The 14-year-old girl climbed out of a yellow Nissan in the dark East Whiteland Township Wawa parking lot. Police instantly recognized her as the child who had gone missing, the one they were hoping to find.
The girl was at the center of the kind of case that too often leads to the discovery of a body. This girl, a victim of sex trafficking, had escaped. By doing so, she led investigators to what experts believe is the first human sex trafficking case in this region that is tied to the 18th Street gang, a violent group that is a rival to MS-13.
Members of 18th Street, which has its roots in Los Angeles, recruited the 14-year-old girl at a Washington, D.C., party and transported her to Malvern, where they forcefully held her for weeks for their sex trafficking operation, according to court records.
“This was really the first time we became aware of 18th Street in the area,” said Chester County Deputy District Attorney Erin O’Brien. “We certainly can’t say that we’ve gotten everybody that is involved in this gang in the area, so I don’t know if we’ll see more of it. But certainly, it will make us more aware to look for it and be mindful about it.”
The girl’s rescue in May led to the arrest last week of eight people, and the discovery of another female victim, an 18-year-old who was transported from Virginia to this area in February and escaped in March. Neither girl is identified in court documents.
“In the Pennsylvania region, you don’t hear about MS-13 or 18th Street the way you hear about it in New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Virginia, those areas,” said Edwin Torres, the national president of the East Coast Gang Investigators Association (ECGIA), a nonprofit organization of law enforcement officials who regularly share gang-related information with each other.
The 18th Street gang is similar to MS-13, its better-known rival, in criminal operations and violence, but is bigger, experts said.
In the 1960s, Mexican youth in Los Angeles who were not accepted into existing Latino gangs formed the 18th Street gang. It was the first Latino gang to recruit from other states, and accept members from different races and nationalities. When U.S. law enforcement would arrest and deport Central American gang members, they reorganized in Central America and became stronger, said George Norris, the vice president of the International Latino Gang Investigators Association.
These gangs have “a long track record of avoiding and evading law enforcement,” Torres said. “If they are profitable in any particular area, even if they are shut down, they are going to come back.”
Joseph Johnston, the ECGIA Pennsylvania chapter president, said the gang’s connection to this Malvern sex trafficking case “is not an isolated incident” and is “not surprising.”
Last March, ICE deported a leader of the 18th Street gang in El Salvador, who was detained at York County Prison and serving a sentence for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Johnston referenced a January sex trafficking bust of another gang in Reading. Despite their stronger presence in other states, the gangs are “extremely transient,” he said.
On the East Coast, experts said MS-13 and 18th Street move along the I-95 corridor and expand based on opportunity, preying on communities with large Central American populations.
“They’re following a playbook,” Johnston said of the gang’s operations in Malvern.
Court documents describe this playbook, detailing how the gang recruited, intimidated, exploited, and abused the two girls in East Whiteland Township.
Both victims were recruited by former victims of the group with promises of money. They were then transported out of state, forcefully held through fear and violence, sexually assaulted as a means of “breaking” and “testing,” and raped for weeks, according to court documents.
Torres said gangs such as18th Street usually prey on victims who are already vulnerable — such as undocumented people — and who are less likely to turn to law enforcement for help. They also isolate young victims and abuse them to the point where they feel too much guilt and shame to reach out to family and friends, making this young victim’s rescue a remarkable exception.
It’s unclear whether there are more victims.
“That’s our biggest concern,” O’Brien said, “if there are other victims we just haven’t found out about yet.”
Both victims were taken to an apartment building in East Whiteland Township and then moved among multiple locations along Lancaster Avenue. It’s unclear how the 18-year-old was able to escape, but court records detail how the 14-year-old girl sent a pleading message to a friend and her mother, eventually leading investigators to her.
The younger girl told investigators that “customers” would pay the defendants at least $50 for sex, and that she was raped four to five times a day. One of the men arrested, Humberto Ortiz, 34, also helped her escape.
Investigators say he owned one of the apartments the defendants used to sell the victims. After she confided in him that she was being held against her will, he decided to help, O’Brien said. He gave the 14-year-old the cell phone she used to contact her mother on May 28. According to court documents, she warned her mother the people holding her were dangerous and asked her to pick her up, saying she “didn’t want to be here anymore.”
Her mother turned to local law enforcement, passing along this information so they could arrive at the designated pickup spot: a Wawa parking lot.
“It’s definitely an exception,” O’Brien said about her escape. “Unfortunately, the norm is that kids don’t get away.”
Ortiz’s lawyer, Herbert McDuffy Jr., said his client is not affiliated with the 18th Street gang.
”She came to him and explained what was going on,” McDuffy said. “And he tried to do what he thought was the right thing in regards to helping her get out of there.”
The other defendants either did not have lawyers listed in online court records, or their lawyers had no comment or could not be reached.
Homeland Security Investigations is also investigating, and most of those arrested have ICE detainers because they are undocumented, ICE confirmed.
Franklin Eduardo Rivera Mendieta, 25, also known as “Mono”; Dimas Omar Hernandez, 34, also known as “Adonys”; and Josue Antonio Sibrian-Sanchez, 23, also known as “Sibrian” are now facing charges including trafficking in minors, involuntary servitude, kidnapping, and rape, according to the Chester County District Attorney’s Office. Hernandez and Sibrian are undocumented immigrants from El Salvador, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials confirmed.
Five more people were arrested and accused of paying to have sex with at least one of the victims. They are Diana Ordonez, 25, of Mexico; Luis Geraldo Cabrera-Peralta, 29, of Mexico; Nestor Ruiz, 45, of Ecuador; Ortiz, of Mexico; and Carlos Villatoro-Gallegos, 23, of Honduras.
Preliminary hearings are scheduled for July 23.