At her first court hearing in June 2018, 17-year-old Chrystul Kizer trembled and wore an anti-suicide vest that dwarfed her already tiny frame. She'd been charged with first-degree homicide, auto theft, and arson in the murder of 34-year-old Kenosha, WI, resident Randall Volar. When the judge asked her if she understood the conditions of her $1 million bail, Kizer spoke for the first and only time that day.
"Yes," she said.
Volar's murder was big news in Kenosha, a former factory town located roughly halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee. On June 5, 2018, Volar's neighbors called 911 to report that his small, one-story home was on fire. When police and firefighters arrived they found his charred body, two bullet wounds visible in his head.
Law enforcement focused their investigation on Volar's missing BMW, quickly locating it in Milwaukee. Items inside connected the car to Kizer's 16-year-old brother, and then to Chrystul herself. A selfie posted on her Facebook page about five hours before the murder appeared to be Kizer in Volar's home. The caption read: "My Mugshot." Then, on June 8, according to a criminal complaint, Kizer posted a live video of herself holding a handgun and saying she "wasn't afraid to kill again."
When confronted by police, Kizer allegedly confessed, saying that “she got upset and was tired of Volar touching her” and that she had shot him.
While local public sentiment was against Kizer from the beginning, it turned out she was not the only one being investigated for criminal activity. In February 2018, months before his death, police received a complaint from a different teenage girl who said that Volar had been paying her for sex and filming it. In a search of his home, they confiscated computers and other electronics, along with women's bikini bottoms and underwear.
On February 22, Volar was arrested and charged with child enticement, using a computer to facilitate a child sex crime, and second-degree sexual assault of a child. Inexplicably, he was released the same day. At the time of his death he was suspected of human trafficking and child pornography — and Chrystul Kizer was among the girls police had footage of him having sex with.
Federal law dictates that any child under the age of 18 who has been bought or sold for sex is a sex-trafficking victim, regardless of circumstance. In Wisconsin, sex-trafficking victims have the option of an "affirmative" defense, meaning that if they committed a crime while being trafficked, they can use that as a defense against certain charges. But rather than hand over the trove of evidence implicating Volar in numerous sex crimes, District Attorney Michael Gravely entered into a protracted battle with Kizer's defense, refusing to allow them to review the video, photographic, and financial evidence that would prove their client had been trafficked.
After months of legal wrangling, Kizer's attorneys were granted access and and asked the judge to consider the videos and photos of Kizer (and other girls) as an affirmative defense.
But on Monday, December 9, 2019, Judge David Wilk ruled that an affirmative defense was "limited" and he found the statute did not apply to Kizer. His baffling decision means she now faces life in prison, and is not allowed to use the sexual abuse she endured as a defense.
“The court,” Wilk announced, “is satisfied that a blanket affirmative defense to all acts leads to an absurd result.”
In effect, he decided that all trafficking victims should be tried for violent crimes, setting an extremely dangerous precedent.
At a time when the laws about sex trafficking and sex work have become a mainstream issue, Kizer's case stands as a stark example of the divide between policy and real-time criminal justice. The Washington Post's remarkable deep dive into her story shines some much-needed national attention on the case. So far, Kizer's story has not raised the kind of celebrity and media awareness that Tennessee sex trafficking survivor Cyntoia Brown received. Brown was granted clemency in August after serving 15 years in prison for murdering the man who bought her for sex when she was underage.
Kizer's family has set up a GoFundMe account to aid her while she is in custody at the Kenosha County Jail, unable to meet her $1 million bail.