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How a Text From a 14-Year-Old Girl Busted an Alleged Sex Trafficking Ring

People logo People 5/31/2019 Christine Pelisek
a group of people posing for the camera: Christopher Lyon Johnson; Antoine Williams; Curtis Lee Russell © San Jose Police Department Christopher Lyon Johnson; Antoine Williams; Curtis Lee Russell

On May 26, an unusual text came in to Crisis Text Line, a non-profit that provides free text support and intervention in times of crisis.

The message in question was from a 14-year-old girl, who confessed that she was a runaway and she wanted to go home.

“From the conversation, it was clear that she was being trafficked and they were dangerous people,” Nancy Lublin, the crisis counselor who received the message, tells PEOPLE. “And she wanted help.”

“In my mind it was very clear she was being held against her will,” says Lublin, who is also the CEO and founder of Crisis Text Line. “I knew what I was dealing with very quickly.”

The girl gave her location — a Motel 6 in San Jose, California — and a supervisor with the hotline quickly alerted police.

“As soon as we got the information, we dispatched officers,” San Jose Police Department Sgt. Enrique Garcia tells PEOPLE.

The call came in that the “survivor was being held against her will,” he says.

a group of people walking on the side of a road: Motel 6 | Google Maps © Provided by TIME Inc. Motel 6 | Google Maps

Police responded to the Motel 6 at 7:42 p.m. on May 26 and found the girl, as well as two other women being held captive.

“Once officers got there, the case opened up and we realized how extensive the investigation would be,” Garcia says.

At the motel, police arrested Christopher Lyon Johnson, 39; Antoine Williams, 43; and 59-year-old Curtis Lee Russell.

Johnson and Williams were booked into Santa Clara County Jail on suspicion of human trafficking, pimping and pandering and kidnapping. Russell was booked on suspicion of human trafficking and pimping.

All three are being held without bail.

Garcia says the teen was reported as a missing runaway from Flint, Michigan on Sept. 1, 2018. She went to Chicago where she was allegedly kidnapped and taken to Gary, Indiana before being transported to various cities in California, where she was allegedly forced to engage in prostitution, Garcia says.

“It is amazing she took the initiative [to send the crisis hotline text],” he notes. “The sex traffickers will allow survivors to have cell phones, but they know they are closely monitoring and listening to them.”

Lublin says the girl was “very resourceful.”

“She was so brave,” she says. “I am really impressed by this kid. She had the emojis and misspellings of a child and the intelligence and strategy of an adult.”

Garcia says he hopes the teen’s story gives other survivors in the same situation the encouragement to reach out this way.

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“There are avenues for them to call for help,” he says. “I hope this sends a strong message to other survivors that there is hope.”

Crisis Text Hotline, a 24/7 free service, helps connect people in crisis with counselors, and has received 110 million texts in the last five years. The top issues it encounters are depression, relationships, school, anxiety/stress and suicide.

The hotline has also received more than 2,000 conversations about trafficking or prostitution.

Anyone with information about this case should contact Detective Gurbaksh Sohal or Detective Sgt. Tony Ruelas at 408-277-4102 or email stopslavery@sanjoseca.gov.

If you are in crisis, text PEOPLEMAG to 741741 for confidential, free support from Crisis Text Line.

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