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How a Sex Trafficking Case, Plea Deal and Mother’s Pain Became Intertwined

by Gabriel Martinez
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Irma Reyes put on a black skirt, tights, turtleneck and leather jacket in the back seat of her husband’s pickup. She brushed her hair and slipped her feet into high heels as they drove in the dark to the courthouse that was far from home. She wanted to appear confident with an appearance that showed she was serious and determined.

Reyes had already heard about the plan for two men accused of trafficking her daughter. They were going to be allowed to go without facing any punishments. Since then Reyes was struggling and feeling confused as she kept thinking “Why are they doing this? Can I do something so that I can stop it? Don’t they realize how important my daughter is?”.

In 2017, when Reyes’ daughter was 16 years old, two men named “Rocky” and “Blue” kept her and another girl locked up in a motel in San Antonio. There, the men paid other people to have sex with them. Afterward, there were lots of delays for punishments against Rocky and Blue until eventually the government totally backed away from the trial.

Lots of people are having trouble with the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. He has gotten a lot of attention by fighting in courts to help people all around the United States, yet he is facing his own legal troubles. This includes an investigation by officers from the federal government’s Justice Department. The cases related to human trafficking have raised questions about how tax money from Texas is being dealt with, even though Republicans talk a lot about this issue and disagree with the Democrats over border security.

For Reyes, her daughter and other people who have experienced pain, the political aspects of this case don’t matter as much. To them, this plea deal shows how legal problems are making it hard for these kinds of victims to get justice.

When Big Big News asked the attorney general’s office about the details of the case concerning Reyes’ daughter, their spokeswoman Kristen House wouldn’t answer any questions.

Reyes said that she feels like she’s stuck in a horrible nightmare that she can’t wake up from.

In January, Reyes and her husband went to a courthouse in San Antonio for the trial. Kirsta Leeburg Melton, who previously worked in the human trafficking unit of the attorney general, said there was enough evidence to start it years ago. She also shared her opinion about this being wrong.

In the courthouse, Reyes felt sick. The two men were going to get away with five years of probation instead of facing long prison sentences for their crimes.

Reyes, who was 45 years old, hurried down a hallway to the restroom because she was feeling nauseous.

Once she got to the courtroom, Reyes had to sit and wait on a bench at the back of the room for a while. She watched people charged with doing drugs and driving under the influence being handed harsher punishments than what these two men were about to get.

One of the people in trouble with the law walked into the courtroom and sat next to Reyes. She was really stressed out and held her husband’s hand tight.

The judge explained what had been going on with that case: it has taken a long time because of the virus, there were delays when the attorney general changed, some people got sick with COVID-19 which caused a mistrial.

The lawyer of Sharkey said that his client was likely to be found not guilty but he agreed to the deal anyways and finish that case. Reyes could not believe it when the new prosecutor said to the judge that her daughter, who is now 22-years old, had run away from home and they are now exchanging text messages.

Sharkey and Teel said they did not agree with what happened. A judge called Velia Meza decided that the men would have to stay on probation for seven years, even though some people wanted only five. This means that the men will need to follow special rules, but they will not be added to a list of people who committed bad crimes related to sex.

Finally, it was Reyes’ turn in court. Judge Meza permitted a statement from someone affected by this crime.

Reyes slowly went to the court with a paper in her hand. She thought about her daughter: someone who loves listening to Beyoncé and her puppy dogs, someone who was brave enough to beat all of life’s struggles and even testify against the man trafficking her.

At last, Reyes reached the bailiff. She then grabbed the microphone and began talking.

Reyes’ daughter experienced a tough childhood. When she was young, she lost her brother. Her estranged father also passed away. Additionally, she got bullied at school.

For this reason, the media outlet AP has decided to not reveal the daughter’s name publicly in order to protect her from any harm as they want to make sure that victims of sexual assault or other crimes do not face further issues. Even after asking her mother about it, Reyes’ daughter did not want to talk further about the story nor give an interview directly.

When Reyes’ daughter was a young girl, she would run away from the family’s home in South Texas. When she became a teenager, she started using drugs and received help through the juvenile justice system. In September 2017, she had to go to a rehabilitation center for further treatment.

Court records show that only a few days after the daughter of Reyes and another girl had escaped from rehab, their photos were posted online for men to pay for “dates.” They met up with two men named “Blue” and “Rocky” at a motel they couldn’t afford to stay in. Those two men then rented them a room so that the girls could meet up with guys who would pay for sex. They took half of the money from each meeting.

Reyes’ daughter was so scared that she called her mom when one of the men hit her. Reyes found a phone number on Backpages, which was an online classified site that was later closed by authorities. Police were alerted and they tracked her down at the motel where she had been taken to.

After ten days away from home, Reyes’ daughter was in a juvenile detention house talking to detectives who worked hard trying to find those men.

The detective said that the investigation was so well-prepared with evidence. They had surveillance video, hotel receipts, and mobile phones which were looked through for information. But even with all this evidence, some people involved in the case weren’t happy with how it ended in the attorney general’s office.

Cara Pierce, who led the agency’s anti-human trafficking unit until 2022, said it was a shame that the case went unresolved. Jason Goss, Sharkey’s lawyer, said he had to plead guilty to a different charge because his client would’ve been in trouble if found guilty of the original crime (25 years to life in prison). Brian Powers, Teel’s lawyer, didn’t answer any calls or emails asking for comment.

Reyes’ daughter escaped from the detention facility and stayed away from home. Later, she returned to her mother’s house which was located in a peaceful residential area. She hardly ever got out of her plain bedroom and couldn’t even talk about what happened there. Reyes grew very tense when any man was around due to this incident and she, as well as her daughter, tried avoiding crowds. To bring her daughter out again, Reyes bought treats for her like Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Limón Lays, as well as has a book named “Women Who Run with the Wolves”.

The two were slowly starting to explore the outside world, walking in a nature park and having lunch in Reyes’ car. But the young woman still had panic attacks every now and then that would cause her to shut herself in the bathroom.

That’s where Connie Spence, a prosecutor who helped with the case, found them. She got down on the ground and talked calmly to help her stop hyperventilating.

Afterwards, Reyes’ daughter began to talk to a counsellor every week. She started giving her time and effort by helping out at the library and museum. Later on, she returned to school again, and last June, Reyes and her daughter drove together to San Antonio so that they both can appear before the court.

Reyes said that somehow their relationship improved due to Connie’s help which gave them confidence and hope for their future.

At the court, Reyes’s daughter had trouble to control her breathing and was unsure about what happened many years before. After testifying for a long time, she recalled how she had been forced to have sex at the motel with Rocky in order to get paid. Rocky got mad when she talked to other people there and he took her into another room and hit her on the face. When asked who “Rocky” was, she pointed toward Sharkey seated in the courtroom.

Four days later, Reyes and her daughter were relaxing on their patio when Spence called to say that the judge stopped the trial because four people in the courtroom got coronavirus. They promised each other that they would go back to court as often as it needed. But this was the last time they talked to Spence.

She quit the job at the attorney general’s office the following month. The records about why she left were found when looking for public information. Her letter of resignation did not say why she was leaving. She was not able to be contacted for an explanation either.

Spence left because a lot of prosecutors disagreed with the work that was being done, saying it only favored certain people and got rid of others who argued. The following month, some cases involving human trafficking and sexual assaults against children were stopped after the investigators weren’t able to find one of the victims anymore.

In October, Reyes’ daughter was introduced to a lawyer named James Winters. He was the eighth prosecutor handling Reyes case and her daughter offered to testify again. Afterward, the lawyer asked for another delay but the judge refused it. Reyes didn’t hear anything from the prosecutors until January when James called about a plea deal. Right after that call, her daughter had already left home.

Reyes was not feeling too hopeful about the case. She had an argument with her daughter, who then decided to stay with a family friend. Reyes was worried that her daughter might go back to old habits and left after spending Christmas with the family. Surprisingly, prosecutors were told by a victims’ advocate that Reyes could get her daughter to court. This confused Reyes since later on Winters informed the judge that her daughter was “running away”.

Winters recently stepped down three weeks after he made a deal in court, which was recorded by Texas Public Radio. In San Antonio, Reyes felt the chill in the air as she made her way to the front of the courtroom to give her opinion on what happened.

At lunch, she had carefully written down what she wanted to say. But when she saw the men who had trafficked her daughter and two other girls, as well as the lawyers by their side and the men who got away with requesting and paying for sex from these minors, anger overwhelmed her plans. She took a deep breath and began talking quietly despite having her written statement pressed against her chest.

She then said to Rakim, “You have three daughters, which is the same amount of people who were hurt. I’m happy that your family left you.” and she pointed at Winters, the prosecutor, “I am representing myself and I’m not scared of you”.

For nearly five minutes, Reyes spoke to the courtroom with a loud voice and asked people who had been trafficked to come forward. She said that these victims are currently in a bad situation being taken advantage of by ‘trash’. Even though the bad things they experienced can never be fixed, everyone is lucky today because they are trying their best to hang on.

Reyes cried on their way home, there was barely any talking between the two of them. Her husband, who doesn’t understand English that well, hadn’t fully understood what happened in the court. She wasn’t sure how to explain it either.

She also had no idea how she would tell her daughter, as she was already feeling like the men would not get punished. Reyes wanted her daughter to come home so they could talk face-to-face but when they got there, her room was empty.

Reyes was feeling very alone and hardly ever rested. She had terrible dreams and kept all the curtains closed in her bedroom. She wanted to not feel anything at all, but could not stop thinking about how she wanted to take her own life. Crosses hung on the walls of her bedroom and it felt like everyone, even God, had abandoned her. But then she remembered that she has children and called a crisis hotline for help.

“I like to just let my thoughts flow, it’s like swimming in a huge sea. But I have to remind myself to not think too hard”, said Reyes.

The following week, Reyes turned 46 and she cried a lot on her birthday at the doctor’s. The doctor gave her some medicine to help calm her down.

Reyes is seeing a therapist for help and has also signed up for dance classes. She takes her dogs for walks in the nearby park hoping that her daughter will join them as well.

Reyes tried to get the government to help her and reopen the criminal case, but that won’t happen. Even though she can’t change the past, there’s still hope for the future in the form of a civil lawsuit—which her daughter might be able to bring.

Lately Reyes and her daughter have been having more conversations through text messages. Although they sometimes talk about tough things like worry, they also share jokes, photos and other fun stuff with each other too.

One day, Reyes’s son woke her up in the middle of the night at 3 am. When she answered the phone, a police officer told her that her daughter had asked for help and wanted to go home. Reyes knew this kind of situation before, so she asked the policeman to stay with her daughter until she arrived. After this, Reyes quickly put on shoes and drove out in her pickup truck into the night.

This important story talks about suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. A photographer Eric Gay and videojournalist Lekan Oyekanmi helped to make this report.

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