DALLAS — The parents of a 15-year-old Texas girl who in April left a Mavericks game with an unidentified man, ultimately prompting a human trafficking investigation, are speaking out to raise awareness about human trafficking.
Kyle and Brooke Morris, in an interview with ESPN and “Good Morning America,” said they want their daughter’s story to be a cautionary one about the dangers of human sex trafficking and how laws governing the crime are applied.
“We just want to make sure people understand … that something like this can happen to anyone anywhere,” Kyle Morris said. “Even if you don’t think it’s possible, there’s people out there that they want to make it happen.”
Police found the girl as she walked on the side of a road in Oklahoma City 10 days after Morris, her stepfather, reported her missing from American Airlines Center in Dallas. She had been taken to an Oklahoma City hotel, where she was sexually assaulted multiple times, starved and not allowed to bathe, according to her parents and their lawyer.
The nonprofit Texas Counter-Trafficking Initiative helped find the girl through an online ad soliciting sex.
Three people were arrested in Oklahoma City and charged with human trafficking and other offenses. Their cases are pending.
The parents said their daughter is safe, has entered treatment to recover from her trauma and is doing well. The girl has given her parents permission to discuss the case publicly, according to the family’s lawyer. ESPN is not naming her because she is a minor.
The girl told her mother a couple of days after she was found that she had met “so many other girls” in Oklahoma.
“And she said, ‘I wonder how long they have been in this life, but no one looked for them,'” Brooke Morris said.
Kyle Morris, a Mavericks season-ticket holder, said that on the night of the April 8 game against the Portland Trail Blazers, he and his stepdaughter were in the Platinum level of the arena. Just before halftime, the girl told him she needed to use the bathroom. He said she did not have her phone and left her ID and debit card at her seat. When she didn’t return, he alerted security, which searched restrooms and inside the arena. Morris said an off-duty police officer working the game told him that surveillance video had shown the girl walking out of the arena and that she was last seen entering a nearby parking garage.
Zeke Fortenberry, the family’s lawyer who has seen the surveillance video, said the girl did not appear to leave by force. Kyle and Brooke Morris said their daughter has a history of leaving home without their permission. In those instances, Kyle Morris said, she had left with people she knew, even leaving a note in at least one instance.
“This time,” he told ESPN, “… everything about it was different.”
Fortenberry said American Airlines Center and the Mavericks have been helpful in trying to 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 needed.
“What happened to the unnamed teen after she walked away from the American Airlines Center facilities on April 8, 2022, is tragic, and the American Airlines Center and Dallas Mavericks are glad she is now safe and wish her well on her road to recovery,” said a statement provided to ESPN by lawyer Scott C. Thomas, responding on behalf of the American Airlines Center and the Mavericks.
Added Thomas: “The American Airlines Center has no evidence that any trafficking group has been in the arena at any time, including with respect to this incident.”
According to Thomas, arena security staff started reviewing video footage shortly after Kyle Morris reported his stepdaughter missing, provided video to authorities and let Fortenberry, the Morris’ attorney, look at video too.
Kyle Morris said an off-duty officer suggested he return home — the family lives in North Richland Hills, about 30 miles away — to report his daughter missing there. North Richland Hills confirmed to ESPN that it took a report from Morris and that an officer entered the information into a national missing persons database early on April 9. North Richland Hills police added an “endangered” flag to the report April 11.
A Dallas Police spokesperson declined an interview request but said via email that the department made a report and helped the North Richland Hills Police Department. A bulletin about the missing girl went out April 11. Dallas Police confirmed that an off-duty officer at 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 juveniles should be investigated as runaways unless circumstances indicate an involuntary act, such as an abduction or kidnapping.
“Those cases per code are to be filed where the juvenile resides,” Dallas Police said in an email to ESPN.
Said Kyle Morris: “For this situation, I’m just going to say Dallas’ interpretation or application of that portion of the family code, I think is wrong.”
Morris said he and his wife ended up bouncing back and forth between jurisdictions seeking information about their daughter’s disappearance, concerned the investigation wasn’t making progress. The parents told ESPN they aren’t aware of any formal investigation by Dallas Police.
The family contacted the Texas Counter-Trafficking Initiative after the girl had been missing for six days, Morris said. They did that on a recommendation from a family friend who had gone through a similar situation. The counter-trafficking group located the girl in a matter of hours and notified the Oklahoma City police.
On April 15, Oklahoma City police searched rooms in an Extended Stay America hotel on West Reno Avenue. They made three initial arrests but didn’t find the girl. After an anonymous tip, police found her three days later, walking with another person 6 miles away 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 offenses. They have preliminary hearing conferences scheduled for Aug. 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 a $250,000 bond and Hill on a $25,000 bond, according to court records.
Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. Millions of people are trafficked worldwide each 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.