Former McDonald's Worker's Strange, Sad Tale Of Prostitution
"OK, it's showtime!"
That's what Keith Handley, her husband and a McDonald's franchise owner, allegedly said, morning, afternoon and night, to pep her up to have sex with other men. Shelley Lynn's story is strange, and it only gets stranger the deeper you look. It's little surprise that for two decades, no one seemed to believe that her millionaire boss from McDonald's would get her fired, pimp her in Las Vegas to fulfill his own sexual fantasies, marry her, and then divorce her, plunging her into poverty again.
But with a witness and an outspoken, controversial civil rights lawyer by her side, Lynn (pictured at left) is suing Handley -- alleging sex trafficking, conspiracy to obstruct justice, fraud, racketeering, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. And she's suing McDonald's, claiming it failed to supervise its franchisee. Her lawyer expects her to win millions of dollars in damages.
"We want to put McDonald's on trial," says Patricia Barry, Lynn's lawyer. "The man [Handley] was running illegal pimping operations out of McDonald's franchises. Why didn't McDonald's at least do something about it?"
McDonald's corporate offices referred AOL Jobs to a statement from Handley. "I will vigorously defend these claims against me," Handley said. "I strongly caution anyone from jumping to conclusions about this matter. These are just allegations." They're also allegations, he notes, from 19 years ago.
Is McDonald's To Blame?
"Woman Blames McDonald's For Forcing Her Into Prostitution," roared the headlines when this story broke last month. It's a grabby phrase, but that's not really the argument Barry is making in the lawsuit she filed.
The lawsuit does argue that McDonald's minimum wages, lack of benefits and weak job protections made Lynn vulnerable to prostitution. And the lawsuit does accuse the fast food giant of failing to supervise one of its franchisees. Handley was allegedly pimping Lynn from the McDonald's outlets he ran in California. But the bulk of allegations focus on Handley, not McDonald's corporate.
Barry has a knack for getting controversial cases -- and trouble. Although she won national renown in 1984 when she argued the landmark sexual harassment case, Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, before the Supreme Court, four years later, she filed for bankruptcy. Drawn-out civil rights cases and defending women who couldn't pay had "destroyed" her, she says, and were discouraging young lawyers from taking up sex discrimination as their cause.
In 2005, Barry was privately reproved by the California Bar. Last August, the state Bar suspended Barry for 60 days and put her on probation for two years for filing "frivolous causes of action" in two lawsuits. Barry says the charge was "nonsense," and she wears the discipline "like a badge of courage."
The Lynn lawsuit makes for unusual reading, beginning with Barry's lengthy diatribe on the state of women in America, including references to Bill Maher, birth control, Rush Limbaugh, a transgender man, and the glamorization of pimps in popular culture. And then, finally, Keith Handley. To Barry, Lynn's story is on a continuum with all the other victimized women she's represented.
"Insubordination" At McDonald's
Lynn met Handley in 1982 when she found work as a counter girl at a McDonald's in Arroyo Grande, Calif. She was only 29, but apparently already a deeply bruised, vulnerable woman. A high school dropout, she had three children and three ex-husbands, and had battled bipolar disorder and multiple suicide attempts.
Handley owned the joint. He was 12 years older, and worldly, at least in Lynn's eyes: a former Merchant Marine, born and raised in London, with a good education and money in the bank. After a few years, they started dating. Soon after, her manager fired her, with Handley standing by his side, for "insubordination." She allegedly refused to put away some ice.
She denies it. "I worked harder in this place than anybody else. I was a model employee," she says.
After she was fired, she says Handley wouldn't give her any money. But he did bring her and her kids McDonald's for dinner every night. And that's when it all began: the pimping, the drinking, the depression, the wedding, the divorce.
Six Years At The Chicken Ranch
After Lynn was fired and back on welfare, she says she decided to try to make it as a dancer in Las Vegas. She claims Handley bought a house with a swimming pool for them there, and promised Lynn that he'd soon sell his franchises so that they could begin a new life together.
But Handley never sold his franchises. He never moved to Las Vegas. Instead, Lynn says he pressured her to start working, claiming he couldn't afford the upkeep on two houses. The most logical way for a girl with no education to make enough money, he supposedly said, would be as a prostitute.
Lynn said no. She claims that she said no everyday for months. But eventually he wore her down. "It was kind of like a mental brainwashing," Lynn says.
"You have to remember that she was more vulnerable than a lot of women," says Barry. "She didn't have an education. There was a lot of violence in her life."
At the end of 1986, Handley drove her to the Chicken Ranch Brothel in Pahrump, Nev., where she worked continuously for the next six years. According to the lawsuit, Lynn once had to have sex with 12 men in one night. One client made her bladder bleed. Another caused nerve damage to her shoulder. Another grabbed her breast so hard that he left it bruised. Sometimes she'd throw up during fellatio.
Under Chicken Ranch's policy, Lynn claims that she wasn't allowed to refuse any client, unless he was disabled, or black. A spokesman for the Chicken Ranch denied that, saying their prostitutes have always been able to choose to refuse a customer, for whatever reason.
Just Lay On Your Back; No Big Deal
Lynn says Handley wanted her to describe in detail the sex that she had with clients and got aroused by it. ("It's not sexy," Lynn says, about her days as a prostitute. "I got sick of pretending for his fantasies that it was.") She also claims that he'd call her multiple times a day, often from his McDonald's franchises. "What do you weigh?" he'd ask. "How far are you going to run today? Remember, your body is your money." Lynn's body was worth $350, on average, for a freelance gig.
But even still, Lynn says, "I was very, very deeply in love with this man," and their life. She would go out with Handley, and other McDonald's franchisees and their wives. "They treated you like somebody," she said, before her voice broke into quiet sobs. "And not as if you were nobody all your life."
When the couple married in March, 1988, she says that they signed a prenuptial agreement, which said that all of Handley's earnings from his McDonald's franchises were community property -- both Lynn's and Handley's, even if they parted ways. Lynn thought her days as a $50-an-hour prostitute were over.
But she claims that six weeks after their marriage Handley started pimping her on freelance jobs, which is illegal, even in Nevada. He pressured her to stop taking her bipolar medication, and encouraged her to drink. And he kept a meticulous record of her every dollar of income, and every itemized expense: condoms, KY Jelly, Betadine, STD checks.
Lynn's attempts to change her lot failed. After she bought a rental property, she says that Handley made her sell it. When she finally put her foot down and said she'd never sell sex again, he filed for divorce in 1994.
'Get A Lawyer'
Lynn became penniless after the divorce. If the judge had believed her claims about her husband, she would have received long-term support, but he didn't. According to Lynn, Handley claimed that she had been a prostitute since her teenage years and that he had desperately tried to get her to stop, offering to put her through school, pay for her training or buy her a small business to manage.
Jerry Withrow, Lynn's former co-worker, submitted a similar declaration, claiming Lynn told him that prostitution was "good easy money," and that "if it is not big money, it is not worth my time."
Around the same time, Lynn also appealed to McDonald's for help -- with no success. She says that she called corporate headquarters and was told to "get a lawyer." When she called a regional manager, Bill Marble, and told him that Handley had coerced her into prostitution, and induced his employee to sign false statements against her, he also dismissed her.
"She never talked to me about it," says Marble, who's now a franchise owner of the Five Guys burger chain in Oregon. He says he doesn't recognize her name, but Keith Handley "sounded familiar."
In 2009, Lynn says she wrote a letter to McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner. No one replied.
A Pillar Of The Community
It's been a long time now. Barry will have a tough time arguing that the statute of limitations hasn't passed, writes labor attorney Michael Newman on Employment Law Observer. In California, the statute of limitations begins when the victim has reason to suspect a crime was committed.
No matter where the lawsuit ends up, it's a story with a lot of important questions, and a singularly tragic ending.
Lynn says that she is currently on disability for her bipolar disorder and shows symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder too. Sometimes, Lynn says, she won't leave her house for weeks at a time. "I've been searching for years for someone to believe me," she says. "Living in poverty, there was no way to find a lawyer."
But then, she says, she found some more proof backing her story. She claims that Withrow -- who also was Handley's employee for 16 years and the best man at the couple's wedding -- confessed to Lynn a few years ago that Handley had pressured him to lie about her in the divorce proceedings and promised to give him a 25 percent share of the franchise if he'd sign a false statement to that effect. He never got the 25 percent share, and he's now written a new declaration, which is part of Lynn's lawsuit.
Handley is in his 70s now. He's fighting cancer and a brain disorder, according to Withrow's statement. His much younger third wife, Deborah, is set to inherit all Handley's assets when he dies, the statement claims.
"My life is completely destroyed, and he's walking around -- Mr. Pillar of the Community," says Lynn. "People think he's this moral upstanding guy. He owns six McDonald's."
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Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin. Follow Claire on Twitter. Email Claire at firstname.lastname@example.org. Add Claire to your Google+ circles.more...