In life, there are few things that can come between a mother’s love and her children.
Sarah, who is a Fort Worth mom of two, was willing to put her life on the line to get her teen daughter back. Two years ago Sarah though she had everything in place to parent a teenage girl.
“I didn’t want to be too close, but I still wanted to keep my eyes on her,” she said. “I always say, ‘trust but verify.' So if she would go out with a group of friends, if I knew them and their parents, it was fine. I still had to verify,” she said.
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Sarah’s daughter, like many high schoolers, was mobile and carried around a cell phone wherever she went. Sarah placed a GPS tracking device on the phone as a safety net. That extra layer of protection kept Sarah’s mind at ease, until her daughter’s whereabouts did not match where she said she was going.
“I kept pinging her phone and it wasn’t matching where she told me she was. I was texting her and she kept saying she couldn’t talk. I never could get a hold of her when she was out. Either her phone was dying or there was a bad signal,” she said.
After Sarah’s text messages were continually ignored, she began digging deeper into her daughter’s location. “I zoomed in on the map and her location landed on a hotel. Why would my daughter be at a hotel? I didn’t understand," she said.
"I called her and she told me not to worry. So I pulled up her call log, and highlighted every number that I didn’t recognize. There was a number that kept popping up, 1 minute here, 2 minutes here, but it was the same number over and over again,” she said.
Sarah then put the foreign number in search engine and the next image she saw was of her 16-year-old daughter.
“I’m suddenly crying. It’s my daughter and she’s in a nighty and a thong lying on a hotel bed. I can’t describe the emotions that you go through. You’re terrified….uh, you don’t know what to do. I thought does she know. I just wanted to get to her but I couldn’t,” said Sarah.
She contacted the police and soon realized her daughter was a victim in a sex trafficking ring.
Human trafficking happens when one person is controlled through violence, deception or coercion in situations of commercial sex, forced labor, or domestic servitude.
According to a recent study from the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work, there are more than 300,000 victims of human trafficking in Texas, including almost 79,000 minors and youth victims of sex trafficking and nearly 234,000 adult victims of labor trafficking.
In Fort Worth, Sarah’s daughter was one of several girls and women being forced to have sex for money out of hotel rooms.
“The frightening thing was I couldn’t get to her. Officers told me that if I tried to rush into the hotel and the traffickers would either hurt her, hurt me, or take her to another city or another state and I would never see her again,” she said.
Sarah started collecting as much evidence as possible. Her digging helped to put her daughter’s traffickers behind bars.
“This wasn’t something they fell into, this was organized,” said Special Agent John Kochan with Homeland Security.
“These men, and some women, were trafficking girls out of hotels in Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston, Austin, Odessa, and Waco. These girls would be raped, and forced to have sex with multiple people every night. Some of the people behind the images you see in online advertising escort services are not old enough to consent to sex. There’s a reason why she’s in that hotel room, and it’s not because she wants to be,” said special agent Kochan.
Homeland Security worked closely with the Fort Worth’s Anti-Human Trafficking Unit.
The child-sex trafficking case eventually led to the convictions of seven people:
- Diwone Noble was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor to 30 years in prison after pleading guilty in November to one count of sex trafficking of children.
- Katelyn Ward, was sentenced to 12 years after pleading guilty to one count of using interstate commerce in aid of a racketeering enterprise.
- Chad Johnson received 25 years in prison.
- Audry Lane was sentenced to 280 months.
- Deon Bonner was sentenced to 30 years.
- Stanley Johnson got 14 years.
- Alvin Lane received 166 months.
“Sarah put a spotlight on a dark secret in North Texas that nobody wants to talk about,” said Sgt. John Phillips with the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit in the Fort Worth Police Department.
“We have victims as young as 12, 13, 14-years-old. The more we look, the more we find, and we’re going to keep digging until all of these predators are in jail,” said Sgt. Phillips.
When spotting a trafficking incident, most perpetrators do not have distinguishing traits.
“They look like you, they look like me. They come in all shapes, colors, and sizes. They know how to manipulate their victims. Many of these girls and women aren’t bound by physical chains, it’s the mental and emotional chains that keep them enslaved. They have a lot of guilt and shame, and there self-worth is non-existent. Sometimes they don’t recognize themselves as victims,” Kochan said.
Sarah’s daughter escaped, but she is troubled by how her daughter was lured in. She was introduced to another crowd, an older crowd by a friend.
“Nowadays if your kid has access to a cell phone, an iPad, the internet, you just gave the entire world the keys to get past that lock on your door and [they can] talk directly to your kid,” Kochan said.
“My mission now is to help other families recognize the signs, and to help young ladies understand they are valuable, and that they are worthy of respect and dignity. I want to let them know there is hope. That if you’ve been through something like this, there is hope. My daughter is free and she is doing well. She is being restored,” Sarah said.
After the last person was sentenced, Sarah started her own nonprofit to spread awareness and advocate for survivors.
“People are surprised to know that it's happening in their neighborhoods, in their hotels, in their cities, in their states. After you know about it, what are you going to do about it?” she said.
If you would like more information about combating domestic sex-trafficking in North Texas here is a list of organizations.