A fundraiser was launched in support of a teenage human trafficking victim who was ordered to pay $150,000 to the family of her accused rapist for fatally stabbing him two years ago. It has now raised more than double what she owed.
Pieper Lewis, 17, who was initially charged with first-degree murder, was sentenced Tuesday in an Iowa court to five years of closely supervised probation and ordered to pay $150,000 restitution to the family of Zachary Brooks, 37, who she fatally stabbed in June 2020.
Officials previously said Lewis was a runaway who had sought to escape an abusive life with her adopted mother and found herself sleeping in the hallways of a Des Moines apartment building when a 28-year-old man took her in, but later forcibly trafficked her to other men for sex.
She was 15 years old when she stabbed Brooks more than 30 times in a Des Moines apartment after allegedly being repeatedly raped by him in the weeks leading up to the incident.
Police and prosecutors have not disputed that Lewis was sexually assaulted and trafficked. But prosecutors have argued that Brooks was asleep at the time he was stabbed and not an immediate danger to Lewis.
In his sentencing, Polk County District judge David M. Porter said Lewis had been given the "second chance" she had asked for by avoiding prison time. But, he said she would still have to pay her accused rapist's family, noting that the $150,000 restitution was mandatory under Iowa law that has been upheld by the Iowa Supreme Court.
“This court is presented with no other option,” Porter said of the mandated restitution.
More than $323,000 raised in less than 48 hours
In less than 48 hours, Iowa residents looking to support the teen managed to raise more than double what she owed to her alleged rapist's family, with more than $323,200 raised through over 8,000 donations by early Thursday morning. The top donation was for $5,000 from an anonymous donor.
The fundraiser was launched on GoFundMe by Leland Schipper, who said they were Lewis’ former teacher. NBC News could not immediately confirm the connection, but contacted Schipper for comment.
"Today, my former student, Pieper Lewis bravely took the microphone during her sentencing hearing and told the courtroom that her voice mattered. I was incredibly proud of her," Schipper said in a post on the fundraising page, referencing statements Lewis made ahead of her sentencing Tuesday.
“My spirit has been burned, but still glows through the flames,” Lewis, who earned her GED while being held in juvenile detention, said in the prepared statement.
“Hear me roar, see me glow, and watch me grow," she said, adding: "I am a survivor."
In choosing to sentence Lewis to supervised probation, rather than prison time, Schipper said Porter appeared to have "recognized that Pieper was a victim and a child."
"Pieper will avoid prison, and she will have access to some of the services she needs to continue healing," Schipper wrote.
Still, the teacher said Lewis did not owe her accused rapist's family "justice" and should not be financially burdened for the rest of her life because of what happened.
Many appeared to share that sentiment, with the fundraiser flooded with messages of support.
"You are a Phoenix rising from the ashes," one contributor wrote. "Your words are so moving and poetic. I’m so sorry your life thus far has been so traumatic at such a young age."
"As a father of a daughter, I embrace Pieper as my own and only want her protected and healing. You are all of Iowa’s daughter," another wrote. "Remember, the world can be a beautiful place; though filled with monsters. YOU.ARE.A.SURVIVOR."
One person said they were donating from France, writing: "Hopefully, this will contribute to help Pieper get back on her feet and finally get the happy life she deserves."
Schipper said additional funds raised would be used to help remove financial barriers for Lewis in pursuing a college or university degree or starting her own business, as well as giving her the "financial capacity to explore ways to help other young victims of sex crimes."