DALLAS – The parents of a 15-year-old Texas girl who in April left a Mavericks game with an unidentified man, ultimately sparking a human trafficking investigation, are speaking out to raise awareness about the trafficking in human beings.
Kyle and Brooke Morris, in an interview with ESPN and “Good Morning America,” said they wanted their daughter’s story to be a warning about the dangers of human sex trafficking and how the laws governing the crime are enforced.
“We just want to make sure people understand… something like this can happen to anyone anywhere,” Kyle Morris said. “Even if you don’t think it’s possible, there are people who want it to happen.”
Police found the girl walking on the side of a road in Oklahoma City 10 days after her stepfather Morris reported her missing to the American Airlines Center in Dallas. She had been taken to a hotel in Oklahoma City, where she had been repeatedly sexually assaulted, starved and banned from bathing, according to her parents and their lawyer.
The non-profit organization Texas Counter-Trafficking Initiative helped track down the girl through an online advertisement soliciting sex.
Three people have been arrested in Oklahoma City and charged with human trafficking and other crimes. Their cases are pending.
The parents said their daughter was safe, had started treatment to recover from her trauma and was doing well. The girl gave her parents permission to discuss the case publicly, according to the family lawyer. ESPN is not naming her because she is underage.
The girl told her mother days after being found that she had met “so many other girls” in Oklahoma.
“And she said, ‘I wonder how long they’ve been in this life, but nobody’s been looking for them,'” Brooke Morris said.
Kyle Morris, a season ticket holder for the Mavericks, said on the night of the April 8 game against the Portland Trail Blazers, he and his daughter-in-law were at the Platinum level of the arena. Just before halftime, the girl told him she had to go to the bathroom. He said she didn’t have her phone and left her ID and debit card at her seat. When she did not return, he alerted security, who searched the restrooms and inside the arena. Morris said an off-duty police officer working on the game told him that surveillance video showed the girl exiting the arena and was last seen entering a nearby parking lot.
Zeke Fortenberry, the family’s attorney who saw the surveillance video, said the girl did not appear to have left by force. Kyle and Brooke Morris said their daughter used to leave the house without their permission. In those cases, Kyle Morris said, she left with people she knew, even leaving a note in at least one case.
“This time,” he told ESPN, “…everything was different.”
Fortenberry said the American Airlines Center and the Mavericks helped determine what happened. Kyle Morris said he found an email address for Mark Cuban and emailed the Mavericks owner, who responded within minutes, adding people who could help and telling them to use whatever resources they had need.
“What happened to the unnamed teenager after she walked away from American Airlines Center facilities on April 8, 2022 is tragic, and American Airlines Center and Dallas Mavericks are pleased she is now safe. safety and wish him well on his road to recovery,” said a statement provided to ESPN by attorney Scott C. Thomas, responding on behalf of the American Airlines Center and the Mavericks.
Thomas added, “The American Airlines Center has no evidence that a smuggling group was in the arena at any time, including in relation to this incident.”
According to Thomas, arena security personnel began reviewing video footage shortly after Kyle Morris reported his stepdaughter missing, provided a video to authorities, and let Fortenberry, the attorney for Morris, also watch the video.
Kyle Morris said an off-duty officer suggested he go home – the family live in North Richland Hills, about 30 miles away – to report his daughter missing. North Richland Hills confirmed to ESPN that he took a report from Morris and an officer entered the information into a national missing persons database in early April 9. North Richland Hills Police added an “endangered” flag to the report on April 11.
A Dallas police spokesperson declined a request for an interview, but said by email that the department had made a report and assisted the North Richland Hills Police Department. A bulletin on the missing girl was published on April 11. Dallas police confirmed that an off-duty officer from the game was notified of a missing person and that the event and site were searched that night. The spokesperson referred to a section of the Texas family code. Authorities have interpreted the code to mean that cases of missing minors should be investigated as runaways, unless the circumstances indicate an involuntary act, such as kidnapping or abduction.
“These cases by code should be filed where the minor resides,” Dallas police said in an email to ESPN.
Says Kyle Morris: “For this situation, I’m just going to say that Dallas’ interpretation or application of that part of the family code, I think is wrong.”
Morris said he and his wife ended up going back and forth between jurisdictions seeking information about their daughter’s disappearance, fearing the investigation was progressing. The parents told ESPN they were not aware of any official Dallas police investigation.
The family contacted the Texas Counter-Trafficking Initiative after the girl was missing for six days, Morris said. They did this on the recommendation of a family friend who had been through a similar situation. The anti-trafficking group located the girl within hours and notified Oklahoma City police.
On April 15, Oklahoma City police searched rooms at an Extended Stay America hotel on West Reno Avenue. They made three initial arrests but could not find the girl. After an anonymous tip, police found her three days later walking with another person 10 km from the hotel. How she got to Oklahoma City remains unclear.
Among those arrested are Kenneth Levan Nelson and Sarah Hayes, who have been charged with human trafficking and other crimes. They have preliminary hearing conferences scheduled for August 15. Steven Hill, who was charged with rape II, has a preliminary hearing on July 11. Nelson is being held on $300,000 bond, while Hayes is being held on $250,000 bond and Hill is being held on $25,000 bond, court records show.
Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of work or commercial sex act. Millions of people are trafficked around the world every year, including in the United States. Traffickers often use violence, manipulation or false promises to lure victims into trafficking situations.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline is 1-888-373-7888.