SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (KUTV) — Editor's note: This is Part 2 of the two-part Eye on Utah about a woman who escaped a human trafficking ring as a teenager and helped bring the international operation down. She now helps other trafficking survivors.
At 14 years old, Faith Robles was smuggled into the United States and sold for sex by a family-run human trafficking ring.
After years of horrific abuse, she made a daring escape. But what makes her story even more incredible is her bravery to face her traffickers in court and help bring down the trafficking ring.
Faith now lives in Utah and is working to help other survivors of human trafficking. Throughout the years of abuse, the investigation, and the court process, she wasn’t able to share her story — but now she is.
Twenty-five-year-old Faith will never forget what she said to her traffickers at their sentencing hearing.
"I hope you go to hell, because that's where you took me. I will never forgive you for what you did to me."
The five men convicted of running an international trafficking ring never knew her as Faith. That is the new name she chose for herself, distancing herself from her past.
At 13 years old, Faith was living in a small town in Mexico, working in an ice cream shop. In April 2010, she met 16-year-old Francisco Melendez-Perez in the park. The two became friends, and she opened up to him about her rough home life.
"He asked me to be his girlfriend. He was handsome and kind,” Faith said.
Soon he told her he loves her, and just after her 14th birthday he took her to a new town to live with his family.
"I thought everything was normal because he promised me, and said to me, 'we're going to the U.S., we are going to work together. We're going to build a house and we will have children.'"
She didn't know that the man she thought loved her was actually a part of a family-run human trafficking ring.
"Most of them are pimps, and they bring girls from Mexico to the U.S. They took me to New York."
Faith arrived in Queens July 2010 and thought that is where their life together would start. Once there, Francisco told her he found her a job. She thought it would be in a shop or restaurant.
"But what he said to me that night changed my life. He told me that I was going to sleep with men, which I didn't understand,” she said. "I'm still 14, a child."
Francisco and his relatives continuously threaten Faith, saying they would kill her family and bring her little sister to work in New York if she didn't cooperate.
"He told me, 'well, you don't speak English and you don't know where you are,' which was right. Like, I had no clue where I'm standing right now. Who, where do I go to ask for help?” she said. “When he keeps telling me, 'oh, if you go to the police, they're going to arrest you. They're going to deport you. And they are not going to believe you.'"
She was trapped and isolated. Beaten and raped by dozens of men each day.
“We don't have to get into the details, but what happens next? How does it work?” asked KUTV 2News reporter Kelly Vaughen.
“I'm glad that you're asking, because most of the people think trafficking just happens in one place, right? That's what we see in movies," Faith said. "That's what we see on TV shows. In my case, it was not."
Faith said she was treated like pizza delivery.
"The clients will call in and say, 'I want a girl.' And they can say, 'oh, I want a little teenager.' Or 'I want her to look this way,' and they will take it,” Faith recalled.
She was taken across New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware. As a new girl in the area, she was in high demand.
"They call you fresh meat, carne fresca," Faith said.
She said she was taken to big cities and rural areas. She said the “clients” included all races and demographics.
Faith’s traffickers took all of the money she earned, and she was fed just once a day. Faith did try to escape, but then her trafficker broke her jaw. She said then she had to work more to pay for the jaw replacement surgeries.
"I remember praying, please just, can somebody come and help me send me angels into my life. Tell me where do I go or take me to paradise,” Faith said. "Like, to be dead, because I could no longer handle that life."
Faith said she knows some people judge trafficking victims, thinking they choose that lifestyle.
"'Why didn't you escape? Like, you could walk, right? Why didn't you ask for help sooner?' You don't know what's really happening."
At 17 years old, 3.5 years after she was smuggled into New York, Faith worked up the courage to attempt another escape. In April 2014, she made it to a police station and explained everything to a detective, despite fearing arrest or deportation.
"He said, 'okay.' And something that made me feel like I could trust him. He just said to me, 'we're investigating cases like yours.'"
This started her next battle. Faith was a minor, and alone, helping law enforcement and the prosecutors build a case against her tormentors all while she was learning English — her third language — and getting her GED, and going to intensive therapy.
"Now I'm free, but the trauma, it's still there, Physical injuries, PTSD. And that will never end,” she said.
I hope you go to hell, because that's where you took me. I will never forgive you for what you did to me.
After many twists and turns, Faith ended up moving in with the Stockwells, a family in Utah.
"On the day he met her, he said we're bringing her home,” said Cherstyn Stockwell, talking about her husband Matt.
Faith was instantly welcomed as part of their family.
“I do remember thinking and saying, uh, they're crazy. Who brings somebody that you don't know?” Faith joked.
Now, Faith calls Cherstyn and Matt mama and papa.
"I mean, we'd make it legal if we could have, she knows that,” Cherstyn said.
"They changed my life in a way where they had to teach me things that I never learned in my teenager years,” Faith said.
The Stockwells helped Faith through one of her biggest challenges yet — going back to New York to face her traffickers in court.
Francisco and his four family members faced charges of sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, sex trafficking of minors, interstate prostitution, alien smuggling and money laundering conspiracy.
In many cases of human trafficking, the traffickers are never convicted on actual human trafficking charges. One reason for this is that prosecutors need the testimony of trafficking victims, but it is incredibly difficult for survivors to relive their trauma in court.
"As the brave little girl that she was, she could have said, 'no, it's too hard. I don't want to take this on. I don't want to go back there,'” Matt said.
But Faith was determined to get justice.
“Because of my testimony, the law enforcement were able to help other victims. It was because of me. A minor who went to the police station," she said.
During the trial, the judge calculated that Faith likely earned the trafficking ring close to $1.2 million. Money she never saw. And Faith was just one of the girls that the family trafficked.
The case helped illustrate why human trafficking is one of the fastest growing crimes in the world today; there is so much money to be made, and the risks of actually facing actual human trafficking charges are relatively low.
However, with Faith’s testimony, and the testimony of five other survivors, all five men were found guilty of human trafficking. Then, finally, earlier this year, after delays from the pandemic, Faith faced them again at their sentencing hearing, asking the judge to give them the harshest punishments possible.
The leaders of the trafficking ring were sentenced to nearly 40 years in prison. Francisco, now 27, was sentenced to 25 years. Faith didn’t agree with the punishment.
"Oh no, I did not," she said. "I really wished my trafficker could have gotten more than 25 years."
Faith said she she still has nightmares; still has physical pain from her injuries, and still often feels like she's being followed.
"I call it the demon of my past that doesn't leave me alone," she said.
But she said has to speak out because someone else is living out her story right now, even right here in her new home.
"It happens here in Utah," Faith said.
She and the Stockwells started Dahlia's Hope, a place for trafficking survivors to get complete care.
"We've only been open for two years and we've already passed the 40-survivor mark, which is more than we ever thought,” Cherstyn said.
And the survivors are your neighbors.
"Unfortunately, there are bad people, but at the same time we can prevent this and we can change lives,” Faith said.
She said once she got to Utah, it was important for her to get a job and find independence.
"Like don't just come and say, 'I'm giving you money.' No, put me to work," Faith said. "Don't just give me money because my dignity was taken away and I want to get it back."
Faith started working at doTERRA and said she is grateful they work with survivors.
"It's so important because if we looked at just victimization, you know, one in four girls are victimized over the time of their life. It's too high,” said Missy Larson, the vice president of philanthropy and community at doTERRA.
doTERRA Healing Hands has teamed up with Dahlia's Hope to help human trafficking survivors get therapy, job training and a safe place to stay.
"Each of us needs to play our part in that corporations, government, private volunteers, you know, everybody needs to work together to solve this. And it's the only way we're going to solve this,” Larson said.
Now, Faith is happily married, still working at doTERRA, and is even closer to the Stockwell family as they work together on Dahlia’s Hope. She said it can be hard to look back on all she has endured, but she has to talk about it so people understand what is going on.
"I can't believe I went through that. I can't believe that there are these guys, terrible guys, that are hurting young children like myself and that they don't care,” Faith said.
In a statement released after the trafficking ring was sentenced, the U.S. attorney for New York’s Eastern District, Breon S. Peace, said, “Through false promises of a better life, the defendants ensnared young, vulnerable victims in a sordid world of sex-trafficking and used violence and cruel threats to force them into prostitution.”
The investigation found that between 2006 and July 2017, the defendants transported young and vulnerable Mexican women and girls, some of whom were minors, to the United States and forced them to work in prostitution.
The statement said that the defendants used false promises of love, marriage, and a better life to lure the women and girls into romantic and sexual relationships and isolated their victims from their families by bringing them to live with them at the defendants’ homes in Tenancingo, Mexico.
The defendants then used physical and sexual violence, threats, and fraud to coerce their victims to work in prostitution in New York City, Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware. The defendants took the proceeds generated from the victims’ prostitution and laundered them to conceal their source.
United States District Judge Allyne R. Ross sentenced Jose Miguel Melendez-Rojas to 39 years and six months in prison; Jose Osvaldo Melendez-Rojas and Rosalio Melendez-Rojas were each sentenced to 39 years and four months in prison; Francisco Melendez-Perez and Abel Romero-Melendez were sentenced to 25 years and 20 years in prison respectively. The men were also ordered to pay restitution to their victims.
Faith said she is so grateful for the law enforcement that helped her and for her attorney, Lori Cohen, who was instrumental in getting the conviction and helping her get to safety.
If you or someone you know is a survivor of rape or sexual assault, resources are available to help. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.
The Utah-based Rape Recovery Center can be reached at 801-467-7273. A list of other rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence resources can be found online here.