Hundreds of thousands of dollars are pouring into a fundraising site for a human trafficking victim convicted of killing the man she said repeatedly raped her.
A GoFundMe fundraiser created to support 17-year-old Pieper Lewis had raised more than $240,000 from 5,500 donations as of Wednesday afternoon.
Lewis pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and willful injury for stabbing to death Zachary Brooks, 37, who she says raped her multiple times in 2020 when she was 15.
During a sentencing hearing Tuesday she received five years of probation and a deferred judgment, meaning her record could be expunged before completion of the sentence if she meets the conditions of her sentence.
Leland Schipper, who taught freshman math to Lewis at Des Moines Lincoln High School, organized the fundraiser in part to help cover the restitution she legally owes Brooks’ estate.
But Lewis’ attorneys say they must determine whether Iowa law would allow the donated money to be used to pay the $150,000 in court-ordered restitution.
The vast majority of donations came in increments of less than $50. Almost every donor offered words of encouragement or outrage over the teen’s prosecution — and sometimes both.
Why Iowa law requires Pieper Lewis to pay $150,000
An Iowa law enacted in 1997 requires people convicted of homicides to pay $150,000 in compensation. By mid-morning Wednesday the fundraiser already had surpassed that amount.
Schipper attended both days of the sentencing hearing. He felt Porter ruled fairly, “giving compassionate justice, and using the system for what it should be designed for.”
But he was shocked Lewis still faced a restitution bill of $150,000. Schipper created a Go Fund Me fundraiser to help Lewis in November after the Des Moines Register publicized her story.
As recently as last week, it only had about $4,000 in donations. After Porter ruled Lewis had to pay restitution, Schipper reworked and republicized the GoFundMe site to capitalize on national media attention on the case.
“As I watched some of the people coming in from outside of our state, I think that people are in shock that Iowa has this law the way we do regarding the $150,000,” Schipper said. “This is a clear example of where it’s completely unjust.”
On Wednesday morning the fundraiser was raising so much money that Schipper increased its goal to $200,000. As the fundraiser passed the $130,000 mark, Schipper felt overwhelmed by the support for Lewis.
“Pieper’s case is so obvious to people why this law is flawed, but she’s not unique in this law being problematically applied,” Schipper said. “It’s beautiful and it’s amazing.”
Rekha Basu from 2021: The justice system should punish child sex trafficking, not victimize Pieper Lewis again
Will Pieper Lewis have to pay the restitution?
Lewis’ attorneys will discuss with her if they will appeal the order to pay $150,000.
Matthew Sheeley argued to Porter that Brooks was more than 51% responsible for his own death, and therefore Lewis should not have to pay his estate anything.
“I know that is going to outrage a number of people,” Sheeley said of the decision. “There are other options, legal avenues that might be available to Pieper, which will be explored.”
Porter based his decision on a 2017 Iowa Supreme Court case that found a 15-year-old who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder had to pay the $150,000 required by Iowa law, and that it is not unconstitutional when applied to juvenile homicide offenders.
“The court is cognizant that you and … your supporters will be frustrated with the imposition of the $150,000 in restitution to Mr. Brooks’ estate,” Porter told Lewis Tuesday. “This court is presented with no other option, other than which is dictated by the law of this state.”
Pieper Lewis’ attorney says restitution ‘the least of her concerns’
Fundraising is an option being considered to help Lewis pay the sum, Sheeley said. But her lawyers want to make sure that any funds she may take to pay Brooks’ estate will not violate the law.
“I think the restitution obligation that she has to now deal with is probably the least of her concerns,” Sheeley after Lewis was sentenced. “I’m pretty sure she’s going to be focused on doing what she needs to do to take care of herself.”
Schipper had contact with Lewis and her legal team late last year. Over the past two days, he has been in contact with her lawyers regarding the fundraiser.
If Lewis cannot use the money to pay off her restitution, she may be able to use it to pay for college or other expenses, Schipper said.
“They are excited about this as a path for Pieper to not have this debt,” Schipper said.
Lynn Hicks, chief of staff for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, said Thursday the attorney general’s office is not aware of anything that would prohibit the donations from being used for Lewis’ restitution.
The payment cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, and it does not preclude a victim’s family from suing for more damages. But there is nothing in the law that would appear to bar someone from using donations to pay the restitution, said Grant Gangestad, a criminal defense attorney who helps lead the Iowa Association for Justice, a trade group for trial lawyers.
For now, the best way for people to help Lewis if they do not already know her may be to give her space but support sex trafficking victims like her, according to her attorneys.
“Help Pieper and girls like her by saying we’re not accepting trafficking,” her attorney Paul White said after Lewis was sentenced. “That’s how we help Pieper. Don’t let her story be forgotten.”
Schipper plans to meet with Lewis once she is placed at the Fresh Start Women’s Center.
One way or another, he thinks Lewis will put the money to good use by paying back the Brooks’ family, paying for her education or donating it to a cause that can help young women like her.
“If for some reason this money can’t go to her restitution, there will be ways that it can be used to help sex trafficking victims,” Schipper said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Philip Joens covers public safety, city government and RAGBRAI for the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at 515-443-3347 at [email protected] or on Twitter @Philip_Joens.