Growing up on 'The Trail'
The 14-year-old girl riding in the back seat of her foster father’s king-cab pickup suddenly stiffened as they neared the Las Vegas Trail exit on Interstate 30. At that moment she wanted nothing more than to be playing in the softball doubleheader she was missing some 100 miles away in Athens, where she now lives in considerable peace.
In the car seat next to her was her 9-month-old son — a child born to a child victim of repeated sexual and physical assaults.
Atop a hill visible though the driver’s side window, a drab motel rose into view. The Knights Inn, within sight of the Western Hills Elementary School playground a block over, is known on Las Vegas Trail as a last-resort roof for a night, a week, sometimes months for those who have drifted to society’s fringes: drug addicts, prostitutes, sex offenders, the chronically unemployed, the recently evicted and, too often, young, struggling single mothers who are out of options.
For the girl in the pickup, impregnated at age 12 by a man she believes to be 30-something and whom she knows only as Jose, a man who discarded her plea for aid like a snuffed-out cigarette — “I’m only 12 and I’ve been kidnapped, can you help me?” — the sight of the Knights Inn revived her darkest memories.
She lived at the cramped motel on two occasions, sharing space with her biological mother, her Alzheimer’s-stricken grandmother, her little sister and her pregnant big sister and her own child.
To protect the girl’s identity, she and others associated with her are not being identified.
“What scared me is me seeing the hotel again, because that’s where it all started,” she said. “It was so depressing and gross. It was disgusting. There were bugs, there were bedbugs, the bathroom was horrible. That hotel is where me and my big sister would always fight. That was the hotel where you pretty much had nothing.”
This was her indoctrination to Fort Worth, a gateway to the perils of Las Vegas Trail, a woebegone four-lane strip on the city’s west side that stretches nearly a mile, from I-30 south to Camp Bowie Boulevard.
The street borders an aging middle-class neighborhood of single-family homes, most with nicely manicured lawns. The homeowners are predominantly retirees from Carswell Air Force Base (now Naval Air Station Fort Worth) and General Dynamics, a portion of which was sold to Lockheed Martin in the early 1990s. The first homes in the postwar, mid-century neighborhood were built in 1956. Through the mid-1980s, the neighborhood skewed almost exclusively white and predominantly white collar.
Those homes now butt up against low-income apartments that gradually went up over an 18-year period from 1967 to 1985. Expansive, often run-down complexes line the entirety of Las Vegas Trail, flanked by a few convenience stores with tattered banners advertising “food stamps accepted here” and with loiterers often outnumbering the cars in their parking lots. There’s also a beauty shop, a supersized coin laundry and, at the south end, two day care centers.
Since 1985, and perhaps accelerating in the past 15 years, a socioeconomic slide caused by population shifts, neglect, and a lack of infrastructure investment, such as parks and community centers, thoroughly depressed the area. The cheap motels and deteriorating apartments attracted transients, and over time the neighborhood became a haven for gangs, drug dealers and pervasive crime.
Today it all adds up to “The Trail,” a multiracial mashup of poverty personified — a perpetual cycle of violence, substance abuse, unemployment and underemployment begetting anger, frustration, hopelessness and a generational disorder of absentee parents and children left to raise themselves and one another.
“At one time, this congregation had considered relocating, saying that this was not a good neighborhood,” said the Rev. Raul Gutierrez of the Western Hills United Methodist Church, whose membership is mostly elderly.
The brown-brick church, directly across from the elementary school to the east and the Knights Inn to the north, offers a weekly food pantry and financial aid to individuals when it can. It even had basketball goals installed in its large parking lot to give the area’s kids a place to play.
“It failed,” Gutierrez said of the movement to relocate the church, “because some of the people who basically built this place had a vision for this church to be, hopefully, a light for this community. It is a light.”
Last November, the Justice Department awarded a $500,000 grant to Fort Worth as part of Project Safe Neighborhoods. The money is earmarked specifically for the Stop Six/Poly area and Las Vegas Trail. The nationwide program is designed to disrupt the cycle of violence.
A breeding ground for violence
Las Vegas Trail, and poverty-ravaged neighborhoods like it, are deemed high-risk areas for child abuse and, even more common, neglect. The proof is in studies conducted by Dr. Dyann Daley, former executive director of Cook Children’s Center for Prevention of Child Maltreatment, in conjunction with TCU’s Department of Criminal Justice.
They employed risk terrain modeling to pinpoint areas where abuse is most likely to occur. The study included six significant risk factors: poverty, domestic violence, aggravated assaults, runaways, murders and drug crimes. Using 2013’s data to see how accurately it could be used to predict 2014’s confirmed cases of child abuse in Fort Worth, the analytics program correctly predicted 98 percent of the cases.
“What connects these things together in our research is violence,” said Daley, who recently left Cook Children’s Medical Center. “Somehow, in these areas we have a culture that supports violence. That’s something that we can work on together to reduce the adversity that people experience in very early childhood, and even in adulthood, so that we can start to change some of these outcomes.”
By targeting where child abuse occurs, the hopeful theory is that by inundating schools, churches, community centers, social service agencies — anyone in the area willing to help — with preventive resources, then all those risk factors that lead to abuse can be alleviated, helping stop abuse before it happens.
However, that process is just beginning, and on Las Vegas Trail, havens are in sadly short supply.
“A lot of these kids grow up abused. There’s a lot of rape, there’s a lot of stuff that’s going on in our communities,” said Abdul Chappell, 43, whose life on Las Vegas Trail started as an elementary school student living in a motel with his parents.
As a teenager, Chappell said, he organized the Los Angeles-based Crips gang in Fort Worth and ultimately spent stints totaling 21 years in prison. Since being released in 2014 he has dedicated himself through a number of organizations and projects to helping children and adults in the LasVegas Trail area ascend from poverty, drug addition and violence.
“By the time we’re 12 or 13 years old,” Chappell said, “we already have post-traumatic stress syndrome because it becomes normal to see fighting in the household, somebody getting shot outside; it’s nothing new to see someone get drug down the steps, or whatever it may be.”
Las Vegas Trail is now the territory of City Council newcomer Brian Byrd, 46, a physician who rode a strong evangelical vote to victory over incumbent Zim Zimmerman. In a telephone interview, Byrd said during the campaign that he walked the neighborhood streets east and west of Las Vegas Trail, listening to the views of mostly retired homeowners concerned about property values and personal safety.
“The people I talked to are people that have lived there for decades and seen the crime come in,” Byrd said, while acknowledging that the flip side of that coin, the abject poverty and despair on Las Vegas Trail, “needs a light shined on it.”
‘A mixture that is terrible’
There is never a shortage of troubled souls taking shelter at Las Vegas Trail’s string of motels, including the infamous Knights Inn.
According to Fort Worth’s Consumer Health Division Code Compliance department, the motel has been inspected 17 times (and inspections are ongoing) in 2016 and 2017 and was ordered to close 27 rooms in the past year, 11 of which remain closed. Major violations include roaches, bedbugs, stained or ripped mattresses and box springs, moldlike formation and general sanitation.
Knights Inn owner Anil Patidar did not return multiple messages from the Star-Telegram.
“Honestly, there is no one type of person that you’re going to find in some of these motels, and that’s, to me, where the danger is,” said Tamara Valle, a Fort Worth police officer. “You can have sex offenders that are living right next door to families with children, and you have parents that are working or a single parent who is working and the children are having to stay home by themselves. It’s a mixture that is terrible.”
The biological mother of the 14-year-old girl who was raped said she had hoped to reverse a lifetime of poor choices in their hometown of Sherman by moving to Fort Worth.
But on Las Vegas Trail, tools of self-ruin can easily sabotage plans for self-reliance.
“She didn’t care for life anymore. It’s like if you put any drug in front of her face, she was ready to take it,” the girl said. “It was like just a bunch of memories, just all the gun violence, and like I could picture my mom just giving herself up, just walking up and down the streets, just not caring no more.”
Said the mother of their experience on Las Vegas Trail: “I thought leaving Sherman, going somewhere new, I thought that would be it, but it wasn’t. It was the worst thing I could have done. There was junkies and prostitutes, just everyday city life out there when I first moved, where you keep to yourself, don’t bother nobody, don’t get into anybody’s business.”
The mother, 41, now lives in Dallas with her boyfriend of three years, although she said she remains married to the man who she says fathered the two daughters she wants back. Formerly incarcerated, he currently lives in Georgia. She does not live with any of her seven children, four of whom are under the age of 18. She said they come from four different fathers.
In a phone interview, the mother denied ever using or selling drugs, as her 14-year-old daughter alleges. She said she is seeking custody of her 14-year-old daughter and the daughter’s child, as well as her youngest daughter, a cherubic, quick-witted 13-year-old currently in the care of foster parents in Fort Worth.
“That is my goal because I’m not a bad parent,” said the mother. “I didn’t have nobody, I did it all by myself, nobody helping me. I had to figure it out all by myself. … When she gets older, she’ll know I didn’t give up. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Many parents on Las Vegas Trail, and areas like it, frequently balance multiple jobs to make ends meet. Keeping a close watch of their children is a daily struggle.
Britney Fowler, 27, said she, her partner Kyeisha Hyman, 25, and their 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son would be staying at the Knights Inn for only a few days.
Evicted from their apartment on Las Vegas Trail, they expected to move into another one as soon as Hyman got her end-of-week paycheck from her packing job at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Haslet. As the two women stood in the motel’s parking lot, Hyman’s older brother stood watch with the kids on a staircase platform.
“Las Vegas Trail is pretty bad; I’m not going to lie,” said Fowler, pleased that she had just landed a job at a local restaurant chain. “There’s a lot of kids that are just out there. If you drive up and down Las Vegas Trail, like on a Friday morning or a day the kids are supposed to be in school, there’ll be kids standing outside the store, selling drugs, doing whatever it is they’re doing.
“It’s emotional, especially whenever little kids are telling you how the guy that just got shot, got shot,” Fowler continued. “You see a 7-year-old kid that comes up to you and tells you, ‘Oh, he was talking about drugs and then he shot him.’
“I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re like 7, where’s you mom?’
“ ‘I don’t know where my mom is.’
“I’ve seen a woman beating her kid up and down the street with a belt, and I was just like, what?” Fowler continued. “And then the things you hear them yelling out, ‘Why are you bothering me? Why are you messing with me? Leave me alone.’ But they’re your child, they’re supposed to bother you, they’re supposed to mess with you. I don’t understand.”
Fowler said she and Hyman plan work schedules so one can always be with their children. It’s hard. With only one car, Fowler said, she drives Hyman downtown to catch the bus that drops her off a couple of blocks from the Amazon warehouse.
Their daughter will begin kindergarten at Western Hills Primary in the fall, but her son, still a year away from starting pre-K, will still require full-time supervision.
“I worry a lot about what could happen to them out here,” Fowler said. “But I’m hoping to move from the west side a little further away. Not from Fort Worth because I love Fort Worth; Fort Worth is a great city to live in, but not this particular side of town.”
At any given time, dozens of children stay at any one of the motels that line the I-30/Las Vegas Trail intersection. A counselor at Western Hills Elementary School estimated that some 40 schoolchildren currently go home to a motel.
And so many elementary-school-age children live in the area that the two neighboring campuses, three short blocks east of Las Vegas Trail, are bursting at the seams. Western Hills Elementary houses second through fifth grade, and Western Hills Primary handles pre-K through first grade. In all, more than 1,400 kids are enrolled at both schools.
It isn’t unusual for children to come to school having not eaten since the day before, or wearing dirty clothing or acting so closed off as to signal some kind of imminent crisis, sometimes abuse, at home.
“Then you also have those gray situations of neglect and emotional abuse,” elementary school counselor Kristen Bruno said. “And the saddest part is when the child tells you, ‘Well, that’s normal,’ and they don’t know it’s wrong. And they just mention it, not to tell, not to disclose, not to make a big deal, it’s just like part of the conversation, and you go, ‘Wait, what was said to you? We don’t talk to children that way, that’s not OK, you’re precious.’ It’s the kind of thing that breaks your heart.”
From physical or verbal abuse to serial relocating, educators say, the effects stunt the emotional, social and academic development of students, some of whom, counselors say, arrive at school in the morning seeking out a reassuring hug from an adult.
“For instance, right now, it’s what I call tax season,” Bruno said during an interview at the school in April. “The parents who got their tax returns and were evicted in January, are now back. So these kids have been gone for a month and a half and now they’re back. But as soon as they’re evicted again, they’re rent-hopping.
“Last week, we had 74 new students enrolled. Last week, one week, 74 students enrolled.”
According to data compiled by the Fort Worth school district, more than 83 percent of the students at each school are categorized as coming from “economically disadvantaged” backgrounds. More than one-third of students miss at least six weeks of school, often because parents move from one residence to another during the school year, leading to one of the highest mobility rates among the city’s 83 elementary schools, as well as extreme challenges for teachers.
“It is very unstable in that regard, so that makes the job harder for the teachers and us, too,” said Alexandra Montes, principal at Western Hills Elementary School. “We’re trying to build that relationship with academics and then they’re gone. Then we see them back maybe two months later and they’re behind.”
Despite the many obstacles, the two Western Hills elementary schools received “met standard” accountability ratings in 2016, according to the Texas Education Agency. Ten other elementary schools in the Fort Worth school district received the lowest rating of “improvement required.”
“We do have some miracle-working teachers,” said Becky Grimland, a counselor at Western Hills Elementary for 17 years.
When school lets out at 3 p.m., it is a chaotic scene of students filing into nine Fort Worth school district buses, cars lined bumper-to-bumper along Mojave Trail for pickup and parents and baby sitters crossing the street to escort kids home. But there’s also another large group that streams from the two schools and causes significant angst among the school’s educators.
“We start at second grade here [at the elementary school] and a lot of our kids have to go down to the primary school to pick up their pre-K, K or first-grade siblings,” Grimland said.
“There’s like kindergartners walking home. It’s scary,” Montes said. “This is the first school I have been to where kindergartners, first-graders, second-graders walk by themselves, and cross that big intersection, Las Vegas Trail, to their apartments.”
The situation isn’t improved by the limitations of an after-school program equipped to accommodate 120 of the elementary school’s more than 800 students. Other after-school recreational outlets for children simply don’t exist in the Las Vegas Trail area.
“Not only the school, the community and the city also, we all need to join together and say, ‘OK, what kind of resources do they need in this particular area?’ ” Montes said.
Montes is in her first year as the elementary school’s principal after moving from the city’s north side, an area of similar economic means. However, Montes said, the level of parental disengagement in the Las Vegas Trail area is like nothing she’s seen before.
Patricia Benitez, a clinical social worker who operates one of four school district Family Resource Centers out of a temporary building between the two Western Hills schools, said only about 60 percent of the parents she schedules for meetings show up.
“Parents are struggling. They’re just struggling to get on their feet to work, to manage four or five kids sometimes in the home, and each with special needs and different behavioral issues,” said Benitez, who schedules 20 to 25 meetings with parents or guardians a week. Therapists who come on-site typically see about 50 students per week. “Unfortunately, what I see is a lot of parental abandonment. I see a lot of grandparents raising kids, single-parent families due to incarceration and either death or just abandonment.”
Drugs, guns and violence
Addiction to heroin or crystal meth is rampant on Las Vegas Trail. It drives crime, and drug abuse is often at the root of crimes against children.
All six of the significant risk factors used in Daley’s research are not only prevalent on Las Vegas Trail, but are practically accepted as just another part of the landscape.
According to data compiled by Fort Worth police for the Star-Telegram, the Las Vegas Trail area — bounded by I-30, a few blocks east to Francis Drive, south to Camp Bowie Boulevard and west to Loop 820, accounting for only a slice of the 76116 ZIP code — had nine arrests for crimes against children in 2016. That number is greater or equal to the number of arrests in 29 of 45 ZIP codes in Fort Worth.
More than 35 percent of the 396 arrests for drug possession in the 76116 ZIP code last year occurred in the Las Vegas Trail area. Those 142 arrests equal or exceed the number of drug possession arrests in 30 of the city’s 45 ZIP codes.
“You can get drugs when you can’t get something to eat,” said Amanda Guisto, 37, a reformed prostitute raised on Las Vegas Trail who now teaches a women’s empowerment class every Thursday evening at the Serrano Ranch apartments on Calmont Avenue, a few blocks east of Las Vegas Trail.
More than 72 percent of arrests for prostitution in 76116 occurred in the Las Vegas Trail area. According to data from the Texas Department of Public Safety, 159 people living in 76116 are on the sex offender registry, one of the higher totals in the city.
Drugs, guns and violence are an accepted way of life.
On May 14, four people were shot at The Villas at Sierra Vista apartment complex on Las Vegas Trail. The next night two men shot a woman through her apartment wall. A couple weeks earlier, a police officer nabbed a male who appeared to be a teenager right outside Tasandra Simpson’s apartment.
“The ambulance runs more than the bus on Las Vegas Trail,” said Simpson, a 39-year-old mother of three boys ages 6, 14 and 20, a recent new grandmother, and a former drug addict. She moved to Las Vegas Trail in 1992 as a teenager and slipped into a life of gangs, cocaine and later prostitution to feed her habit.
Proud to claim herself clean of drugs for 10 years running, Simpson lives with her three children and her oldest son’s 6-month-old daughter in a two-bedroom apartment. Having a roof over her family’s head mitigates the nuisance of roaches and rats. She earns just enough to pay rent, and relies on churches and other charities for help to pay her bills.
‘Breaks your heart’
The 14-year-old girl who lived at Knights Inn and at other times in a cramped apartment on the corner of Las Vegas Trail and Calmont Avenue, eventually moved with her mother to far south Fort Worth.
It was there that her trauma-filled adolescence exploded into an unthinkable nightmare.
Fed up with her mother, she ran away. She said she had money to ride the bus, got off somewhere in the south part of Fort Worth and wandered around. Later that day, she said, as she walked to a bus stop to return to her mother’s apartment, a black car with dark tinted windows rolled up beside her. A woman was driving.
“I thought, ‘This is a girl, I can trust her,’” the girl said. “She was like, ‘Let me take you home.’ ”
But when she got in the car, she discovered a man in the back seat. She said the woman, a prostitute named Jernetta Coleman who called herself “Missy,” slammed her head into the dashboard.
They took her to an apartment where the brother of the man in the back seat, an alleged pimp known as “Stud,” was the apparent ringleader in an alleged kidnapping and sex trafficking scheme. They kept the girl for five months, forcing her to use drugs and to engage in prostitution, according to Fort Worth police Detective P.G. Henz, who investigated the case.
Fort Worth police rescued the girl after Coleman took her to a Motel 6, where she beat her and held a plastic bag over her head. A person in the neighboring room heard the girl’s screams and called police. Coleman was arrested at the scene.
Coleman, 27, was believed to be a prostitute, or what police refer to as a “bottom girl,” under the control of “Stud,” according to Henz. Coleman sexually and physically abused the girl, and in January began serving a 12-year sentence at the San Saba Unit Prison & Correctional Facility for aggravated kidnapping of the girl, according to court records.
Jose, the alleged father of the boy whom the girl gave birth to on Aug. 25, 2016, found her in an ad placed by Stud on Backpage.com, the girl said. Stud, Coleman and others delivered the girl to Jose’s apartment for sex. To the girl’s dismay, Jose became friends with Stud and soon became a fixture at the apartment. They spent their days getting high and arranging sexual encounters, the girl said.
The girl’s first introduction to the sex trafficking gang is a horrifyingly vivid memory.
“I met Stud, and Stud was pretty much a pimp to me,” she said, tears now streaming down her cheeks. “He was like I do what he says or you’re about to get beat up. And he just starts hitting me around, and I’m throwing punches at him, and I get him one good time and after that he gets his DVD player and he throws it at the back of my head. I just sat there and cried a lot just wishing I could go home. And then he made me smoke, it’s called meth, and I think the meth was laced because I was numb, I couldn’t feel anything.
“ ... I was sitting in a chair and just can’t move and they were letting a lot of dudes take advantage of me and I couldn’t defend myself and it was really scary.”
The girl said most of the men she was taken to declined to have sex with her when she pleaded that she was just 12. This upset her pimps; to make her appear older they forced her to get tattoos on both lower biceps and to pierce her nose and belly button. She claims Jose is the father of her child because he’s the only man who raped her who did not wear a condom.
Jose has never been identified, according to Henz, the police detective. He said he’d like nothing more than to locate him and arrest him.
Investigations into sex trafficking and sexual assault are ongoing, Henz said, however both have seemingly hit road blocks. Henz said police took a DNA swab of the baby, but until there is a suspect to match it against, it is meaningless.
‘It won’t end with her’
As shocking as the girl’s story is, it doesn’t surprise Guisto, the 37-year-old former prostitute, and a mother of three.
“There’s more of them,” Guisto said. “It doesn’t start just with her and it won’t end with her.”
Guisto is a survivor of drug addiction and sex trafficking who is sharing her own story with women who want to end their own cycles of destruction. Guisto believes that her example can help others find hope and motivation. And there are success stories from “The Trail.”
Marin Henson, 37, made it out after a youth defined by little parental supervision, evictions, cocaine, skipping school and gang life. She nearly dropped out of high school and had to take night classes just to catch up. Yet, she was determined to make it out, and she discovered an inner drive that many on Las Vegas Trail are never able to summon.
She now lives in Houston and makes a lucrative living as an executive with a staffing company, providing her three sons, ages 11 to 16, with comforts she never knew.
“You can be there and still be absent,” Henson said of parents who forsake an active role in their children’s lives. “If you don’t provide a role model, a proper environment for your children, then you’re only contributing to the same environmental factors that influence these behaviors to continue. If you’re not going to be part of the solution, you’re only adding to the problem.”
She’s currently working toward an online master’s degree through TCU.
“It has to be the inner drive,” Henson said. “Everybody says I’m stubborn. I think a better word is determination. You have to be determined to want something different. It’s what makes you successful.”
For the 14-year-old girl who was raped at age 12 and became a mother at 13, her potential adoption to loving parents she calls Mom and Dad gives her a chance to turn a shattered childhood into a lifetime of successes. The final court hearing is July 19, when a judge will decide whether her biological mother will regain custody or whether she will stay with her foster parents, who wish to adopt her.
For now, she is finishing up the seventh grade at a school designed to accelerate students who have fallen behind. She has friends, talks on the phone and plays catcher and first base on her softball team.
She’s even dreaming about careers.
“I’d like to be a counselor, maybe a model. I love doing makeup, so maybe a makeup artist,” she said. “But the main thing is a professional softball coach for college. I love softball.”
Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan