Home had spun into a living hell for a mom and her 16-year-old daughter.
In the fall of 2015, the teen was already on probation for stealing her mom’s checkbook and writing a hot check. She was seeing two therapists, but she refused to give up smoking pot and her rebellious ways.
Her mother felt handcuffed to a problem she couldn’t solve. She wasn’t sleeping well and though her job required travel, dealing with her troubled daughter forced her to work from home, putting her in a precarious position with her employer.
That summer she’d bought a gun safe, but not for storing weapons. Instead, she’d use it to stash alcohol, credit cards and other valuables that she wanted to keep out of her daughter’s hands.
“We had people over and I had them putting their purses and billfolds in the safe,” the mother recalled. “I just didn’t trust her anymore.”
So when the girl announced she wanted to go live with her best friend and the girl’s mother, even her probation officer thought a mini-break for the mother and daughter was a good idea.
“We were at odds with each other,” the mother said. “I love my daughter but I didn’t like her. I didn’t want to be around her and I needed a break so she went to stay with them.”
The agreement was for 30 days. The teen still had to attend school and look for a job. Her mom would continue to pay for her cellphone but only if the girl promised to respond within four hours to her phone calls and texts.
The girl seemed to be holding up her end of the deal, but her mother would soon grow suspicious after tracking her daughter’s cellphone location and seeing it repeatedly ping at a north Fort Worth motel.
When she pulled up the girl’s call log, one phone number came up over and over again — each call lasting only a minute. She researched the number online and soon came across a picture of the back of an unknown female wearing a thong and bent over a bed.
“I’m like, ‘Whoa.’ Then there’s an arrow pointing to the right and so I click on that arrow and the next picture is her. They were all her,” the mother said. “She’s laying on the bed. She’s got a nightie on ... I immediately just bawled.”
In her short time away, the teen had been lured into the world of sex trafficking, a crime of stolen innocence that is booming in North Texas, one that crosses racial and socio-economic lines. Predators lure their prey, often teen girls, through social media or social circles, then use websites like Backpage and Craigslist to sell them — as modern-day slaves for sex.
The mother and her daughter are not being identified to protect the teen’s identity.
Sex trafficking is a crime that’s becoming as lucrative as drug dealing, but with fewer risks.
“If you get caught with a van full of girls, you’re just running around with a van full of girls,” Fort Worth major case Sgt. John Phillips said. “It’s profitable. The only thing you have to deal with is the human factor, girls wanting to run away, cause you trouble.
“But bottom line is you can sell that girl over and over.”
Sex trafficking is a category of human trafficking, the other being labor trafficking — which is most common among undocumented workers who risk exploitation in jobs such as construction, food service and housekeeping.
The North Texas Anti-Trafficking Team was created in 2005, but the issue of sex trafficking took center stage in the DFW area in 2011 when Super Bowl XLV landed at then-Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, with experts warning of an influx of sex trafficking victims being enslaved as prostitutes.
Law enforcement authorities and social service workers, however, say the problem is much bigger than one big event.
There are an estimated 79,000 child victims of sex trafficking in Texas, according to a 2017 report by the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault, a collaboration of researchers and investigators from the University of Texas at Austin.
Although experts question whether an accurate number can be attached to sex trafficking, they do acknowledge that they can’t successfully fight it on their own.
Last year, the Tarrant County 5-Stones Taskforce was created so that concerned individuals and government and community agencies could join forces to help to combat trafficking through prevention, education and intervention.
This past March, the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office initiated its own human trafficking unit.
“A lot of law enforcement is going to a victim-centered approach when it comes to these types of related offenses,” said Lt. Kevin Turner, who oversees the new sheriff’s unit. “An individual may be arrested for prostitution but, dig a little deeper, and you realize this is really not a criminal that we’re dealing with — this is a victim.”
A different approach
When Phillips started his law enforcement career 25 years ago, prostitution was often termed a “victimless crime.”
“That was actually the attitude I was trained in and was taught. The interaction with all the prostitutes drew you into that conclusion,” said Phillips, who is supervisor of the major case unit, where the human trafficking unit is housed.
But since then, Phillips and many law enforcement agencies have changed their way of thinking.
“From my interaction since that time with victims of human trafficking and prostitutes who are recovering from that lifestyle, I can tell you that the average age a girl gets into prostitution is around 14 years old,” Phillips said. “In our society, a 14-year-old can’t make the decision to be a prostitute.”
In Fort Worth, the major-case unit assists a detective, officer, two Homeland Security agents and a civilian task force coordinator in investigating human trafficking. Tarrant County’s new trafficking unit is also helping Fort Worth and other area agencies.
“I’m borrowing resources from other entities to give this the attention I think it needs,” Phillips said.
From March through July alone of this year, Fort Worth police have looked into 45 human trafficking tips, 13 of which have led to full-blown criminal investigations, Phillips said.
Of the 433 human trafficking cases reported in Texas this year to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 306 have been for sex trafficking, with most of them coming from the DFW and Houston areas.
Tips about possible human trafficking come from various sources like human trafficking hotlines or motel employees suspicious of what is taking place in a rented room. On occasion, a “john” has alerted authorities after arriving for a planned sexual encounter only to find that his date appears to be under-aged.
Frequently, the cases are identified as police investigate other reports — such as juvenile runaways.
“We recently rescued a 15-year-old that was a runaway and trafficked for approximately a month,” Turner said.
When someone is picked up for selling sex — whether it be a minor or an adult — police work to connect the individual with help through social service groups like Alliance for Children, One Safe Place, CASA of Tarrant County and SafeHaven.
In a one-year period ending in August, Alliance for Children provided services for 13 children involved in sex trafficking investigations.
Other nonprofits, many as part of the North Texas Coalition Against Human Trafficking, assist victims with a variety of services, from legal aid to counseling.
‘Grooming their victims’
Lindsey Dula, director of Program Services for Alliance for Children, said myths abound about what sex trafficking victims look like. Educating people and businesses is vital in identifying victims, she said.
“It’s not going to be a 12-year-old dressed up like ‘Pretty Woman.’ That’s not what you’re going to see,” Dula said.
While older sex trafficking victims might be forced to work for escort services or erotic massage parlors, young victims are often tucked away in seedy motel rooms, where the traffic is steady.
“That’s when alarm bells should be going off,” Dula said. “That kid might be dressed in sweatpants and a sweatshirt. We have to take some of the glamorized version of what this life looks like and make sure we’re giving good information so we can best identify these kids.”
Social media has given predators an easy way to find girls to exploit.
“A lot of what we’re seeing now is these traffickers are grooming their victims,” Turner said. “They are interacting with these victims, a lot of time through social media, finding their weaknesses and then exploiting their weaknesses, trying to convince these individuals that they’re here for them and looking out for their best interests when that’s not the case.”
Many times, the traffickers portray themselves as a friend or boyfriend, encouraging potential victims to run away from home. The trafficker then uses that role to persuade the girl to have sex for money.
“It’s ‘If you love me, you’ll do this for me,’ pushing victims to engage in prostitution-related offenses,” Turner said. “Mental manipulation is basically what it amounts to.”
In a recent Tarrant County case, a 17-year-old woman told investigators it was the lure of a possible job at a local call center that prompted her to meet with a 34-year-old man. The man enticed the teen with money and romance — leading her to believe they were in a dating relationship — before eventually forcing her into prostitution.
“The victim stated the male would buy her nice things, then make her prostitute herself to repay any debts she owed him,” Turner said. “After a month of prostitution, the victim made an outcry to a ‘john,’ who took the victim back to her family.”
The victim was taken to a hospital and contacted authorities to report the crime, Turner said.
Her alleged trafficker, James Phillip Wooten, is in Tarrant County Jail, charged with compelling prostitution of a person under 18.
Dula said teens dealing with substance abuse problems or those who have run away from home can be at great risk for being approached by traffickers.
“I think a belief in the community is that the majority of these kids are being snatched off the street and that’s not what the situation is,” she said. “These kids are running away and being offered shelter or food and are being kind of sucked into this life.”
If the child ran away from home because they didn’t want to abide by parental rules or were escaping something traumatic, the trafficker plays on their desire for independence, Dula said.
“It ends up being this pitch toward a child’s autonomy a lot of the time. As a lot of teenagers do, in that fight to be this young, independent adult, unfortunately they get sucked into some very sad, serious, dangerous situations that they often don’t know how to get out of.”
‘Tried to make it work’
In the 16-year-old’s case, a friend introduced her to the men who would become her traffickers, or pimps.
“I didn’t want to go to school no more because I wanted to get some money,” the teen recalls. “I was like, ‘I can’t get a job because I’m only 16. You’ve got to have a high school diploma.’ Then, whenever I was talking to my friend, she said, ‘Well I know these guys that can help you out. She didn’t tell me, ‘Hey these dudes are going to make you have sex to get some money.’ ”
The teen said she was eased into prostitution and believed initially that she was in control.
Her pimps — there would ultimately be three — kept her supplied with Xanax. They gave her anything she requested — from food to clothing to getting her nails done. And they still dropped her off at school during the day.
“I didn’t want to go back home and, in my head, I had nowhere else to go,” she said. “I just tried to make it work out for the best.”
The closest she would get to the cash would be when a john handed it to her. She then had to immediately give it to her traffickers.
“If I don’t give it, I’m going to get thrown down a staircase, like for real. These are big, big, big dudes,” she said. “They’re huge and I was little ol’ me, 16, who only weighed like 120 pounds.”
But soon, she would see some of the pimps being abusive to the other girls. When she mouthed off, she’d get burned with a cigarette. One of the men raped her.
After realizing her daughter was being trafficked, the mother contacted Fort Worth police. She wanted police to arrest her daughter to get her away from the traffickers, but says the detective told her such an arrest would require a sting operation.
And even if the teen was arrested, the mother said, the detective warned her that “her pimp will probably have her bailed out before you can even get there.”
“They’ll take her and she’ll be gone,” the mother said she was told.
The mother began working behind the scenes with the detective and her daughter’s probation officer to try to get the teen back home safely. What she didn’t know was that her daughter, after being raped, decided it was time to escape.
She left — barefoot and with her few belongings stuffed into a pillowcase — but later returned, demanding that her last pimp give her some of the money she had made.
“I’m making $2,000 a night. There’s no way you can’t give me half of my money. You’re still winning regardless,” the teen said she told her pimp as they argued in his car. “He started getting all mouthy with me.”
With the car moving, the teen threw it into park and began swinging wildly at the man.
“He threw me out of the car because I busted his lip open,” the teen recalled. “He opened the door, he puts me out while the car is moving, shut the door, locked it. Threw everything out I had, bundled up $200 dollars and said, ‘Here you go whore.’ ”
The mother says to imagine what would have happened to her daughter had she not gotten out is terrifying.
“I do think she would have died, maybe from overdose. They would have taken her somewhere else because everything I know now about trafficking, they wouldn’t have let her go,” the mother said.
‘You’re a survivor’
After getting away, the teen first stayed with her boyfriend, and then came home.
Her mother, under the advice of law enforcement, waited for her daughter to open up on her own about what she had been through.
The daughter kept her thoughts mostly to herself, and later found out she was pregnant, likely the result of her rape since most of the “johns” wore condoms.
It would be weeks before she began to talk to authorities about what had happened; two months before she shared all of her secrets.
The teen said her reluctance to talk was partly because she was scared of what her traffickers might do, and partly because she did not see herself as a victim.
“I don’t really see myself as a victim because I put myself in that situation, because I like, wanted to do that,” the teen said. “But I couldn’t get out, so mom will tell you I’m a victim.”
“You’re a survivor,” her mother interrupts.
Dula said such an attitude is not uncommon in young victims of sex trafficking, who are sometimes referred to by social workers as “compliant victims.”
With such attitudes, Dula said, the biggest struggle can be getting the young victims into a stable environment and persuading them to stay there so they can receive treatment.
“Their fight or flight mode has gone to flight so their runaway propensity sometimes increases, which makes it difficult,” Dula said.
Dula said such children also have a hard time because they feel they have been “living on their own.”
“So now, when you put them into almost any kind of environment — whether it’s a home or shelter environment — now there’s rules and there’s things they haven’t been used to for a really long period of time,” Dula said. “That’s also a difficult adjustment and once again, sometimes leads to these kids wanting to get away.”
The 16-year-old’s case would expand into one of the largest investigations of its kind in North Texas, spanning nine months and drawing in help from the Department of Homeland Security, Arlington police and the ATF. A dozen victims were identified.
Ultimately, nine people — many with ties to the Polywood Crips street gang that operated in the Polytechnic Heights neighborhood of Fort Worth — would plead guilty to federal charges in the case.
Seven received federal prison time ranging from 12 to 30 years. Two of the defendants, both females, received five years probation.
Since the ordeal, the teen, now 19, has undergone therapy and drug rehab. She had dropped out of school but later began a state-accredited program and has obtained her high school diploma.
The teen has shared her story with others.
She admits she sometimes acts like what happened is not a big deal — disconnecting herself from it — but she has been warned by her therapists that the ordeal will follow her like a dark cloud.
“It doesn’t even feel like it happened to me,” the teen said. “It’s always like I’m telling someone else’s story.”
Her mother has also been sharing their story, working to educate others about sex trafficking.
“This is not a one-time situation. This is out there,” she warns. “They’re after us. They have figured out they can make so much money and they are out for product.”
Who to call
If you are a victim or suspect someone is a victim of human trafficking, contact:
Fort Worth Police Department Human Trafficking Unit: 817-392-4554
Tarrant County 5-Stones Taskforce: 817-392-4533
National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline: 1-888-373-7888