The October discovery of Carina Saunders' dismembered remains behind a Bethany grocery store stunned the community.
Then, shocking evidence surfaced that the 19-year-old Mustang High School graduate and varsity choir member might have been tortured and killed by members of a human trafficking ring.
The Saunders case is shedding light on what some law enforcement officials and others said is a growing problem in Oklahoma: victims, including underage children, being forced into prostitution.
“That really woke everybody up,” said Mark Elam, director of Oklahomans Against Trafficking Humans (OATH), a victims' advocacy group. “Unfortunately, her murder has forced everyone to recognize how severe this can be.”
Once a crime more readily associated with the Baltics, Asia or Latin America, human trafficking is increasingly being recognized as a problem in the United States.
In 2010, the latest year for which figures are available, federal law enforcement charged 181 people and obtained 141 convictions in 103 human trafficking prosecutions. Of those, 32 involved labor trafficking and 71 involved sex trafficking. That represented the largest number of federal human trafficking prosecutions ever initiated in a single year.
“Advocates like us around the nation have been rolling out information and trying to retrain law enforcement, legislators and the public to understand that slavery exists in a modern form,” Elam said.
No comprehensive data is available on state prosecutions and convictions, but Oklahoma has been the site of several notable human trafficking cases.
• In 2001, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said Tulsa-based oil industry parts manufacturer John Pickle Co. Inc. lured 52 skilled laborers from India, confiscated their identification and immigration documents, crammed them into a warehouse “dormitory” and paid them only about $3 per hour. The highly skilled welders and fitters also worked as janitors and performed other menial jobs for company officers under threat of physical harm. They escaped in 2002 with the aid of area churches. The business was closed.
• In 2004, the FBI investigated reports of children recruited in Oklahoma City being prostituted at truck stops and through call services nationwide. The investigation, dubbed “Stormy Nights,” discovered 16 underage sex workers. Nine defendants were charged with sex trafficking of minors and transporting juveniles for use in prostitution. Eight pleaded guilty, and a ninth was convicted at trial. Defendants received prison terms ranging up to 17.5 years.
A grisly death
Human trafficking doesn't necessarily entail the movement of people. It also differs from prostitution in that participants are either minors or are coerced into commercial sex, often with drugs, threats of violence or both.
“You can't tell them apart without an investigation,” Elam said. “If someone starts controlling her and keeps the money and is not letting her quit … that ... makes it a trafficking case.”
In the past, local prosecutors have been reluctant to take such cases, he said.
“They were so inundated with the problems of gangs and burglaries and homicide and so many of what they considered these far more serious crimes that they didn't have the energy or resources to help dishwashers and labor workers and groundskeepers and women being prostituted. Those were misdemeanor issues compared to the severe felonies.”
The torture killing of Carina Saunders may change that, he said.
Two men, Jimmy Massey, 34, and Luis Ruiz, 37, are being held in the Oklahoma County jail in connection with her death.
Court documents filed in the case suggest that Saunders was killed as a message to others not to defy a human- and drug-trafficking ring. Confidential witnesses have painted a picture of a criminal organization that wanted to show what happens to people who don't cooperate.
Witnesses told law officers they witnessed, either in person or on videotape, her grisly slaying in an Oklahoma City apartment. Investigators said in court affidavits that Ruiz beat Saunders, tied her to a table and tortured her by sawing off her left foot, then trying to cut off her right foot. But the saw broke.
Massey, while jailed on drug charges, shared details of the slaying with two detainees, telling the first detainee that he participated in the torture-killing.
Jeanetta McCrery, 41, of Tulsa, said her heart is torn by the Saunders case.
“It's like walking through my own history,'' she said.
McCrery said she was kidnapped, drugged and assaulted at age 11 after going with friends to a house in north Tulsa. Within a year, she was arrested for the first time on a prostitution charge.
By the 1990s, she was working as a prostitute for what she described as the Mexican Mafia in Texas. When she sought to escape the group, McCrery said, she was stabbed 36 times and barely survived.
“You don't just walk away from that when you're in that lifestyle,” McCrery said. “You know and see so much. I believe (Carina) was one of those people. We knew and saw and were trusted too much.”
McCrery moved back to Tulsa and went back to working the streets. In 2004, with the aid of friend, she finally quit the business. She went back to school and now is nearing completion of a master's degree in clinical social work from the University of Oklahoma. She works at a shelter for women and children.
As a trafficking victim, McCrery said she was too afraid to seek help but too scared to stay where she was.
I think that's where (Saunders) may have been at,” she said. “When a community is not aware of what's going on, it's hard to protect someone.”
Stepped up efforts
The FBI's Oklahoma City office stepped up its efforts on human trafficking a couple of years ago. Agents focused primarily on the Hispanic community, looking for evidence of forced labor, abuse of migrant laborers and domestic servants and sex trafficking.
Other than a few individual cases involving pimps and prostitutes, the office has received few allegations of domestic servitude or forced labor and no allegations of trafficking by international organized crime rings more prevalent in some larger coastal cities.
Since June, the FBI has participated in two local prostitution operations that resulted in about 70 arrests, including four underage girls. In such cases, authorities seek to connect the minors with the appropriate support agencies.
While the Saunders case is tragic and has drawn a large amount of media attention, FBI officials said human trafficking does not appear widespread here.
“I would not call it overwhelming,” said Supervisory Special Agent Gary Johnson.
A law that takes effect Nov. 1 will give the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control broader authority to investigate human trafficking. The bureau has established a seven-member anti-trafficking unit and partnered with the FBI and Oklahoma City police on the recent prostitution stings.
The need for greater investigative powers became apparent after confidential informants, undercover investigations and other intelligence gathering made it clear many in the drug trade also plied in people.
“The same groups that are bringing drugs into the U.S. — the cartels — are finding there's more profit to be made in trafficking humans,” bureau spokesman Mark Woodward said.
“These cartels are criminal enterprises. They are not sole-sourcing drugs. … They will traffic drugs, humans, weapons, whatever, for a profit.”
Narcotics bureau director Darrell Weaver is convinced the problem is growing.
Oklahoma ranks near the top in many high-risk categories for human trafficking including percentage of women incarcerated, domestic abuse, teen pregnancy, children in poverty and youth homelessness.
Traffickers often use the promise of jobs or other enticements to seek out the most vulnerable, including runaways, the poor and uneducated, those previously molested or from uncaring homes.
Oklahoma also sits at the crossroads of three major interstates — 35, 40 and 44 — making it vulnerable to such activity.
“We're just wrapping our arms around it. It's really alarming what we're seeing,” Weaver said.
That includes the death of Saunders.
“I don't have to wear a law enforcement hat to be concerned about that case,” Weaver said.
“It really shocks the conscience. We're in Oklahoma, and things like that just don't happen in Oklahoma. And it did.
“We've got to look at this closely. How did this happen? What can we do to prevent the next case? If we can save one young lady like that, it's worth it,” he said.