A teenager said she was drugged, sexually assaulted and trafficked after meeting a stranger on social media. She’s one of the thousands of victims targeted across the country each year with cases happening behind closed doors in cities and small towns.
The NBC10 Investigators spoke with the mother of the teen who survived this horrific ordeal. It all began with an app on her phone.
We’re protecting the identity of the 15-year-old, who we’re calling “Ava” and her family. Ava’s mom described the horror.
"She had bruises around her neck and her inner thighs, she was drugged and she recalls getting raped."
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It was July 9, 2022 when the nightmare began for Ava. She was already vulnerable and struggling with her mental health when she began talking with strangers on social media. She said she agreed to meet one of them down the street from a relative’s house in Lynn where a neighbor saw her hop into a truck. Her mom said Ava left with the idea that she was coming home.
The case was only being handled as a runaway case until the NBC10 Investigators began asking questions. Now a criminal investigation is underway. Her mom was brought to tears, knowing her daughter felt so helpless that she just wanted to die.
“She said that when she realized that she was in big danger and that she couldn’t come home, her only way out was to finally die.”
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Ava vanished leaving no trace behind. Her mom said she went to Lynn Police begging for help. In the days that followed, she said Ava was brought to several hotels and a house along the way. She said her phone was taken away and she was told she’d never be able to go home. Her mom tried to track her phone and searched for her but had no luck. In the end it was a gift card she had given Ava that helped bring her home.
Four days after she disappeared her mom noticed a transaction pop up for a purchase on that card at a Walmart in the town of Orange. She called 911, the store and headed west.
According to an Orange Police incident log, a Walmart employee spotted the teen getting into a car with New York plates in the parking lot. Moments later officers stopped the car and found Ava. Her mom said when she saw Ava she didn’t think it was real.
“At that point of my life I actually lost hope.”
“They’re physically abused, they’re mentally abused...they’re held away from their families and they’re in a living hell,” said Matt Millhollin, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), in New England.
Millhollin said HSI is seeing a huge influx of human trafficking cases across the region.
“We see the traditional cases which are traffickers who recruit their victims from their social circles from bars, from restaurants. We’ve seen an uptick in social media recruitment of victims through various websites and online dating apps,” said Millhollin.
Data we obtained shows a 66% increase in traffickers arrested by HSI and 70% increase in the number of victims helped in the past four years.
January marks Human Trafficking Awareness Month. HSI agents held training for the frontline workers at Logan Airport to recognize the signs of trafficking and to identify victims. They’ve also trained people who work in the hospitality industry and local police.
They’re also sounding the warning about social media that the person behind the screen could be a predator.
“Traffickers normally have an online presence where they look like an influencer. They look like they’re living a great lifestyle which appeals to many people who are teenagers," Millhollin said. He added that parents should monitor online activity and make sure they know any relationships that they may be developing online and monitor those very closely.
In Ava’s case an online relationship and those four days caused damage that could last a lifetime.
“One of the things my daughter said to me that really broke my heart was that I’m here kind of a prisoner of my own nightmares and trauma while the people who did this to me are out there enjoying their freedom and probably preying on more victims," her mom said.
Ava has been hospitalized for months trying to overcome the trauma from what happened. The criminal investigation is ongoing.
Resources for victims of sexual assault are available through the National Sexual Violence Resources Center and the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-4673, and Massachusetts provides this list of statewide and resources for sexual assault survivors.