LAFAYETTE COUNTY, Mo. -- A California woman is behind bars in Missouri, accused of making a teenager a drug mule.
Missouri Highway Patrol credits increased training on human trafficking for helping a trooper rescue the 15-year-old, who was 1,800 miles from home.
Thousands of cars pass through Missouri on Interstate 70 daily. This week, a Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper pulled over a Jeep passing through Lafayette County.
"There was some odor of marijuana, so there was some criminal activity occurring," MSHP Sgt. Andrew Bell said. "But the trooper knew that there was a much, much bigger case involved."
Court records say the driver, 22-year-old Brenda Alcaraz of California, had a 15-year-old girl with her. The teen had no identification on her, and the pair had conflicting stories about how they knew each other. They're red flags we can all watch for.
"Come to find out she had been exploited, if you will, to transport illegal methamphetamine from the west coast to the east coast," Bell said.
For days, the teen was forced to wear bandages strapping 5.5 pound of crystal meth to her rib cage. It might not sound like a lot, but that amount of drugs is valued at roughly $130,000.
"She thinks she is going to gain something of value, money, for doing these services, which she has no idea what it could lead to -- something extremely dangerous. She could potentially lose her life," Bell said.
Missouri State Highway Patrol's in the middle of a ramped-up campaign to fight human trafficking, which started in 2017.
This year alone, 200 troopers have gotten specialized training. Through September, the patrol has investigated 117 incidents, leading to 25 arrests and 17 victims recovered.
"There really is no socioeconomic, geographic break down to this. We see it all over," Sarah Zollner said.
Zollner works with dozens of trafficking victims through an organization called Rended Heart in the metro. She said many victims get lured in because they're have family issues leaving them without the ability to understand healthy boundaries. Rended Heart works to meet victims where they are.
"Where people are in that journey is always a little bit different, but our goal is just to build relationships with them and let them know there is another way to live life and that that's possible," Zollner said.
The suspect in this case, Brenda Alcaraz, is facing felony drug and child endangerment charges. Troopers continue looking at leads for anyone she might be working with.
The 15-year-old is now back home with family in Oregon.
If you ever have suspicion someone might be a victim, you can call police or the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 3737-888 or by text at 233733.