What Salinas Police thought was a disturbance on Super Bowl Sunday on Kern Street turned out to be a dramatic rescue of a 14-year-old girl by her family from the clutches of two men officials say trafficked at least eight girls between the ages of 14 and 18.
The incident sparked an investigation that reached Silicon Valley and the Central Valley, and involved several law enforcement agencies working more than 100 hours on the investigation, including one 22-hour-day, says Salinas Police Det. Ruben Sanchez.
"This was something evolving so rapidly," Sanchez says. "Our main focus was that the juveniles were located to make sure they were safe and not being exploited for commercial sex."
The case started on the evening of Feb. 4, as a Salinas family was out shopping. They spotted the 14-year-old girl—previously reported as a runaway—with a man inside a white, four-door sedan on the 200 block of Kern.
The family was attempting to pull the girl out of the car when Salinas Police officers arrived on the scene. The man inside the car ran and escaped on foot, while the family and police were able to rescue the girl out of the car.
She told them she had been held against her will and forced to engage in prostitution by the man, who police identified in a Feb. 15 press release as 19-year-old Daniel Amaro of Soledad.
Sanchez and his partner, Det. Gabriel Gonzalez, were joined by the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office, the FBI, the Monterey County Probation Department and other law enforcement agencies in following additional leads over the next few days, identifying seven more teen victims, as well as another suspect, 23-year-old Abriam Ibarra of Salinas.
Amaro and Ibarra allegedly provided drugs and alcohol to the victims, Sanchez says. They also are accused of taking photos and videos of the girls in different stages of undress for posting on the internet.
The girls were expected to both walk Salinas streets around the hotels on Kern, Roosevelt and East Market streets, as well as have sex with men calling Amaro and Ibarra on the phone from internet ads, according to police.
The suspects collected and kept any money the girls received for the prostitution, and controlled the girls’ activities, including what they ate and drank, police say.
Two of the girls were transported from Salinas to San Jose to solicit prostitution there, so Salinas Police contacted the Internet Crimes Against Children task force in the San Jose Police Department.
On Friday, Feb. 9, several ICAC task force members came to Salinas to join in the investigation, and together with Salinas detectives they were able to locate Amaro in Ceres, south of Modesto.
Ceres Police joined in the investigation and the agencies performed a traffic stop on Amaro at 4:30pm that same day.
The police found a 14-year-old missing Salinas girl; a 17-year-old girl from Salinas; and a 15-year-old girl from Ceres.
Salinas detectives transported Amaro and the two Salinas girls back Salinas. Amaro was booked into the Monterey County Jail for multiple counts of human trafficking, pimping a victim under 16 years of age and conspiracy.
The two girls were “placed in a safe environment,” according to the press release. Sanchez says all the located victims are receiving help from victim advocates specializing in human trafficking of minors.
Two days later, at around 2:30am on Feb. 11, a Salinas patrol officer was checking an occupied suspicious vehicle in the Walmart parking lot at 1800 N. Main St.
Inside they found the driver, 21-year-old Anthony Ramirez; suspect Ibarra; a 15-year-old Salinas girl; and a 20-year-old woman. All four were taken to the Salinas Police Department for questioning.
The 15-year-old was released to her family. Ramirez was cited and released for contributing to the delinquency of a minor and a probation violation, and the 20-year-old woman was found not to be involved in a crime and released.
Ibarra, however, was arrested and booked into jail for several counts of human trafficking, pimping a victim under 16 years old, multiple charges of having sex with a person under 16 years old while being over 21 years old, conspiracy and a parole violation.
On Tuesday, Feb. 13, police arrested two of the men who paid to have sex with the girls.
Alfredo Hernandez, 25, of Gonzales, was arrested for eight counts of sex crimes with a child 14-15 years old while being 10 years older than the victim.
Ruben Trujillo, 31, of Greenfield was arrested for two counts of the same crime as Hernandez.
Both men were booked into Monterey County Jail and are currently out on bail.
It’s possible there are more victims—the investigation is ongoing, Sanchez says.
In the meantime, trafficking suspects Amaro and Ibarra were arraigned in Monterey County Superior Court on Feb. 14, and remain in custody. They are scheduled to be back in court March 14 to set the date for a preliminary hearing.
Assistant District Attorney Jeannine Pacioni says Amaro is facing a potential prison term of 28 years to life.
Ibarra is facing a potential sentence of 60 years and eight months to life, because of a prior conviction, making him eligible for a doubling of any sentence under the "three strikes" law.
The DA's office is preparing another human trafficking case involving Alameda County and expects to file it soon.
The arrests come on the heels of the sentencing of Jerry Stringer, who was convicted last year of the human trafficking of two minor girls.
Stringer was sentenced on Feb. 8 to 15 years and four months in prison for conviction on nine charges, but a prior conviction made him eligible for a doubling of his sentence to 30 years and eight months.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect new information provided by the Monterey County District Attorney's Office.