FORT WORTH, Texas — The first time Mia met Ariana, she tried to act cool. They were hanging out at a friend’s place and Ariana, 17, was rolling weed in a cigar wrapper. Mia was 12 years old, with sparkling blue eyes, brown hair and a big smile. She had never smoked pot before, and when she took a hit of the blunt, she tried to suppress her creeping paranoia. She was in seventh grade and didn’t want to make a fool of herself in front of the drug dealer, who was a popular junior at their local high school.
Shortly after that night in 2012, Ariana began following Mia on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, and inviting her to hang out all the time. Ariana, who liked to wear hoop earrings, would drive Mia and her friends to the water park or the bowling alley. She took them to house parties, where no one treated them like 12-year-olds.
At the mall, Ariana let Mia pick out expensive things like Jordans and told her she had pretty eyes and a nice body.
Mia, who asked to be identified by her first name only, loved the attention. Her parents were bartenders who worked nights and often drank too much. “Ariana could just sell you a dream,” Mia said. “I just thought she was a goddess.” But Mia says Ariana also had a quick temper. She could be scary, hitting Mia when she annoyed her. Mia learned to stay quiet and do what she was told. She started to help Ariana sell drugs, and hung out with her at strip clubs.
Still, Mia felt like the older girl cared about her — but then Ariana introduced her to a man in his late 20s named Jared. Mia testified that he was about 6-foot-5 and weighed more than 250 pounds, lived in a trap house where people did drugs, and gave her cough syrup mixed with soda to get her high.
Then Jared put his hand on the 14-year-old’s knee and said she was pretty. Mia was nervous, but she didn’t worry too much because Ariana had said Jared was her cousin. Jared is a pseudonym HuffPost is using due to an ongoing trafficking investigation.
That night, Jared allegedly paid Ariana $2,000 — for Mia.
A few days later, Ariana told Mia she had to start stripping at a club in Dallas. She bought her fishnet stockings and high heels at a lingerie store. According to Mia, Ariana told her the money she made would go to Jared because Mia was now his “property.”
She says Ariana beat her when she tried to walk away from the strip club after being groped by an older man. The 14-year-old felt like she was stuck. Ariana was abusive, but she was also her best friend and protector. Sometimes it still felt like the old days, when they would hang out and smoke pot in the car or get their nails done.
Then, a few months later, Mia says Jared raped her at his house while Ariana sat in the living room. According to Mia, he forced her to have sex with johns for cash and threatened to hurt her family if she told them what happened.
Each day, Ariana would pick Mia up, drive her to appointments with men and then to the strip club. The routine stayed the same until one afternoon in 2016, when Mia says Ariana planned to rob some guys they knew and forced her to go along. The robbery turned deadly, and the cops showed up at Mia’s door the next morning.
Victims Treated Like Cold-Blooded Killers
When trafficking survivors are arrested for crimes they say they were forced to commit, they are often treated like manipulative offenders, rather than victims being controlled by their abusers. There are very few laws to keep them from being locked up because many police officers, lawyers and judges don’t understand the psychological control traffickers have over their victims. These survivors occupy a legal gray zone in a criminal justice system that prefers to see things as black or white.
“I think it is a silent crisis,” said Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, who has a Ph.D. in criminology and wrote a book about sex trafficking. “This population is just further revictimized by [legal] processes that are supposed to protect them.”
Mia was charged with aggravated robbery and capital murder. She was 16 years old at the time of the crime. When an abuser has the power to force victims into trafficking, they can make them commit crimes that have nothing to do with sex. That’s exactly what Ariana did, according to Mia.
Ninety-one percent of trafficking victims have been arrested, according to a 2016 National Survivor Network study, and 42% were arrested as minors. More than half of the victims who were arrested said their offenses were a direct result of being sex trafficked, and more than 60% of the charges had nothing to do with prostitution.
There are laws that prevent other groups of victim-offenders, such as those who act in self-defense or under duress, from being held responsible for a crime. But a HuffPost investigation found there are almost no legal protections for sex trafficking victims who are forced to commit violent offenses. Only three states have laws to defend these survivors, and only 18 protect them from being charged with prostitution and related charges.
The legal system’s definition of coercion requires survivors to be explicitly threatened in the moment before they commit a crime. But in reality, most live in a constant state of fear and mental manipulation, just like Mia says she did. Until there are laws to reflect how traffickers actually control their victims, survivors who have been stripped of their agency will continue to be seen as offenders who acted with criminal intent.
One Murder, Multiple Versions Of The Story
There are conflicting stories about what happened the night of the 2016 crime. According to Mia, Ariana had the idea to rob some drug dealers they knew and planned a stick-up with a group of four guys who had guns. Mia said during a trial that she asked to be dropped off at home before the crime happened, and that Ariana forced her to come along. But Megan, Ariana’s 19-year-old friend who was also there that night, testified that Mia was the mastermind.
Zachary Beloate, one of the victims, told a jury that Mia was his girlfriend and that she set him up. He also denied that he sold drugs. Mia told HuffPost they were acquaintances who sometimes smoked weed together, and that she hadn’t known about the robbery when she spoke with him earlier the day of the crime.
Ariana is in prison and did not respond to HuffPost’s questions about this story. But her lawyer, Rose Anna Salinas, said Mia “knew she was the mastermind” of the crime.
“The girls got together and they cooked up that scheme,” she said. “She wasn’t forced to do anything.”
It’s impossible to know the truth of what happened that night, and what role everyone played. The only agreed-upon facts are that Mia, Ariana and Megan smoked pot in Beloate’s bedroom before the shooting happened. The four guys who had been enlisted to help were waiting in a car outside while Megan texted them with updates. Mia’s job was to have sex with Beloate as a distraction. But before that happened, the young men busted into the house wearing bandanas over their faces and holding up guns. One of them shot Beloate in the shoulder and another killed a 21-year-old named Ethan Walker, the father of a 3-year-old who was not in the house at the time.
In most states, including Texas, anyone involved in a felony that turns deadly can face the same charges as the killer. All seven co-defendants were charged with capital murder and aggravated robbery; three of them, including Mia, went to trial.
The case got national attention because one of the guys involved was a 16-year-old rapper named Taymor McIntyre, aka Tay-K. In January 2018, Tay-K released a viral song called “The Race” after cutting off his ankle monitor and fleeing house arrest before trial.
Everyone involved in the crime was either found guilty or pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. Ariana, who didn’t go to trial, pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery; the offender who shot Walker was sentenced to life in prison.
Mia was sentenced to 20 years in prison, even though she didn’t touch a weapon and told the jury and judge that she had been trafficked. But she was repeatedly told she was not a victim.
“I believe that you went more or less willing [sic] along with the opportunity that the traffickers provided for you,” the judge told Mia at her parole hearing. “They provided a certain sense of excitement or a lifestyle you weren’t entirely opposed to.”
Traffickers Exploit Weakness
Alex Coleman, a special agent for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said at Mia’s trial that Ariana played the role of a “bottom” in a trafficking ring run by two pimps. Coleman, who looked into Mia’s case for roughly a year, explained that bottoms are usually responsible for grooming and recruiting new girls, taking them to their appointments and making sure the pimps get paid. They are often first trafficked themselves, and can be victims of the worst abuse if anything in the operation goes wrong.
Ariana, now 24, is Black, and girls of color are more vulnerable to being trafficked and five times more likely to be incarcerated than white kids like Mia. (HuffPost recently profiled an 18-year-old trafficking survivor who is Black and serving a 20-year prison sentence.)
Roberta Walker, the mother of the man who was killed in the robbery, told HuffPost that although Mia “may have been” trafficked, a Black girl in her situation wouldn’t have caught the attention of an anti-trafficking organization or eventually been offered probation.
“I have represented many, many defendants who were equally victimized and didn’t get nearly the same sympathy she got because she was a cute little white girl,” said Walker, who is a criminal defense attorney.
Salinas, Ariana’s lawyer, said her client was not involved in grooming or trafficking Mia. She called the claims “bullshit” that had been “cooked up” by Mia and her attorney.
Mia alleges she was part of a trafficking ring in which other girls were also exploited. Coleman wasn’t able to find other victims during his investigation, but he said that isn’t unusual, since pimps often threaten to kill survivors if they speak with officers.
Salinas said real sex trafficking victims are kidnapped and held captive, rather than allowed to sleep at home. (In Texas, and under federal law, any minor being paid by adults for sex is a trafficking victim, and anyone helping to facilitate that transaction is a trafficker.)
“If she was having sex with a bunch of people, she was doing it without anyone threatening her,” Salinas said. “She’s a liar.”
There’s a stereotype that trafficking victims are chained up and held in basements, one that’s perpetrated by Hollywood movies such as “Taken.” In reality, being controlled through psychological manipulation is more common.
“People believe there needs to be clear and irrefutable evidence of someone chained to a bed or someone severely beaten,” Brad Myles, CEO of the anti-trafficking nonprofit Polaris, previously told HuffPost. “It’s almost a mental hurdle to believe they were being controlled through more invisible chains.”
Many pimps and recruiters initially pose as loving boyfriends, best friends or parental figures to gain a victim’s trust. And male traffickers know that victims can more easily relate to other young women like Ariana.
Ariana used intimacy to bond with Mia before she allegedly became violent. Traffickers tend to put survivors through cycles of physical and verbal abuse, followed by apologies and affection. Trauma bonds distort reality by blurring the lines between love and abuse, and they make it hard for victims to recognize that they are being exploited, said Toni McKinley, a Texas-based counselor who works with sex trafficking survivors. She evaluated Mia and testified at her hearing.
It’s also easier to manipulate someone who’s vulnerable, and traffickers are experts at exploiting a person’s weakness. They will promise shelter to someone with no home, affection to someone with low self-esteem or stability to someone with a tumultuous home life. When a survivor becomes dependent on their abuser, it’s more difficult for them to escape.
‘I Woke Up To An Empty House’
Mia’s vulnerability was obvious.
She recalls, with affection, growing up in a house with a pool where her father cooked Italian-American classics like chicken piccata every Sunday. They went on family vacations to the beach and Mia’s parents came to her track events. But the reality is more complicated.
Mia’s parents, Miriam and Vince, both bartenders who work nights and weekends, weren’t around very often to supervise their three kids. The children’s grandmother regularly came over to keep watch but Mia’s older sister, Devret, was sometimes put in charge once she was in high school. Mia said she was often left alone.
When Mia was 13, she tweeted a few times about her home life: “I woke up to an empty house.” “My mom ignores me.” “Sometimes I wish my parents didn’t work so much.”
Mia often spent time with Ariana because she didn’t like being at home.
She hid the friendship from her parents, which was easy to do. She’d lie about where she was spending the night. When she skipped school or track practice, Miriam and Vince thought it was normal teenage rebellion.
On the surface, Mia’s parents seem put together. They recently moved into a two-bedroom apartment, decorated with scented candles, a framed Texas flag and a wall hanging that says “I love you to the beach and back.” Miriam is reserved and soft-spoken, the kind of bartender who knows all of her regulars’ secrets. Vince is a talkative guy who owns expensive suits and could easily coax his customers at an upscale steakhouse into another round of martinis.
But they weren’t always as attentive with their children. Vince liked to drink beer and vodka. He could quickly go from being in a good mood to screaming at his kids and breaking glasses, according to Devret, who is 25 and works at a spa in a nearby town. Their mom also drank a lot but was less volatile, and she would try to calm her husband down.
Vince admits he struggled with alcohol and anger issues. He now wishes he hadn’t drunk so much.
“I would have been able to see the signs,” he said, referring to what happened to Mia.
They were also too consumed by another family crisis to give Mia their full attention. Her older brother, Vinnie, became addicted to painkillers and Xanax after hurting his shoulder during a football game. He physically attacked his father. Vince and Miriam once found him unconscious at a lake near their house, and were focused on trying to keep him alive. In 2016, Vinnie was arrested for aggravated robbery and sentenced to eight years in prison.
Vince and Miriam saw signs that their daughter was in trouble, such as mood swings and bruises on her legs, but she always had an excuse when they confronted her. Mia’s parents had no idea she was being driven to hotels and forced to have sex with up to 20 men in one night, according to Mia, or that she was so terrified of being hurt that she kept hammers in her nightstand drawer and under her bed. They didn’t know she was being repeatedly raped by two pimps or that Ariana once punched her in the face so hard she had to go to the hospital, according to Mia.
Mia’s parents sent her to live with her grandmother in a nearby city after she went missing for more than a month, thinking the move would protect her from bad influences. But Mia became even more vulnerable to abuse. Her grandma worked the night shift at a Waffle House restaurant, which meant Mia was often left unsupervised.
A Cruel Legal System
In most states, sex trafficking victims who are coerced into criminal activity are not considered worthy of protection. There are laws known as affirmative defenses to absolve people who act under duress, in self-defense or because they suffer from mental illnesses, but they rarely extend to trafficking victims.
Only 18 states protect trafficking survivors who are charged with prostitution or prostitution-related crimes from being convicted. This means that in the majority of the U.S., someone who is forced to sell sex can still be charged with a misdemeanor. In 20 states, children can also be charged with the crime, even though federal law states that any minor being paid for sex is a trafficking victim.
The situation is even worse for victims charged with felonies, even though anyone with the coercive power to traffic a victim can easily force them into committing more serious offenses. Only four states ― Kentucky, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Wyoming ― have affirmative defenses for sex trafficking victims forced into nonprostitution-related crimes such as robberies and assaults, and only seven states have legal protection for minors in this situation.
In most parts of the U.S., the only affirmative defense that can be used by alleged sex trafficking survivors like Mia is duress, which requires a person to feel “the threat of imminent death or serious bodily harm” when they commit a crime. Mia’s court-appointed lawyer, Frank Adler, tried to make that case. He brought in expert witnesses to explain that Mia was constantly terrified and under Ariana’s control, even if she wasn’t threatened in the specific moment of the crime.
But prosecutors said the type of coercion involved in sex trafficking wasn’t a defense in Texas. And they were right.
“When every moment could be violence or death, then Texas law treats it as no longer imminent,” said Elizabeth Henneke, the executive director at Lone Star Justice Alliance, a nonprofit legal organization focused on juveniles. “But it doesn’t feel that way to the women who are experiencing this level of abuse.”
“People believe there needs to be clear and irrefutable evidence of someone chained to a bed or someone severely beaten. It’s almost a mental hurdle to believe they were being controlled through more invisible chains.”
Duress does not take into account that abusers in coercive relationships don’t need to put a literal gun to their victims’ heads. Instead, survivors always feel like their life is on the line.
They have also been psychologically groomed to act like children who want affirmation from their parents, said Vanessa Bouché, a political science professor at the Texas Christian University who studies human trafficking.
“You want them to believe that you are doing something worthwhile,” she said. “You want them to believe they can trust you.”
Bouché said that even if Mia had planned the robbery, she was likely brainwashed to seek Ariana’s approval.
Henneke says every state needs an affirmative defense that reflects how traffickers exert control. She pointed to a New York bill that says judges can depart from mandatory minimum sentences when dealing with domestic violence survivors who are coerced into committing offenses. She also says there needs to be better legal relief for trafficking victims who are convicted, so that they can receive clemency and have their criminal records erased.
While Henneke and some other sex trafficking advocates say survivors should ideally be diverted entirely from the legal system entirely, others say legal consequences might be appropriate in certain circumstances. Trafficking victims should either get reduced sentences or be put in rehabilitative programs, according to New York-based Judge Edwina G. Mendelson, who used to hear the cases of minors who commit violent felonies.
“There needs to be a different level of accountability for someone who was victimized,” Mendelson said.
As a judge, she met with prosecutors and defense attorneys to discuss how to hold a victim-offender accountable. But she’s aware that most courts don’t take her collaborative approach and that many judges and lawyers don’t understand the nuances of sex trafficking.
Not A ‘Real’ Victim
It wasn’t until May 2016 that Mia’s parents finally began to understand what was going on with their daughter.
Vince said he got a call from someone who sounded like a teenage girl but who said she couldn’t reveal her identity. She pointed him to an Instagram handle with disturbing photos and videos that showed Mia posing suggestively in see-through mesh tops and thongs, holding a stack of $100 bills, and performing sex acts. The Instagram page had a link to one of her pimp’s Twitter accounts with a number to book the minor for “performances.”
Miriam told Mia what they had found, and said her daughter began sobbing and apologizing. Mia and her parents met separately with detectives from the Fort Worth police department, who discovered that one of her pimps was a registered sex offender with a “lengthy criminal history of narcotics and violent offenses.”
But just 11 days later, Mia was arrested for capital murder and aggravated robbery. The lead detective in the trafficking case, who said at the trial that he thought Mia was a victim, shut down his investigation due to the severity of her other charges. The prosecutors offered her an alternative charge of aggravated robbery and 10 years probation, because the police had told them about the trafficking allegations.
Vince was adamant that his daughter not take the deal, since he said she wasn’t guilty. Mia agreed and wanted to fight the charges in trial. Vince said Adler, the court-appointed lawyer, didn’t sufficiently explain that they would face such an uphill battle in court. Adler said he told Mia about the probation offer, and that it was her decision whether to accept it.
Once Mia rejected the deal, the legal system treated her like an offender.
Last summer, after she turned 19, Mia was transferred from juvenile detention to an adult prison by the judge who said Mia’s traffickers provided her with “a sense of excitement.” She attempted to kill herself and wrote a desperate letter to her mother in August: “Please help me mommy. I think this right here now is my breaking point. I’ve never been so scared in my whole life.”
Finally, things started to turn around.
Mia’s parents had hired a lawyer, Scott Brown, who successfully appealed her sentence. He argued the jurors’ decision was not valid because the court had mistakenly told them that Mia had a legal duty to prevent the robbery. But Brown also said a retrial would be hard to win without an affirmative defense that took into account exactly how trafficking victims are coerced. He urged Mia to take the original offer of 10 years probation, which the prosecutors had put back on the table.
She was desperate to get out of prison, even if it meant pleading guilty.
On Sept. 27, Mia was brought into a Fort Worth courtroom in shackles and handcuffs. She agreed to the terms of her probation while her parents clutched each other’s arms. An advocate who had been working on the case wiped tears from her eyes. But even though she would be home soon, where a banner and cake that said “Welcome Home Mia” awaited her, it didn’t feel like a day of celebration.
The hearing was another reminder that in the courtroom, she was not seen as a victim.
The parents of Ethan Walker, the 21-year-old who was killed in the robbery, took the stand. Mia steeled herself for their harsh words, which she had also heard at her 2018 trial.
Richard Walker held up a photo of his 6-year-old granddaughter and locked eyes with the teenager sitting 10 feet in front of him. “I want you to look at this one more time. Her daddy is gone. This is your doing,” he said, pointing a finger at Mia.
He said she was the mastermind of the crime, and that she claimed she’d been trafficked as a way to shirk responsibility. Trafficking is a horrific, terrible crime, Walker said, but he echoed Ariana’s lawyer’s belief that real trafficking victims are kidnapped, locked in a closet and held at gunpoint ― not girls who are allowed to sleep in their own beds.
He ended his statement by saying he wished Mia nothing but “misery, sadness, degradation, loss, desperation, helplessness, hopelessness.” Then he walked out of the courtroom.
Mia said she has enormous empathy for the Walkers. But that didn’t make their words any less painful.
The judge told Mia that he wasn’t foolish enough to believe her sex trafficking claims. “I follow the law, even when I don’t like it,” said Judge William Harris, indicating he didn’t think she deserved the probation deal.
Mia felt like she’d been hit by a boulder. That night, she lay on a cot in her jail cell waiting for her paperwork to be processed so she could go home. But she didn’t think about sleeping in a real bed or eating her dad’s chicken piccata. Instead, she cycled through thoughts of self-blame that continually lurked in her mind.
Why had she hung out with Ariana in the first place?
Why didn’t she ask for help?
Was she truly a victim if others didn’t see her that way?
Back home, Mia has been trying to move on with her life. She got a job at the restaurant where her mom bartends after a store at the mall told her it didn’t hire felons. She says her old friends are all still getting into trouble, in prison or dead.
She tries not to think of Ariana, and hates even hearing her name. Mia knows that even though Ariana is behind bars serving a 25-year sentence, she still has the power to get inside her head. Talking about her can lead to nightmares — something the court never understood.
“I can’t say that I have faith in this justice system,” she said. “If there’s another Mia, they will do to her exactly as they did to me, if not worse.”
This is the second article in the HuffPost series “Unprotected: The Myths And Realities Of America’s Sex Trafficking Crisis.” The first piece investigated the real face of trafficking in America, and how survivors are rarely identified by the police who arrest them or by the lawyers who represent them.