend. Traffickers make victims feel like they’re part of their family so they will never leave, Waymire said.
“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.”
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.”
If you are a survivor of sexual assault, RAINN offers support through the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE & online.rainn.org).