After rallying around local law enforcement efforts to combat human trafficking, a victims advocate is questioning why recent prostitution cases are seemingly sitting idle in the district attorney’s office.
The local efforts in recent years have been remarkable, but cases now sitting stagnant are concerning, said Susan Peters, executive director of UnBound, a nonprofit that raises awareness of human trafficking and provides services to victims. McLennan County Sheriff’s Office detectives have made about 330 prostitution arrests of alleged sex buyers since March 2015, but records show prosecutors have not taken action on any of the almost 20 Class B misdemeanor prostitution cases made since February.
“As the leader of UnBound, our whole mission is to stop human trafficking on every level,” Peters said. “We focus on prevention, because we want to keep this from happening to anyone, but stopping the demand, the sex buyers, is a critical, if not one of the most important parts, in stopping human trafficking.”
Inaction on the more recent prostitution arrests, a type of arrest that has become less frequent, stands in contrast to how prostitution cases made before February were handled. Of the cases filed before February, about 20 have been dismissed, 40 have gone to pretrial diversion, punishment has been assessed in 160, and the rest are going through court processes.
McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna, a member of the Heart of Texas Human Trafficking Coalition, did not respond to multiple messages left by the Tribune-Herald seeking comment for this story.
Search warrants state many of the recent arrests stem from a December 2017 raid in which sheriff’s deputies uncovered video surveillance systems in two massage parlors that captured men paying for sex acts from women forced to work at the businesses.
The proprietor of the business was arrested on a felony trafficking charge. Although it is unclear if video evidence in the massage parlor cases will be admissible in court, a total of 18 men have been arrested on prostitution charges since authorities started trying to identify the men in the videos.
“We have shined a light and we’ve proven to the public that there is a major problem here,” Chief Deputy David Kilcrease said. “I have confidence that the district attorney will do everything in his power to prosecute the cases that he can prosecute.”
Sheriff Parnell McNamara said outside agencies have called on local officials for training on how to run prostitution stings and build trafficking cases because of local detectives’ experience. He said he is confident in the types of cases his detectives have filed and hopes the unfiled cases will be presented in court.
“I would hope, at some point, these cases will make their way into the court system and be resolved,” McNamara said.
Local defense attorney and Unbound victim advocate Robert Callahan said a Class B misdemeanor cases typically take a few weeks to file. Although he is not familiar with details of any of the pending prostitution cases or connected to them, he said eight months waiting for a case to be filed in court is surprising.
“If these cases have been pending since February, that tells me that they are not going to be filed, and considering the background of our district attorney, that makes me suspicious of his motivations,” Callahan said. “Knowing that there have been people since February not getting into the court system and getting no punishment is not fair.”
Callahan lost his position as a McLennan County prosecutor when Reyna took office, and he ran an unsuccessful write-in campaign against Reyna in 2014.
Incoming McLennan County District Attorney Barry Johnson said when he takes office in January he will be focused on addressing challenges of pending criminal cases and assessing unfiled cases sitting on prosecutors’ desks.
“My position is that sex buying is illegal, and the human trafficking numbers that I’ve seen are alarming in the state of Texas,” Johnson said. “When I take office as district attorney, we are going to do our part, and if there are cases that come through the office where we can meet our burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt, we will pursue those cases.”
With an estimated 40 million people involved in human trafficking worldwide, Peters said the UnBound team will continue to work with law enforcement and the district attorney’s office.
“I don’t want to ruin families. I don’t want to shame people anymore,” Peters said. “A lot of these men are good men who just got entrapped in this and don’t realize what they are doing. It is too available in the nation, and to not hold them accountable, even locally, is terrible, because we need to send out the message as a community that buying sex is not a behavior we will tolerate.”