Assistant U.S. Attorney Tessa Hessmiller, center, receives the Unsung Hero Award from then-President of the State Bar of Michigan Representative Assembly Daniel Quick (who became Immediate Past President later that day), assisted by Erin Toburen, left, who nominated Hessmiller.
PHOTO BY BRYAN ESLER FOR THE STATE BAR OF MICHIGAN
by Cynthia Price
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tessa Hessmiller has packed more interesting experiences into her young life than many people twice her age.
And Hessmiller has pulled lessons and skills from her adventures and put them towards helping victims of human trafficking, amply qualifying her to win this year’s Unsung Hero Award from the State Bar of Michigan Representative Assembly.
Even before she entered Princeton for her undergraduate schooling, she had visited Tanzania to teach English to over 100 fourth graders, who ranged in age from 9 to 15. The pattern continued as she went through Georgetown University Law Center, served in the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps of the U.S. Army, and now, as she combines working and volunteering to help in the elimination of human trafficking.
“I always had an idea that I would be drawn towards something that had to do with helping people in really dire straits for my career. That’s what drew me to travel, to study war crimes and international refugee situations. I was drawn to humanitarian crisis-type problems, and that’s led to my current involvement with human trafficking,” Hessmiller says.
The Lawrenceville, New Jersey, native took off right after high school for the East African country of Tanzania. “It was really rewarding. It’s such a beautiful country, and so welcoming,” she says.
“I kept in touch with a few of my students, one of them in particular. She held a bunch of fund-raisers over the years so she could afford high school and college, and after she graduated from college, she put all of her younger siblings through, so I was really proud to be a part of that,” she continues.
After completing her degree from Princeton in Public Policy and International Affairs, and while at Georgetown Law, Hessmiller went back to Africa. She worked in the office of the legal advisor to the president of the small country of Eritrea, which struggled for 30 years to gain independence from Ethiopia after being colonized by Italy and, briefly, ruled by England.
“I documented the damages they incurred as a result of war with Ethiopia.” Hessmiller explains. “The two countries went to the Hague to settle on damages. I helped prepare the statistics and did research. Each country had committed war crimes, so I was part of the process calculating the damages but also assessing fault.”
She then fulfilled her ROTC?commitment by entering the JAG Corps, and, after training in Virginia and George, wound up in South Korea.
“My husband, who was also in the JAG?Corps, and I were stationed in South Korea but fairly close to the border with North Korea, north of Seoul. It was really interesting because their country had been completely destroyed in the Korean War. Every business, every building, has been developed and constructed since then, and they take pride in their industry and achievement,” Hessmiller said.
After that, the couple went to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas City, home to the highest-level maximum security prison for military.
“I worked for a year as legal advisor to the warden of the prison. While I was there, there was a big prison riot so the following year I prosecuted 13 of the inmates who had been in the riot. That was 13 different trials, so I?got quite a lot of trial experience,” she says.
When they got out of the service, their positive experience with Kansas City led Hessmiller to apply to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Midwestern cities. She says, “When I got the interview here at the Western District of Michigan, I started researching Grand Rapids and said, oh my gosh this is exactly what we’re looking for — the beautiful lakes, the lack of traffic... We’re very happy here.”
At the office, led by U.S. Attorney Patrick Miles, Hessmiller has focused on human trafficking, in particular sexual, and not labor, trafficking. She has prosecuted nine defendants who had 15 victims, 11 minors and four adults, all from West Michigan.
“It’s really eye-opening and fascinating,” she says. “It’s definitely not happening ‘elsewhere.’”
In 2000, Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, strengthening laws against traffickers and services for victims. Hessmiller notes that a recent overhaul of the human trafficking legislation in Michigan made it almost exactly the same as the Federal act, and most cases end up coming to the U.S. Attorney’s office.
“We have a Victim Witness Unit as do the FBI and Homeland Security. They keep track of the victims, and get them to services they need, like counseling and education. We don’t have a ton of funding to provide those services directly but we do keep in touch with the victims and give them referrals.”
She was the inaugural chair of the Kent County Human Trafficking Task Force, which has just finished its first year. “That actually went really well,” she comments. “We grew that organization from scratch to over 125 members, and have developed a training program, for people who could then go out and give the trainings themselves — to schools, 911 dispatchers, agencies, whoever asks for it.”
The curriculum talks about what human trafficking is, both sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Within sex trafficking there are two categories, one the trafficking of a minor, the other trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion. Training also covers the red flags and signs people should look out for and report, and techniques victimizers use to target and control those trafficked.
“The sad thing is, really with a lot of the victims, their whole life has prepared them to be vulnerable to this type of trafficking,” Hessmiller says. “Some of them are very easily led into it, They’ve already had the history of abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and sex traffickers know how to look for people who are easily manipulated.”
Hessmiller is also on the board of Silent Observer for Kent County, and the Kent County Children’s Assessment Center — “They do amazing work there,” she says. She is a member of the Junior League of Grand Rapids, which is focusing on children’s physical health.
Noting that she is now “sung,” Hessmiller expresses deep gratitude for the nomination to Erin Toburen, a corporate lawyer at Dematics, and husband Mike Toburen, a solo practitioner.
“It was just an incredible honor to be nominated,” she says, “and I’m really grateful and completely flattered to be chosen.”
Hessmiller and her husband, now an attorney for Amway, are expecting their first child in February.
Subscribe to the Legal News!
Full access to public notices, articles, columns, archives, statistics, calendar and more
Day Pass Only $4.95!
Three-County & Full Pass also available