FORT WORTH — The cases against three of four teenagers accused of forcing runaway girls into prostitution will remain in the juvenile court system, an attorney involved in the case said.
Judge Jean Boyd this week certified Martin Reyes, 17, to stand trial as an adult. Reyes already faced an adult charge of engaging in organized crime for alleged crimes that occurred after he turned 17.
The rulings came after a seven day-hearing that offered glimpses into a troubling world of teenage sex, drugs and partying in south and east Fort Worth.
The suspects, three of whom are now 17 and one who is 16, face charges ranging from sexual assault to human trafficking to forced prostitution. Prosecutors Tim Bednarz and Riley Shaw had sought to have them certified as adults.
During the hearing, a police detective described a ring of young men who forced runaway 14- and 15-year-old girls into prostitution through beatings, sexual assaults and threats. Customers were found by trolling low-income apartment complexes.
"Kind of like selling cookies door-to-door," testified Detective H. Murtaugh, describing how the suspects operated.
Defense attorneys pointed to a lack of physical injuries and suggested that the girls willfully abused drugs and participated in prostitution. They also argued authorities were inconsistent by charging some young people who were present when the alleged crimes occurred, and not others.
Defense Attorney Raul Nevaraz, whose client will remain a juvenile, "I think it was difficult to tell from the testimony what may or may not have transpired as far as any force."
Arrest leads to wider investigation
The alleged ring came to the attention of police in August 2007 when 32-year-old Debra Castillo was arrested for allegedly prostituting a 14-year-old girl at an east Fort Worth apartment complex.
Castillo told police she was pimping the girl as a favor to one of the teenage suspects who had intervened when a man harassed her, Murtaugh said.
That arrest morphed into a human trafficking investigation in which four victims — ages 14 to 16 — were identified, Murtaugh said
A fifth victim said that she was sexually assaulted in 2006 after some of the suspects took her to a hotel.
The victims told similar stories, Murtaugh said. All had run away from home. At first, the suspects feigned affection for the girls and supplied them with Crown Royal, cocaine and marijuana. Eventually, the girls were forced to have sex for money.
One girl said she was forced to go into an alley and have sex with three men in a row, she said. The girls were told: "If you don't, you can't be my girl anymore, or I'll beat you, or I'll kill your family."
All four were also sold to Chang Lee, the 56-year-old owner of a southeast Fort Worth convenience store, Murtaugh said. Known as "Cheno," he had a cot in a back room covered by a curtain at his store, Murtaugh said. He paid for the girls with cash and alcohol, Murtaugh said.
Lee is out on bond awaiting trial on a charge of organized crime.
Lee's attorney, Warren St. John of Fort Worth, said of the allegations: "I don't think there is much truthfulness to that."
From partying to prostitution
Defense attorneys argued that the girls weren't forced into anything.
They pointed to text messages between one girl and a suspect in which they discuss a trip to Cheno's store. The girl asked when the boys would pick her up and how she would get home.
One 16-year-old girl testified that she used drugs and alcohol and had run away from home up to 20 times. She said she met and began partying with one suspect in early 2006.
At parties, she would do "three or four lines of cocaine" and drink alcohol, she said.
"At the time, I liked it," she said.
The prostitution started as "a weekend thing," she said. Later she wanted to stop, but the suspects wouldn't let her. They stopped letting her use the phone and got mad if she hung around other guys.
She agreed with defense attorneys that she did not mention the prostitution or abuse to police when she was arrested as a runaway while the ring was supposedly operating.
"I was afraid to tell them," she said.
Defense attorneys questioned her about her MySpace page on which she wrote that girls could be pimps too.
"It's like a fun saying," The girl answered. "You know how guys are; we're saying girls can be like that too."