HOUSTON, TX - It’s the fastest growing criminal enterprise of our time, bringing in billions of dollars. But the prosecution of sex trafficking cases often lags behind the sheer number of victims. This is the story of one teenage girl who got wrapped up in a trafficking ring without even realizing it.
Starr Hamilton, 17, seemed to hit the right notes at home. She lives on a tree lined street in Spring with loving grandparents. It’s a neighborhood where American flags wave in the breeze.
“I have four dogs, love animals. I got music lessons, everything was completely fine,” she said.
That is until she started meeting older men on social media sites who eventually supplied her with drugs. At just 13, she became addicted to pot, then heroin, meth and crack.
“It's almost like Stockholm Syndrome. When that child's one need is that drug, they become loyal to that drug dealer, that pimp,” said Amber Cammack, a private investigator who works with Operation Found Safe.
In April, at age 16, Starr ran away from home to Austin with who she thought were drug dealers.
“Some of the men had regular jobs, normal people,” she said.
Turns out, the men were also gang members and pimps who kept a close eye on them in a homeless camp.
“They would always be around younger girls,” Starr said.
To keep getting drugs, Starr says she was told to bring in girls to sell into prostitution.
Fox 26: “Did you become a recruiter for other girls?”
“Yes, now that I realize it, I was recruiting other girls. They would be so scared they wouldn’t say anything. They came back a few weeks later with bruises and they wouldn’t talk to me about anything. All they would say is, ‘They’re going to kill you. They’re going to kill you.’ I tried taking them to the police station, they wouldn’t go. They were scared to death.”
Law enforcement is seeing more and more cases of girls being the “go to” for the pimp.
“They're the face for the pimp so he can maintain his anonymity,” said an undercover Harris County Precinct 4 deputy constable.
Last year there were nearly three thousand reports of runaways in Harris County. This year there are similar numbers. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says one in five runaways is a likely sex trafficking victim.
“It's very difficult to identify them as a victim if they don't want to identify,” said the undercover officer.
Starr never wanted to be seen as a victim until now.
Fox 26: “how do you view yourself now? Do you see yourself as a victim in all of this?”
“ I do. Not as much as the other girls being sex trafficked, but I feel I was lured in with drugs and money,” she said.
Nearly two months after running away, Starr’s dad got a picture of his daughter along with a tip and went to rescue her.
“This is a ladder that goes up to adults that know better who should never put children in harm's way. They don't have any limits,” said Mark Hamilton.
Starr has come a long way. She’s finished one stint in rehab, is taking high school classes online and spends plenty of time with the dad who never gave up looking for his baby girl.
“I do feel lucky because eventually I would have been put in that because they were running out of girls to get. I just want to help other girls,” she said.