A California Uber driver helped rescue a 16-year-old girl from sex trafficking after giving her a ride to a hotel along with two alleged female pimps, police say.
Elk Grove cops arrested three people on Monday after the vigilant cabbie dialed 911 after dropping the group off at a Holiday Inn.
Keith Avila, a married father of one in Sacramento, had just logged in to Uber and was picking up his first passengers for the night: the teenager, whom authorities would later reveal was a runaway, and two older women.
“What gave me chills is, the next day [police] said she was reunited with her family,” Avila, 34, told The Daily Beast. “She was missing. I felt kind of good about that.”
Avila has only been driving Uber for about a month. By day, he’s a photographer specializing in the quinceañera, or celebration of a Latina girl’s 15th birthday. In recent weeks, he had photographed a teenager’s party at that Holiday Inn.
Now he was there dropping off a girl of a similar age for criminal activity.
“I take pictures of girls exactly her age,” Avila said. “When I take pictures, everyone’s happy and smiling. To see that, compared to what I saw [the night of the arrests], I knew, ‘OK, there’s something wrong here.’”
After dropping the women off, Avila called police over the suspected child prostitution.
Upon arrival, officers arrested Destiny Pettway, 25, and Maria Westley, 31, who allegedly arranged for the victim to meet a man, ABC10 reported. Cops arrested the women outside the hotel and charged them with pimping and pandering.
Disney Vang, the suspected john, was arrested for unlawful sexual activity with a minor after police located him inside the hotel room with the victim.
The victim, who had been reported as a missing person to a different police department, was transported to an alternative housing location, authorities said.
Avila recorded his reaction to the incident on Facebook Live shortly after giving a statement to police. His video, which had more than 100,000 views as of Wednesday, reads, “I just caught a group Child Sex Trafficking ring!!! No joke!!!”
At the time, Avila thought the victim was only 12 years old.
“This girl looked like she was 12 years old,” a floored Avila said into the camera. “Can you believe that?
“I was like, there’s no way,” he added. “I can’t just drive away. Of course not. It’s not even an option.”
In the video, the disturbed driver said the female pimps “were describing what they were going to do when they get there,” including the instruction to “check for guns, get the money before you start touching up on the guy.”
This isn’t the first time Avila’s footage has gone viral. This summer, he posted a video declaring himself a Mexican-American Trump supporter. (“I’m Mexican-American, I’m Latino and… I pledge my allegiance to the United States of America,” he determinedly states. “And I understand that I’m Mexican-American, but I’m American first.”)
The shutterbug even gave a nod to President-elect Donald Trump in his Facebook Live video on busting sex traffickers. “Just in case there’s anybody watching this right here, that thinks that Trump supporters play,” Avila said. “No, we don’t play. We don’t play.”
Avila told The Daily Beast he had a bad feeling when he arrived at the Oak Park neighborhood to get the girl and her alleged pimps around 6:30 p.m. The girl’s dress was too short and she asked to smoke a blunt in his vehicle, he said.
When Avila told her she couldn’t smoke in the car, she jumped out to return it to the residence. The suspected female pimp, who was in the back seat, started yelling at her and another female passenger. “You gotta get your priorities straight!” the woman shouted, according to Avila. “We gotta make this money!”
Then, halfway to the Elk Grove hotel, the alleged pimp began coaching the girl, who was in the front passenger seat.
“OK, here’s what you do. Before we get inside, you want to hug the guy. The first thing you ask is, ‘Do you have any weapons?’” Avila recalls the woman saying. “When you’re hugging them, pat them down. Check for weapons.”
The woman instructed the girl to then ask for her “donation” and to get the cash before she enters the hotel room.
“When I heard that, it was so obvious,” Avila told The Daily Beast. “There was no thought process. I’m going to call the police.”
Avila dropped the women off and was “acting happy, like I don’t give a damn, so it doesn’t become suspicious,” he said.
The alleged pimp made a phone call before she stepped out, quickly transforming her angry tone into that of a dentist office receptionist. “Do you have any law enforcement or police agencies with you?” the woman allegedly said. “OK, we’ll be there. Room 110.”
She repeated the room number in front of Avila, who remembered it when he called police moments later. “I just thought, ‘Oh, wow, this girl’s done this before. She’s not a stranger to this,’” Avila said.
Christopher Trim, public information officer for the Elk Grove Police Department, said Pettway and Westley were still in custody on $500,000 bonds. Vang has since been bailed out of Sacramento County jail, Trim said.
It’s the first time Trim has seen a trafficking bust even “remotely similar” to what happened Monday night, he said.
“There is no expectation of privacy in an Uber or cab or Lyft,” Trim told The Daily Beast. “If people are in a situation where they’re freely discussing a criminal activity, I would hope the driver forwards that to law enforcement.”
On Wednesday, Uber said it was thankful to hear of a driver partner quickly notifying police and helping to save the teenage girl.
The company announced a partnership with ECPAT-USA, a nonprofit working to end child sex trafficking, earlier this year. As part of its pledge, Uber said it would provide materials to drivers that describe physical and behavioral signs of trafficked children.