An investigation by the "Innocence Task Force" of the FBI and HPD led to the take down of a prostitution ring in Houston in 2009. According to the United States Department of Justice, it was the largest domestic sex trafficking case in the southern district of Texas.
Five men, John Butler, 51, Andre McDaniels, 42, William Hornbeak, 36, Jamine Lake, 30, and Ronnie Presley, 38 were arrested and charged with conspiracy to traffic women and children for the purpose of commercialized sex, sex trafficking of children, sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion, transportation of minors and coercion and enticement.
According to court documents, these men operated commercialized sex businesses disguised as spas and massage parlors in Houston along Interstate 45, inside of 610 Loop and north of the Beltway.
"Testimony revealed that some of these men kidnapped minors, as young as 16, and advertised them on the Internet for sex," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Sherri Zack. "They would also transport these girls from state to state and they would have to work in brothels. They were beaten and routinely forced to have sex with men for money," said Zack.
Jessica Ford was a victim who testified against them.
"It took me a long time to get out because I was scared," said Ford. "I was scared for my life and for my family. If I didn't work I would be beaten. I've had guns pulled on me, they've threatened to come after my family," she said.
"Not only are there physical chains, but these girls and women are bound psychologically," said Zack. "They have been manipulated and deceived for so long, they're often times faced with a lot of guilt and shame.”
When Ford decided to leave in 2009, she never looked back.
"It took everything for me to leave. I didn't have anywhere to go, I didn't know what I was going to do, but I knew I had to leave. I didn't know if they were going to come after me, but I had to leave," she said.
Several agencies in the Houston area helped Ford in her rehabilitation process. For months, she was kept in a "safe house" outside of Houston. When she came back to the city she decided to tell her story.
"I wanted to help another little girl, another woman. I thought maybe if these men were locked up, it could save someone else’s child from being sold for sex," said Ford
Her testimony, along with evidence collected by special agents led to the arrest of her pimps in 2009.
Fear continues with captors behind bars
Human and sex trafficking is a low-risk business for traffickers, that can bring in an exorbitant amount of cash, generating roughly $32 billion a year. Rarely are the perpetrators arrested and/or convicted for the crime.
"These girls were treated like a commodity and were no different than selling drugs, except with selling the girl there's a huge advantage. After you sell a kilo of cocaine, you have to then buy another kilo of cocaine, but you can sell a girl or boy over and over and over again. It's an incredible renewable resource," said Zack.
"They told me that if I ever talked to the police they would find a way to come get me," said Ford. "So, of course, I was scared. Even when they were locked up, I just knew they were going to come after me."
On Jan. 6, 2011, her fears came true. According to prosecutors McDaniels tried to keep her silent.
"He tried to make this connection while he was in custody," said Assistant U.S. Attorney John Jocher. "McDaniels contacted a source, and asked that this source pay these witnesses to change their testimony. If that was unsuccessful then he asked that this source to blackmail them."
Soon after McDaniels sent out the list of names, his plan was intercepted by the FBI.
"This man was trying to continuing that manipulation, but his attempt failed because law enforcement discovered what he was doing," said Jocher.
McDaniels was charged with witness tampering and now faces life in prison.
All five men entered guilty pleas in 2012, and in January of 2013 they were each sentenced to eight years in prison. After their release, each of them will have to serve a 10-year probation, pay a $10,000 fine and register as a sex offender.
During their sentencing, Ford faced her abusers and gave a tearful testimony about the turmoil she was in. On the stand she said, "I had a dream, and you took that from me. I'm branded with a panther on my back, a brand that you gave me to let people know that I was yours. I was afraid every time I was with you. I was hurt, but you guys will never hurt me again. I am not afraid anymore. You can't silence me anymore."
No longer a victim, but a survivor
Jessica Ford, who was introduced to prostitution at 12 years old, now has a new journey ahead of her. She is free and her captors are behind bars.
"Each day I get stronger," she said. "I'm not going to say its not hard, because sometimes it is, but I, through God, I have hope. He gave me a new life, and a new chance. I have a purpose now. I have to replace the bad memories with good ones, and I can't do that keeping silent. If I can help one girl by telling my story, I've done my purpose. I'm free, but there are others out there ... women, men, little girls and boys that are still trapped."