A Texas teenager was lured into sex trafficking after meeting her alleged captors on Snapchat, her father says.
John Clark, a Houston-area energy executive, turned detective to rescue his 18-year-old daughter weeks after she went missing in April of this year.
When the high-schooler vanished, Clark hired a private kidnap and rescue firm, consulted experts, and even bought his own 1-800 number to get tips after the sheriff’s office allegedly refused to create one.
“If it was up to what I want, I wouldn’t talk about this,” Clark told The Daily Beast on Monday. “It’s difficult to go through and emotionally draining. But I feel compelled to help other families and keep them from going through what we did.
“I’ve got to do something,” he added.
Clark first shared his story with KHOU over the weekend, telling the TV station his daughter was “groomed” by her alleged captor starting at age 16. The trafficker was in his 20s, and the two met at a party before she disappeared.
The teen, a childhood cancer survivor, was still in high school when she went missing, Clark told The Daily Beast.
Not long after, Clark used private sources to track the student and one of her alleged captors to a Houston apartment building. The alleged pimp pleaded guilty to promoting prostitution of a minor, KHOU reported.
“It’s nothing against the police… they’re set up to slowly, methodically build an airtight case,” Clark told KHOU. “And in the time it would’ve taken to build an airtight case, I would’ve lost my daughter.”
Last month, Clark launched a petition to strengthen Texas’s anti-trafficking laws. The petition, among other things, asks the state to increase the age to work in sexually oriented businesses from 18 to 21 and to increase penalties for anyone caught promoting prostitution when the victim is under age 21.
The dad’s advocacy came weeks before Carl Ferrer, the CEO of Backpage.com, was arrested at a Houston airport. Ferrer is facing a slew of felony charges in California including pimping minors and participating in a pimping conspiracy.
Clark has kept most of the details of his daughter’s case private.
But in a Facebook post describing how traffickers and their recruiters groom their victims, Clark warned parents “never [to] worry about being over protective. In our case, it all started with friends from high school.”
Then he advised parents, “Beware of Snapchat.”
“It is extremely difficult to monitor effectively and it is used brilliantly by teens trying to escape detection,” Clark wrote. “The only luck we had with Snapchat was to literally grab my daughter’s phone unexpectedly… and look at recent communications, but even that had limited effectiveness.”
Clark told The Daily Beast his daughter got caught up in the wrong crowd.
“I’m completely transparent. I never tried to portray it to anyone that she was nabbed off the street while carrying her Bible to choir practice,” he said. “We had no idea it was nearly as bad as it was.”
On Facebook, Clark described how traffickers used a “groomer,” a recent high-school grad living on her own, to establish trust with his daughter.
“We knew some of her friends were trouble and restricted access to them... I went face-to-face with a few of them and assertively demanded they stay away from my daughter. Unfortunately, my actions only reinforced the alienation strategy that was being used against us,” Clark wrote in one Facebook post.
“We saw problems. We tried many approaches to turn things in a different direction. We never dreamed the trouble we were facing was a dangerous as it turned out to be,” he continued.
When the teen’s friends refused to answer questions about her whereabouts, Clark said, he realized how dire the situation was.
In another Facebook post, Clark thanked a local FBI agent whom he called “a true hero who I will never be able to repay.”
Clark also suggested more than one person was behind his daughter’s capture, writing, “The people responsible are well known [to] the FBI’s trafficking task force.”
“The fight continues. They messed with the wrong girl,” Clark added.
Dottie Laster, a San Antonio-based advocate who fights trafficking, said victims are worth hundreds of thousands a year to their pimps.
“Kids are being groomed, lured, and recruited,” Laster told The Daily Beast. “As parents, we have never had this particular issue… there’s no parenting handbook to deal with this, and I don’t have a good answer.”
“When kids are worth $150,000 to $300,000 a year on the sex market, [traffickers] are going to spend the time, do the work, show up at football games. They’ll put in the time to do this,” Laster said.
“If your kids are online, you need to be there,” she added.
Laster said she provided guidance for Clark, and noted that human traffickers “do not discriminate in age, socioeconomic status, gender, or geographic location.” She said she once received a call from an Indiana professor whose daughter, a student at Harvard, was being tricked into the sex trade.
Predators often send messages to teens on Snapchat, Kik, and other apps, saying hello and complimenting their looks or their smile, Laster said. It eventually develops into a relationship where the trafficker is a shoulder to cry on.
In some cases, the traffickers send the teens new devices so they can communicate without parental intervention, she said.
“Kids are going missing from school, and from their homes, literally while parents are asleep at 3 a.m.,” Laster told The Daily Beast. “Parents don’t even know they [the traffickers] exist, but they’ve been grooming these kids online for weeks, months, or years.”