Attorney for third suspect in capital murder case questions Texas teen’s sex trafficking defense

Southwest

DALLAS, Tex. (NewsNation Now) — Attorneys representing one of three suspects charged in a capital murder case that gained international attention are speaking out for the first time Friday, challenging assertions from Zephaniah ‘Zephi’ Trevino that she was the victim of sex trafficking.

Trevino is one of three charged in the aggravated robbery turned murder of 24-year-old Carlos Arajeni-Arriaza Morillo in Grand Prairie, Texas in 2019, but claims she is innocent because she was being sex trafficked by Philip Baldenegro, who also faces capital murder charges in the case. 

In the wake of Trevino’s arrest, celebrities like Kim Kardashian West, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato have publicly thrown their support behind her. Jamie Lee Curtis took out a full page ad in the Dallas Morning News calling Trevino “an innocent bystander.” 

But defense attorneys for the two young men accused in the case say the allegation of sex trafficking is a lie and that no piece of evidence points to her being innocent or forced into anything against her will. 

While Trevino was 16 at the time of the murder and Baldenegro was 18, the courts recently certified Trevino to be tried as an adult in the case, making it possible for defense attorneys to release some evidence for the first time. 

The third person accused in the case, Jesse Martinez, was 19 years old when the murder took place. While Trevino has not accused him of sex trafficking as well, his attorney James Lee Bright says he could be considered guilty by association, so he is challenging her accusations.

Bright calls the sex trafficking claims made against Baldenegro a “blatant lie.” 

All three legal teams do agree on the basic facts of the case. They say in August of 2019, Zephaniah, Philip and Jesse lured two men over to an apartment complex just outside Dallas with the motive of robbing them of drugs and money. 

Over text messages, Zephaniah pretended to be an underage girl with whom the grown men would have sex. When they arrived, Philip and Jesse attacked and held them at gunpoint. 

According to Trevino’s attorney, here’s what happened next: “they then followed them out to the parking lot and Mr. Baldenegro ended up murdering one of the pedophiles that were there to purchase this young child.”

Crystal Trevino says her daughter was involved but not guilty, claiming Baldenegro used threats to force her to comply, also arguing that at 16, Zephaniah was too young to make her own choices.

“I’m sad that she had to go through this alone and couldn’t speak up; she didn’t know she had a voice, she didn’t,” Crystal Trevino said.

When asked to paint a picture of who her daughter is, Crystal Trevino described her as a girl who loves to laugh and have fun, is athletic, and loves worshiping at her church.

But attorneys for the young men say evidence taken from Zephaniah’s cell phone doesn’t show an innocent girl without a voice. Philip Baldenegro’s attorney David Finn said back in January videos from her phone were damning. 

“In her phone she’s looking for guns all the time, for months searching, glock, glock, starter pistol, glock, .38, pages of it,” he said.

Videos taken from her social media accounts and shared with NewsNation show her posing with firearms, smoking weed and offering low prices for various drugs, including one where she’s holding a palm-full of white pills that says: “tap in crackheads.”

In a statement to NewsNation Friday, Trevino’s attorney Justin Moore said claims she isn’t a victim are “completely unsupported and are simply smokescreens.”

Attorneys James Lee Bright and David Finn said the case was garnering so much attention and Trevino was getting so much support in the court of public opinion that they filed for the ability to see evidence gathered by the prosecution under the Michael Morton Act.

A judge granted the motion, which the pair believe was the first in Texas history. The attorneys say the evidence they received contradicts the image of Trevino presented to the public.

“They’ve doctored this little girl up to look like a saint, when I can now show you the evidence and you know she’s not,” Bright said.

Trevino’s family has shared some of her time under house arrest under her public Instagram account, showing her cooking family dinner, singing in the church choir, taking online high school courses, even FaceTiming with supporter Jamie Lee Curtis.

Another piece of evidence released to NewsNation included a hand-written letter sent by Trevino from jail to her best friend, asking her to disable her Instagram account, writing: “feds trying to hack my stuff. 

In one line, she writes: ”I wish I could rewind and change stuff. I used to think I was untouchable, that I’d never get caught. Sheesh. Man was I wrong!”

Audio files of that same friend’s interrogation by the District Attorney shows they contradicted accounts that Trevino was threatened or forced to do anything against her will.

When asked about the human trafficking charges, they said: “I thought what the hell is wrong with them? ‘Cause I didn’t even believe the story.” 

The friend also said Trevino had robbed people for drugs before, and that she and Philip Baldenegro were in a consensual relationship. In the audio, the friend says Trevino’s mom actually liked him and thought he was a good guy. 

Zephaniah Trevino’s family tells a different story.

“The Trevinos and my client have always maintained that she was not in a boyfriend, girlfriend relationship. We have evidence that shows great abuse from this man against this child. We have great evidence that shows that she’s tried to get away from this man,” attorney Justin Moore said.

While Bright says evidence of any abuse doesn’t exist, in his statement Friday Moore said the evidence includes a Dallas County evaluation labeling Trevino as a victim of sex trafficking, photo evidence of physical abuse she suffered from Baldenegro, as well as evidence he groomed other young girls. 

“… the District Attorney’s office continues to avoid the reality that this young girl simply would not have been at the scene of this murder if not for the two men who sexually exploited her,” Moore said.

While he says the majority of cases claiming abuse or sex trafficking are real and should be taken seriously, Bright claims the celebrities, supportive strangers from afar and all the jurors in the court of public opinion have been had.

“We don’t ever want to believe that somebody is pushing a false narrative; humans do that, though, and they do it when it benefits them,” Bright said. “In her case, it benefits her in her defensive theory.”

So far, an online fundraiser has raised more than $100,000 for Trevino, while attorneys Bright and Finn say behind the scenes it’s upwards of $500,000. 

In a recent post on her Instagram account, the family is selling “Free Zephi” hoodies and t-shirts through the Cash App for her legal funds and commissary account. 

Read Moore’s full statement on behalf of the Trevino family to NewsNation:

We are disappointed yet not shocked about Zephi’s recent adult certification. The state of Texas simply does not have the legislation in place to protect sex trafficking victims who are charged with the crimes of their traffickers.

The Dallas District Attorney’s treatment of this case has been alarming. Over recent months, his office has shown to have an unethical relationship with Zephi’s trafficker’s attorney and has endeavored to sponsor theories of victim blaming to justify his prosecution of a child sex trafficking victim. There have been claims by the trafficker’s attorney that there is evidence that shows Zephi isn’t a victim, but these claims are completely unsupported and are simply smokescreens he is using in an attempt to ensure his client doesn’t spend the rest of his life in prison for murdering someone while in the course of sexually exploiting a minor.

With the recent discovery of evidence such as a Dallas County evaluation explicitly stating that Zephi is a child sex trafficking victim and linking this murder to her being trafficked, to photo evidence of physical abuse Zephi suffered from Philip Baldenegro, followed by clear evidence of Baldenegro grooming other young girls to participate in the same actions he induced Zephi to be a part of, the District Attorney’s office continues to avoid the reality that this young girl simply would not have been at the scene of this murder if not for the two men who sexually exploited her.

Even with the myopic view that this DA’s office has exhibited towards gender-based violence and child victims of sex trafficking, along with the continued victim blaming from Baldenegro’s attorney, we are encouraged by Zephi’s bravery to fight for herself and other sex trafficking victims facing the same battle she is faced with. We look forward to her day in court.

ATTORNEY JUSTIN MOORE

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