Sex trafficking in Texas: "I foolishly thought if I did everything right, he wouldn't beat me again"
DALLAS (CBSNewsTexas.com) – On any given night in Dallas, 400 girls are trafficked on the streets according to New Friends New Life, a North Texas human trafficking advocacy group.
While shocking, the number does not surprise one Texas woman.
Bekah Charleston is the mom of a 10-year-old. She's the owner of the Charleston Law center in Nevada.
And 17 years ago, she was the focus of an I-Team investigation.
In 2006, she was a Denton native who police say was known as Rebecca Dean or Nicole Wilson.
The I-Team had learned she was a convicted prostitute who advertised escort services on a national website. She had been convicted for her part in a multi-million-dollar prostitution ring operating out of an upscale Denton County neighborhood.
Fast forward 12-years after the I-Team's story aired, CBS News Texas met Charleston for the first time along with another woman also part of the operation. The women sat down in the CBS studios with the federal prosecutors who put them behind bars.
And, as the I-Team 2018 report explains, the women explained what had really happened to them.
"We were required to call each other sisters," said Rebecca Bender. The women said they had rules they had to obey.
"Oh, a whole bunch of rules and if you didn't obey, you'd be beaten," explained Bender.
Instead of criminals, the women said they were victims. And the two federal prosecutors who put them behind bars explained how that was exactly what had happened.
The investigators said they learned the women were trapped.
Charleston says she was a typical teenager, well-liked, a soccer player slowly lured by an older male friend into this lifestyle and that home.
Looking back, she now explains what would happen inside that Denton house.
"When I was 17 or 18 years old, he started getting violent and I carried around a list of all the things I'd been beaten for because I foolishly thought that if I just did everything right, he wouldn't beat me again," said Charleston. "I constantly tried to do everything right. She says that even included treating her pimp as a customer to make sure she was doing everything right."
Looking at the house where the prostitution ring operated, she says, "I can still place myself right in the bedroom that I slept in at the house and remember how I was feeling…just crying as he was raping me."
Today, she says her story is becoming increasingly common, particularly in Texas.
Research finds most American girls are first trafficked at 15. In Dallas alone, sex trafficking has been called a $99 million illegal industry.
One researcher stated every year, 79,000 Texas minors are victims of sex trafficking.
In a University of Texas study, victims spoke openly about how they were "controlled by threats of violence." An 18-year-old from Lubbock said a trafficker told her, "I will cut your throat if you don't do this."
The victims were asked why they cooperated. An 18-year-old from Rio Grande Valley said, "They always told me they were gonna kill my family."
And also heartbreaking, the study shared the victims' goals.
A 23-year-old from Houston said she wanted to "get married.., have..(a) family…"
An 18-year-old form Lubbock said she wanted to "…graduate college."
A 21-year-old said she wanted to "be a chef."
Charleston says she is proof that is all possible. "I can't believe the opportunities!"
She sees progress with law enforcement and legislation. In 2021, she proudly helped put Texas in the national spotlight as it became the first state to make buying sex a felony.
"I didn't have hope for a future that didn't revolve around my body being sold and to now sit here a decade later on the other side….be a respected leader in the anti-trafficking field because of what I've survived. …That's exciting."
Since that first I-Team story aired 17-years ago, Charleston has earned her master's degree, received a partial presidential pardon, opened her law advocacy center, and she travels the country training law enforcement about how to recognize what neighbors, investigators and even the media did not see back in 2006.
As Texas heads into the last few days of the legislative session, lawmakers are considering several new bills related to sex trafficking.
One of them was inspired by the 15-year-old girl who disappeared from the American Airlines Center one year ago. Investigators found the teenager two weeks later in an Oklahoma hotel room where police say she was being trafficked.
Her parents have spoken to the I-Team about the need to increase penalties for sex traffickers.
In a follow up story, the I-Team followed private investigators who assist law enforcement in tracking down young victims trapped by sex traffickers.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Charleston, our experts and The Department of Transportation say the public needs to help watch for a combination of these sex trafficking signs:
- Substance abuse or addiction
- Kept in isolation
- Unexplained injuries
- Unable to make decisions without approval
- Branding, tattoos, or nail art indicating ownership
- Not free to come and go at will
- Working excessively long and/or unusual hours
- Consistently in possession of hotel key cards, prepaid VISA cards, multiple phones or large amounts of cash
- High security measures where the victims live/work
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