In mid-May 2022, Kenneth Nelson, Sarah Hayes, Karen Gonzales, Saniya Alexander, Melissa Wheeler, Chevaun Gibson, Thalia Gibson, and Steven Hill, were arrested in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. These individuals were arrested in conjunction with the investigation into a fifteen-year-old trafficking victim taken from a Dallas Mavericks game in April 2022. Nelson, Hayes, and Gonzales were arrested and charged with human trafficking and the distribution of child pornography, and Hill was arrested for second-degree rape. The other four defendants were arrested for charges relating to the sexual abuse of the minor victim.
While attending a Mavericks game on April 8, 2022 with her stepfather, a fifteen-year-old girl went to the bathroom and never returned. Her stepfather immediately reported her disappearance to arena security and Dallas police officers. According to a spokesman for Dallas Police Department, they did not fully investigate because Texas Family Code Laws “dictates that missing juveniles are investigated as runaways unless there are circumstances which appear as involuntary, such as kidnapping or abduction.” Notably, the minor was seen leaving the arena with an unidentified man.
After she had been missing for six days, the minor victim’s family then contacted the Texas Counter-Trafficking Initiative (TxCTI). The TxCTI located the minor victim after discovering alleged nude images of her on an online prostitution advertisement in Oklahoma City. On April 15, Oklahoma City police initially searched rooms in an Extended Stay America hotel. The minor victim was found a few days later on April 18, 2022, walking on the side of the road with another individual in Oklahoma City. After an investigation, police made eight arrests that were connected to this case.
The CSE Institute questions Texas law enforcement’s narrow interpretation of its Family Code Laws. If the investigation into the minor’s disappearance occurred earlier, it is possible she would have been found before she was taken out of Texas. In addition, the CSE Institute condemns the actions of the Extended Stay America hotel and its staff who did not implement safety and security protocols, allowing a registered sex offender with a fake name and ID to rent rooms with a minor girl.
The CSE Institute commends the bravery of the survivor and her family for continuing to search for her. The CSE Institute also commends the dedication of the Texas Counter-Trafficking Initiative and Oklahoma City Police Department’s Vice Unit for effectively investigating and successfully arresting and charging the individuals in conjunction with the crime. The CSE Institute encourages the Oklahoma City Police Department and other law enforcement entities to investigate the Extended Stay America hotel and its staff due to the alleged failure to implement safety and security protocols, and seemingly ignoring clear signs of sexual exploitation. If the hotel and its employees had acted, the minor victim may not have been held for multiple nights by the traffickers.
The CSE Institute will continue to provide updates on this matter.
All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.