Family of sex trafficked 15-year-old hopes her death saves others

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A Houston teen's short life might serve as a call to action to save others from the pain she suffered.

Letty Serrano, 15, was buried Monday after taking her life more than a week ago.

It happened less than two years after her family said she was drugged and sold for sex by an older man. Serrano was missing for days. When they found her at Moody Park in north Houston, the family told ABC13 she was damaged.

"I wish we would have done more for her," said the girl's godmother, Cynthia Rivera. "And when I say 'we,' I mean the city -- us as a community."

READ MORE: 'We got her back damaged': Sex trafficked 15-year-old dies by suicide

The teen's story has resonated. It's a girl whose story is too familiar in a region that is a crossroads for sex trafficking.

Rania Mankarious is among those outraged. She is the CEO of Houston Crime Stoppers, and says not only is Serrano's story not uncommon, neither is that of her alleged abductor, who faced minor charges and repeatedly walked free.

"I was furious," she said of Serrano's story and the lack of an arrest in the girl's case. "It is very hard for us to understand that he wasn't arrested and charged and held accountable for the obvious crimes that he committed. Legally, on their face, it is illegal. Period."

Mankarious is calling for tougher laws and deterrents for those who engage in trafficking and who prey on women and girls.

ABC13 discovered the name of the man found with Serrano after her 2017 disappearance along with his criminal record. However, his name and photograph will not be released due to the fact that he has not been charged with a crime related to Serrano's exploitation.

The Houston Police Department has told the family they are reopening the investigation into her case.

While none of this helps a girl who has been buried before her 16th birthday, it might help accomplish her family's goal to raise awareness and to put a face to an issue affecting all of southeast Texas.

"Her death falls on us as a community," said Mankarious. "This cannot be happening in Harris County."

The anti-sex trafficking non-profit Elijah Rising estimates that tens of thousands of girls and women are trafficked for their bodies and as many as 300,000 of them in Texas are sold for sex.

Serrano's family hopes sharing her story will spark an awakening. Police agencies are working to change the narrative with regard to sex trafficking.

"Everybody in law enforcement is trying to do their part to stamp this horrible, horrible crime out," said Harris County Precinct One Constable Alan Rosen. "In some cases, these human beings are being treated worse than animal abusers. I've seen everything."

Rosen said the crime is so prevalent, his office is doing unique work to combat it. He says they interview all prostitution arrests to determine if they're being trafficked and don't want to imprison someone who is a victim. They also help with the legal process and offer counseling and provide transportation.

Rosen also agreed that laws against traffickers should be tougher.

In this renewed call-to-action, there is a news conference scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 22, in which leaders in the criminal justice system will discuss what they can do to protect girls like Serrano before it's too late.

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