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A Painful Plea Deal: Understanding the Impact of a Sex Trafficking Case on a Mother’s Life

by Michael Nguyen
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Irma got ready while her husband drove the pickup truck through the dark: she changed into an all-black outfit including a skirt, tights, turtleneck, leather jacket and some heels. She finished with brushing her hair in order to look confident and prove that she was not someone prosecutors would easily go against.

A few weeks ago, Reyes found out about a plan where the two people accused of trafficking her daughter would get away without punishment. Since then, she’s been worried and almost hasn’t eaten or taken care of herself. She doesn’t understand why this is happening and if there is anything she can do to stop it. She wants everyone to know that her daughter matters too.

In 2017, Rakim Sharkey and Elijah Teel tricked a 16-year-old girl and her friend into staying in a motel. Men came to the motel and paid money to have sex with them. The cases against the two men have been delayed for years, with multiple prosecutors trying, but only ending up in failure. Finally, the government has decided to withdraw from the case altogether.

The Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is in legal trouble – including a criminal investigation by the Justice Department. His office has been dealing with thousands of cases that have been causing lots of problems. People in the state say that it’s wasting millions of dollars on issues concerning border security which both Republicans and Democrats disagree on.

For Reyes, her daughter, and other victims and families, the pain is more important than politics. They feel like the way the agency handled this case does not give justice to those who need it most.

The attorney general’s spokeswoman refused to answer questions about what happened with the plea deal, or other details of the case that involved Reyes’ daughter.

Reyes told Big Big News that it feels “like a nightmare that she can’t wake up from”.

On a January day, Reyes and her husband went to court in San Antonio. Kirsta Leeburg Melton was in charge of the attorney general’s Human Trafficking Unit at that time. According to her, the case which they were ready to trial had been prepared since many years back. She also said that this is one of the most strong cases with lots of support evidence. Lastly, she expressed how disgusted she felt about it as it was very wrong.

Reyes was in the courthouse feeling nervous and queasy. She knew that two men could get away with only a five-year probation, when they were facing potential sentences of decades in prison.

“I feel like I’m going to throw up,” Reyes said, as she hurriedly walked towards the bathroom.

In the courtroom, Reyes waited on the backbench for ages while watching other people who had committed minor offences such as drug crimes and driving while drunk getting harsher punishments than others.

One person was at the courtroom who didn’t seem to recognise Reyes, while she and her husband were sitting on the same bench nearby. The judge was talking about their case which had taken years due to the pandemic, delays by the attorney general’s office, and a mistrial caused by several people catching coronavirus.

Sharkey’s lawyer said he had a good chance of not being guilty and was willing to make a deal so the case could be over. Reyes couldn’t believe it when the prosecutor said her daughter, who she texts with a lot these days and is now 22 years old, was missing.

Sharkey and Teel agreed not to fight the criminal charges against them relating to promoting prostitution, so they were given a lenient sentence. The judge, Velia Meza, said they would be on probation for seven years instead of the five that prosecutors asked for and that their behaviour would be closely monitored but they wouldn’t have to list themselves as sex offenders. Finally, it was Reyes’ turn in court and Meza allowed someone to tell the judge how this crime hurt them.

Reyes slowly walked up to the court, tightly holding a piece of paper with her own words written on it. She remembered her daughter – someone with a kind heart who loves to listen to Beyoncé and snuggle up with their dogs, somebody that fought through many difficulties in order to get clean, as well as someone was brave enough to take the stand against the person accused of trafficking her just a few months prior.

Once Reyes arrived at the bailiff’s side, she grabbed hold of the microphone and began to speak.

Reyes’ daughter had an older brother who passed away when she was a kid. Later on, her dad also died. She faced bullying in school too.

The AP (Associated Press) didn’t provide the young woman’s name to protect her privacy because they don’t reveal the identities of victims of crimes like sexual assault. Reyes spoke to her daughter about it but she declined to be interviewed and wasn’t interested in making any comment.

Reyes’s daughter continually ran away from her large family’s house in South Texas. When she got to her teenage years, she started taking drugs and received help through the juvenile justice system. By September 2017, she had been sent to a rehabilitation center.

Court documents showed that after Reyes’ daughter and another girl left the rehab center, pictures of them were uploaded online to be used for ‘dates.’ They met two people, who they called “Blue” and “Rocky” outside a motel where they couldn’t afford to stay. Rocky and Blue then got a room at the motel for the girls and set up meetings with men who paid them money in exchange for sex. At the end of each day, Rocky and Blue would take half of the money earned by the girls.

When one of the men hit her daughter, Reyes got scared and called someone she found on Backpage – which is a website that was shut down by the police later. She called the police and officers find them in a motel. Ten days after running away, Reyes’s daughter was talking to a detective who worked hard for months to catch those men.

Detective Manuel Anguiano said he had never worked a case that had more evidence in it than this one. He mentioned he was able to get surveillance videos, receipts from the room and cellphones which were used for data extraction. People who worked on the case were angry about the final decision given by the attorney general’s office.

Cara Pierce, the person who was in-charge of the agency’s human trafficking unit till August 2022, said it was a sad result. She also mentioned that when she left, the case could have been decided in court.

Jason Goss, Sharkey’s lawyer, has told the AP news agency that Sharkey would have been declared innocent by the jury but had no choice but to accept his guilt according to a reduced charge since the maximum sentence of 25 years to life was too scary. Brian Powers from Teel’s side did not reply when contacted for comments.

Once Reyes’ daughter was released from the facility, she lived away for a time before coming back to her mom’s house. She kept locked in her plain-looking bedroom and did not say anything about what had happened. That made Reyes scared whenever her daughter was near any men, so they stayed away from all the noise of public places.

To get her daughter out of this state, Reyes tried comforting her with expensive snacks like Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Lays chips and also got her a book called “Women Who Run with the Wolves”.

Little by little, they had the courage to go out more. They would take walks in the park and eat lunch in Reyes’ car while watching the birds. Even though there were still times when the young woman felt panicked and could not come out of the bathroom.

At one point, a prosecutor called Connie Spence came to talk to them. Spence got on her knees and tried to soothe her with calm words while she was gasping for air from anxiety.

After that, Reyes’s daughter started going to counseling every week and began helping out at a library and museum. Then she went back to school, and last June mother and daughter drove down together to San Antonio to share their story. Reyes noticed how the two of them were forming a connection with each other – Connie was the one giving her daughter hope.

When Reyes’ daughter was on the witness stand, it was tough for her to talk and remember details from a long time ago. But, she eventually described how she ended up having sex in a motel as payment to someone called “Rocky.” She said that he was mad when she spoke with other men there, then he took her into a room and slapped her.

When asked to tell who “Rocky” is, the girl pointed at Sharkey who was across the courtroom.

Four days later, Reyes and her daughter were comfortably hanging out on their patio when Spence called to say that the judge stopped the trial because four people in the courtroom got COVID-19.

The three of them promised they would return to court as many times as it took to testify.

But, that was the last time they talked to Spence.

The personnel files show that she left her job as the attorney general the following month. Her resignation letter doesn’t explain why. We have tried to contact her for answers, but she hasn’t replied to any of our calls or messages.

Spence quit his job with a bunch of other prosecutors because some people said that it was unfair, only rewarding those who agreed with them. The next month they stopped handling a bunch of cases involving trafficking and child sexual assault because they couldn’t find one the victims.

In October, Reyes met a new lawyer named James Winters – the eighth person to handle her case. Reyes said that her daughter agreed to testify again and asked for more time. However, the judge denied the request. Later in January, Winters contacted Reyes with a plea deal and this was shortly after her daughter left home.

She became pessimistic as the silence fell but Reyes mentioned that they had an argument before. The young woman then stayed with her friend’s family over Christmas, but left afterwards. According to a message obtained by AP, an advocate told prosecutors that Reyes could convince her daughter to be in court. Even so, Winters later said that the daughter was gone and nowhere to be found.

Winters sent a letter to quit his job three weeks after going to court and making a deal. This was reported by Texas Public Radio. In San Antonio, Reyes tightly held her coat while she went up to the front of the courtroom and said her side of the story.

At lunchtime, she had started writing down what she wanted to say, but the anger inside of her made it difficult for her plan. She looked at the people who were accused of taking her daughter and two other girls away, then at the men on either side of them which were lawyers. Even worse, these same men got away without too much punishment for paying for sex with these girls.

Reyes began speaking softly as she held onto the crumpled piece of paper still tucked in her jacket.

The woman said to Rakim, “Look at me. You have three daughters, which is the same amount of people as those hurt by you.” She also told one of the men paying for sex that she was glad his family abandoned him. Lastly, she motioned to Winters, the prosecutor, and said that he doesn’t represent her. “I’m representing myself now,” she proclaimed confidently. “I’m not scared of you”.

Reyes talked for almost five minutes, her voice getting louder as she faced the courtroom and begged those who were being trafficked to come out.

“Right now, there are victims being exploited by these guys – they need to be thrown away,” she said.

Reyes started crying.

“Nothing can take away what these people do to their victims,” she said. “We just try our best.”

Reyes cried on the way home as her husband didn’t understand what happened in court since he speaks very little English, and she couldn’t explain it to him. She also wanted to tell their daughter that the men who hurt them went to prison- but her daughter had already given up hope. Reyes wanted her daughter to come home so they could talk about it face-to-face- however, her bedroom was empty when they arrived.

Reyes was feeling super lonely and had a lot of bad dreams. She closed all of the curtains so that no light could get in. Breathing felt hard and she wanted to feel nothing.

Two days after the hearing, Reyes was sitting alone in her bedroom, which has a lot of crosses hanging up on the walls. She thought no one wanted to help her, not even God. In that moment she had an idea to take her own life and it felt peaceful thinking about it. But then she remembered her children and called someone who could help.

“I like daydreaming, it’s like exploring the depths of a vast ocean,” she said. “But I have to stay aware not to wander off too far away from reality.”

Reyes was about to turn 46 when she had her birthday at the doctor’s office, during which she couldn’t help but burst into tears. The doctor then prescribed some anti-anxiety medicine for her.

She is currently in therapy, taken up dance classes, and takes her dogs to the nature reserve, hoping that one day her daughter will join them on their walks there too.

She is still trying to move on. She has lodged some complaints with the government, but they weren’t able to help reopen her daughter’s criminal case. Her best hope might be a special court case that she hopes her daughter will one day feel ready enough to pursue.

More recently, the two of them have been communicating more often. Through texts, they share worries, jokes and photos.

One night, Reyes’ son woke her up at around 3 in the morning. On the phone was a sheriff’s deputy who said that Reyes’ daughter had called 911 because she was panicking and wanted to go home. When this happened, Reyes thought back on some past experiences and asked the officer to wait with her daughter. She quickly put on some shoes, jumped into the car and drove off into the dark night.

We want to give you a heads-up that this story contains topics about suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, please be sure to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

AP photographer Eric Gay and videojournalist Lekan Oyekanmi reported this news.

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