Irma Reyes’ mind raced as her husband drove through the predawn darkness toward a courthouse hundreds of miles from home: Don’t they know my daughter matters?
Reyes had been barely able to eat since she heard that Texas prosecutors planned to let the two men charged with sex trafficking her daughter walk free. She was going to court to try to stop them.
Reyes’ daughter was 16 in 2017, when men she knew only as “Rocky” and “Blue” kept her and another girl at a San Antonio motel where men paid to have sex with them. Now, the cases against Rakim Sharkey and Elijah Teel — who police identified as the traffickers — have seen years of delay, a parade of prosecutors, an aborted trial and, ultimately, a stark retreat by the government.
They are among thousands of cases under a cloud of dysfunction at the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has risen to national prominence fighting court battles that affect people nationwide even while facing legal troubles including a criminal investigation by Justice Department officials. Trafficking cases in particular have cast doubt on how the agency uses millions of state tax dollars on an issue that Republican leaders trumpet as a priority while attacking Democrats’ approach to border security.
A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, Kristen House, declined to answer questions for this story.
“It’s like a nightmare that I can’t wake up from,” Reyes said.
At the courthouse in January, Reyes’ stomach churned as she thought of the deal for the two men: five years of probation. The original charges carried potential sentences of decades in prison.
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“You will not find a stronger corroborated case,” said Kirsta Leeburg Melton, who oversaw the attorney general’s human trafficking unit until late 2019. “And I’m sick. It’s wrong.”
In court, Reyes listened as the judge summarized the cases' twists and turns: years lost to the pandemic, delays due to “turnover in the attorney general’s office,” days of testimony last year only for several people to catch COVID-19 and prompt a mistrial.
She listened in disbelief as the new prosecutor told the judge that Reyes’ daughter was “on the run.” Now 22, the young woman left home after a fight, Reyes said, but they keep up a steady stream of text messages.
Then, Sharkey and Teel pleaded “no contest” to aggravated promotion of prostitution. The judge, Velia Meza, sentenced the men to seven years of probation, despite prosecutors recommending five, noting they wouldn’t have to register as sex offenders.
Reyes thought of her daughter as she approached the front of the courtroom to make a victim’s impact statement.
The AP is withholding the young woman’s name, in keeping with its policy to avoid identifying victims of sexual assault and other such crimes. Reyes told AP she spoke about this story with her daughter, who did not want to comment or be interviewed directly.
Reyes said that as a girl, her daughter was bullied and would run away from home. By her teens, she started using drugs, and in 2017 she was sent to a rehabilitation center.
Court records show it was only days after Reyes’ daughter and another girl ran away from rehab that their photos were advertised online for “dates." They met “Blue” outside a motel, where they couldn’t afford a night’s stay. He introduced them to “Rocky.” The pair rented the girls a room, helped set up meetings with men who’d pay for sex, and collected half the money, according to the records.
Reyes’ daughter later testified at trial that police found them after she got scared and called her mom because “Rocky” hit her. Asked to identify “Rocky,” the young woman pointed across the courtroom at Sharkey.
Sharkey’s lawyer, Jason Goss, maintains the jury would have acquitted his client but told AP he had no choice but to plead no contest to the reduced charge because a sentence of up to life in prison was too risky. Teel’s attorney, Brian Powers, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
After the judge declared a mistrial last June, Reyes, her daughter and the prosecutor agreed to bring the case again. But that prosecutor resigned without explanation soon after, amid a wave of seasoned lawyers quitting the attorney general’s office over practices they said were meant to slant legal work, reward loyalists and drum out dissent.
In October, Reyes was introduced to new lead lawyer James Winters — the last of eight prosecutors to handle the case for the office, court records show.
Reyes said her daughter told Winters she would testify again. The lawyer sought to have the case postponed but after the judge refused he informed Reyes of the plea deal. Winters, who referred questions to an agency spokesperson, resigned after appearing in court for the deal.
In the San Antonio courtroom, Reyes addressed the men who’d just entered their pleas.
“The trash is supposed to be disposed,” she said. “But they’re lucky today.”
She cried on the way home. Reyes didn’t know how to explain to her daughter and wished the young woman would come home. She felt isolated and had violent nightmares.
Two days after the hearing, Reyes sat alone in her bedroom and thought about taking her own life. Her thoughts grew specific. But then she thought of her children and called a crisis hotline.
“I just swim into my thoughts,” she said. “I have to be aware that I don’t dive too deep.”
Reyes is still grasping for closure. She’s filed legal complaints, although none will reopen the criminal case. Perhaps her best hope is a civil lawsuit that she hopes her daughter will one day be ready to bring. They are talking more lately.
A few weeks after court, Reyes awoke to a call from a sheriff’s deputy who said her daughter had dialed 911 having a panic attack; she said she wanted to go home.
I’ve lived this before, Reyes thought. Then she pulled on shoes, climbed into the pickup and drove out into the night.
EDITOR’S NOTE — This story includes discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Associated Press photographer Eric Gay and videojournalist Lekan Oyekanmi contributed to this report.