That question hovers over the case of Zephaniah “Zephi” Trevino of Grand Prairie, Tex., whose attorneys and family say she was being trafficked for sex as a 16-year-old when another serious crime occurred.
In recent years, law enforcement in much of the country, including Texas, has done a better job than in the past of treating sex-trafficking survivors as victims, not criminals. Texas’s new clemency process for survivors is a model that other states would do well to follow.
But the line between victim and victimizer is sometimes hard to discern. It’s common for girls and young women who fall prey to traffickers to be forced to commit crimes and to recruit new victims, allowing the traffickers to distance themselves from day-to-day operations. These more-experienced victims might book hotel rooms or sell drugs, but their main job is to ensure that new recruits are utterly dependent on the traffickers — and don’t run away, go to the police or kill themselves.
The case involving Trevino is being closely followed in Texas. In August 2019, Trevino and two adult males, Philip Aguilera Baldenegro and Jesse Martinez, both 18 at the time, were arrested and charged with aggravated robbery and capital murder in connection with an alleged robbery in which 24-year-old Carlos Arajeni-Arriaza Morillo was beaten and shot to death and another man was injured.
After her arrest, Trevino spent more than a year in pretrial juvenile custody. But last month, a judge ruled that Trevino, who turned 18 on Feb. 19, will be tried as an adult. That means, under Texas law, although she was only 16 at the time of the shooting, if found guilty of capital murder, Trevino is facing a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for 50 years. (Currently, there are no plans to try the defendants separately, and pleas have not been entered yet.)
Trevino’s family and attorneys allege she was being trafficked for sex by Baldenegro, whom they claim had plied her with drugs and threatened to harm her family if she refused.
The Dallas Morning News reported in December, “Baldenegro’s attorney, David Finn, said his client doesn’t dispute that he pulled the trigger in the fatal robbery. But Finn said the sex trafficking allegations against Baldenegro are lies designed to garner sympathy for Trevino. He called them a ‘smokescreen,’ a ‘diversion’ and a disservice to victims of sex trafficking.”
Baldenegro’s attorney says Trevino helped orchestrate the alleged robbery that resulted in Morillo’s death. Trevino’s attorneys say their client, a former high school junior who played softball and made the drill team, first got involved with Baldenegro online and he coerced her into selling herself for sex, using her to lure Morillo and the other adult male to the apartment where the shooting occurred. Neither Morillo’s family members nor his companion has commented on the allegations.
Preying on the young is unfortunately all too common in Texas, as it is across the country. The Texas attorney general’s office says there are approximately 79,000 “victims of youth and minor sex trafficking in Texas at any given time.”
David B. Lunan, a prosecutor with the Human Trafficking Unit of the Bexar County Criminal District Attorney’s Office in Texas, told me in a recent interview that traffickers go after minors, either in person or online, for a reason.
“The whole trafficking dynamic begins in finding a vulnerable child,” said Lunan. “It could be someone who is unhappy in their present life with whatever family situation they have. It could be they’re a foster child, or their parents are in prison, or their economic situation is terrible, or they’re victims of physical, sexual or mental abuse of some sort.”
The common denominator for these young people, Lunan said, “is they’re looking for a way out.” They’re then “seduced by a trafficker to meet up with them and introduced to this model of making money.” What starts out as “exciting” and a promised pathway to wealth and independence, he said, “turns into a nightmare.” Survivors themselves have shown extraordinary courage in bearing public witness to their own trauma in the hope of helping others.
And so the Trevino case will ask jurors to decide whether Trevino should be convicted on charges of aggravated robbery and capital murder, along with the man she and her family allege was trafficking her at age 16.
Regardless of how the case turns out, it has already prompted many in Texas to reflect on the plight of countless girls and young women lured into sexual exploitation, only to be imprisoned, first by their traffickers and later by the state.