While politicians call attention to January as Human Trafficking Awareness Month, a Texas mom wants to make lawmakers aware of how the state’s justice system is failing victims like her daughter.

Her daughter’s sex trafficking case made international headlines in April 2022 when the teenager was sexually assaulted and forced into prostitution after disappearing from a Dallas Mavericks game.

She’s now safe, but her parents remain frustrated that Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot failed to prosecute a suspect linked to the trafficking who was charged with sexually assaulting the 15-year-old girl.

“As a mom and as a woman, this is a hill I’m willing to die on,” the victim’s mother told Texas Scorecard.

She called the months since her daughter’s traumatic experience a “rollercoaster” and blames missteps by Dallas police and Creuzot’s office as well as “loopholes” in state law for allowing the man, who her daughter says raped her, to go free.

The Case

The victim, who lives in North Richland Hills, went missing from the American Airlines Center while attending a basketball game with her father. He raised the alarm after she went to the bathroom and didn’t return.

Surveillance video showed the victim leaving with Emanuel Jose Cartagena.

Ten days later, she was recovered in Oklahoma City after a private investigator, recommended to the girl’s parents by friends, found online photos advertising her for sex.

Local police immediately arrested three suspects and charged them with human trafficking, conspiracy, and computer crimes. Multiple people involved in the sex trafficking ring were eventually charged and sentenced in Oklahoma, but neither Cartagena nor other men seen on the Dallas surveillance video were found at the Oklahoma crime scene.

Nine months later, in January 2023, Cartagena was arrested and charged in Dallas with sexual assault of a child.

The victim told police Cartagena had sexually assaulted her in Dallas before she was taken to Oklahoma.

On October 30, 2023, a Dallas County grand jury no-billed Cartagena, meaning jurors did not see sufficient evidence to prosecute him for the crime.

“I was astounded,” said the mom.

The System

The trafficking victim’s mom recounted multiple missteps by Dallas police and prosecutors.

First, she said the Dallas Police Department refused to let her husband file a missing persons report. Police classify older missing teens as “runaways,” she said, even though they are under the age of consent. They told the family to file a report with their local police, 40 miles away from where their daughter disappeared.

“That’s an enormous problem,” she said.

While Dallas PD idled, the private investigator tracked down her daughter “within a matter of hours” by searching online ads.

She said once her daughter was recovered, Dallas officials declined an invitation from authorities in Oklahoma to come up and gather information that could help with their investigation.

Ahead of the grand jury hearing the case, the victim’s mom said her lawyer offered the Dallas prosecutor more documentation about her daughter’s case, but the prosecutor refused, saying, “If I need it, I’ll subpoena it.”

She also said her daughter, who was too young to consent to sex, picked Cartagena out of a lineup as the man who raped her. Yet the grand jury still sided with Cartagena, and he went free.

“At the end of the day, take out all the trafficking stuff, how does that happen?” she asked.

After the grand jury no-billed Cartagena, she said Creuzot told her that prosecutors had followed “office policy” by not recommending an indictment and he would not re-present the case with the additional evidence.

A Dallas Morning News opinion piece published this month says Cartagena has a history of promoting and compelling prostitution of minors and cites two Harris County cases in 2015 and 2016.

Prior bad acts are generally inadmissible as evidence, but the victim’s mom says Creuzot knew, or should have known, that Cartagena has a history of sexually exploiting children and recommended an indictment.

“The guy who did this had done it before and will probably do it again,” she said.

“I’m not done fighting,” she added. “I can’t let this go.”

The Future

The victim’s mom said, “Aside from the goodness of God, we wouldn’t have my daughter. We are lucky. My daughter is safe,” she added. “But we are not the norm. What about all the other victims?”

She noted that Texas is second in the nation for sex trafficking, behind New York, with Dallas and Houston as hot spots.

“It’s not just due to the state’s size,” she said. “It’s our laws and loopholes that go in the criminals’ favor.”

A 2016 study found that 79,000 minors were victims of sex trafficking in Texas. Child sex trafficking has continued to grow as traffickers use the internet to exploit children for money.

The victim’s mom said police and district attorneys have no real accountability because they’re immune from prosecution unless they knowingly do something illegal. “This is a case of them not doing something,” she said.

She wants Texas lawmakers to do more than raise awareness about human trafficking. She wants changes in state law that require action and accountability from local prosecutors and that allow the state to step in as needed to protect children from sexual exploitation.

“Texas is a leader,” she said. “If Texas does it, other states will follow suit.

“It’s not just about my daughter,” she added. “This is about my niece, my friends’ daughters … What about those other girls in Dallas who don’t have a voice? That’s what I’m fighting for now.”

Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.