9 human trafficking victims rescued in Valley Mills
Victims crammed into Honda Pilot, officials say.
VALLEY MILLS, Texas (KWTX) - Nine suspected victims of human trafficking were rescued during a traffic stop Saturday evening.
A Valley Mills Police officer stopped the driver of a 2009 Honda Pilot at around 10 p.m. July 23 for a defective headlight near the Out of Town Ball Fields on State Highway 6.
The vehicle was occupied by the driver and nine passengers who were crammed inside the Pilot with dark tinted windows and California license plates.
“When he (the officer) requested they step out, he really I think was probably kind of shocked that there were eight additional people just basically laying on top of each other, crammed into the back of this little car,” said Ron Fikac, Chief of the Valley Mills Police Department.
None of the passengers had identification or spoke English.
The officer on the stop, Jordan Williams, graduated from the police academy in Dec. 2021 and just recently completed his field training for the four-member department serving the city with a population under 1,400.
The rookie is being praised for using his training--and his gut--during the situation.
“We’re commending him because he did have a keen sense to recognize something wasn’t right,” said Fikac.
During the encounter, additional police assistance was requested after noticing that the passengers seemed unusually nervous and one of the passengers was determined to be a missing endangered person out of Los Angeles, California.
Upon request, the Clifton Police Department, Texas Department of Public Safety and the Bosque County Sheriff’s Office joined the officer.
A Texas DPS Trooper who spoke Spanish indicated she believed the passengers were victims of human labor trafficking.
With 27 years of law enforcement experience, Fikac, who worked at the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office before taking over at VMPD 18 months ago, says he’s seen plenty of trafficking cases before.
Fikac says, like COVID, human trafficking is a pandemic, and no city--even one as small as Valley Mills--is immune.
“This thing has blown up pretty big, especially for a small town, but much like COVID, that’s a worldwide issue,” said Fikac.
The nine suspected victims were eventually transported to the Valley Mills Police Dept. where they were provided water and victim services information from the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration Customs Enforcement agents.
Eight of the suspected victims were later provided with transportation by ICE to a destination that would render further assistance and services.
Fikac believes were they picked up in various locations including Houston and San Antonio, and on bodycam footage, the driver says they were headed to Los Angeles.
To separate the suspected victims from the suspect at the scene, Sergio Lopez, 28, was arrested on a charge of no driver’s license/suspended ID.
“It’s basically a traffic ticket, but there is strategy in that,” said Fikac.
The Chief is asking for patience as they work to draw more serious charges.
“Understanding that we can’t just charge someone because it’s what we think is going on--we have to be able to prove every element of the offense, that’s what we’re working through now,” he said.
Lopez was booked into the Bosque County Jail but has been released after posting bond.
At time of arrest, he was out of jail on bond from Houston for aggravated assault and was wearing an ankle monitor, according to police.
The Bosque County Sheriff’s Office, as a part of their assist, also contacted the Heart of Texas Human Trafficking Coalition.
“It was just a great call by local law enforcement, and that’s how victims are identified,” said Susan Peters, CEO of the anti-human trafficking organization Unbound and President of the HOT Trafficking Coalition.
Peters says there are more labor trafficking victims in the world than sex trafficking victims.
“What we found with labor trafficking victims are they responded to an ad for a job, they were promised that they would be taken to this place, that housing would be provided for them, they would be paid well, those kinds of things, but what often happens is they’re in terrible conditions, often they aren’t given water, they don’t feed them and if they do, they charge them exorbitant amounts of money and so now you can’t get paid because you have to work off the debt,” said Peters. “A lot of times they’re all living together in one tiny apartment, they’re in a foreign city, they don’t speak the language, and they have been told that law enforcement will prosecute them or arrest them, so they don’t have anywhere to go for help and they’re really made to believe that they have to stay really close...they feel very hopeless and very trapped many, many times.”
There are signs to look for to stop and prevent trafficking, Peters says.
“When there’s something that just doesn’t feel right--investigate, call local law enforcement,” said Peters. “Why are there 15 people living in this apartment? Why is there all this trash? Why is there lingerie hanging up in the back of this business? Why aren’t they leaving, why do they live here? When people observe these things: I can’t talk to this person, this boss person seems to be speaking for them, all those kinds of signs, you see someone who looks malnourished, there’s injuries that aren’t being taken care of, working an exorbitant amount of hours...those kind of things that just don’t feel right.”
“When we become aware and we report it, that can save a life, and unfortunately human trafficking is all around us and so we need to do it more,” said Peters.
Both experts and law enforcement agree: if there’s a cure for human trafficking, it’s awareness.
“Awareness of your surroundings, if you see something and you think it, don’t be dismissive of it, call it in,” said Fikac.
The investigation is ongoing.
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