UPDATE: Couple accused of trafficking child with disabilities arrested
BOONE COUNTY - A woman accused of sex trafficking her teenage daughter has been arrested in Columbia, along with her boyfriend, also a suspect.
The mother, 49-year-old Renee Collins, faces charges including sexual trafficking of a child and endangering the welfare of a child creating a substantial risk. Her bond was set at $200,000.
William Thomas Jr., Collins' boyfriend, is charged with rape. Neither were in custody as of Wednesday morning.
The investigation began last year after the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children got a tip about possible trafficking. That tip said the girl was "being left in hotel rooms with strange men."
According to court documents, a witness at the hotel told police the child - who has cerebral palsy, autism, and deafness - had been left with strangers for long periods of time. The witness said the teenager also has a "diminished mental capacity" of a two or three year old. They also told police they believed the teenager had been drugged once by Collins and Thomas.
Police said they learned about one instance, in which two men reportedly offered Collins cocaine in exchange for sex with the girl.
Police said they took the girl into protective custody. During the investigation, police said, investigators said the corroborated claims they had been raped by men after they offered Collins cocaine; in at least one case, the "bad men" put a needle in the girl's arm as well, court documents said.
The probable cause statement said, at one point, the child referred to Thomas as one of the "bad men," and described sexual contact with the suspect. The teenager also said Collins would loan them to men at hotels in exchange for money and "medicine." After sex, the men would then put the "medicine" in the teenager's arm with a needle the documents said,
Warrants have been issued for Collins and Thomas. No other suspects have been identified at this point.
Nanette Ward, founder of Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition, said cases like this happen in plain sight every day.
According to the National Center for Exploited Children, there were over 25,000 reports of missing children in 2017 and one out of every seven were likely a victim of trafficking.
Ward said drug traffickers have started to turn to sex trafficking because it is a lower risk with a high reward.
"If they get searched and if drugs are found, they're busted, but you can have a female and say 'Oh, it's my girlfriend,' or 'Oh, it's my daughter,' or 'It's my niece,' or 'It's my whatever,' and they can be a victim in plain view."
She said sex trafficking involves far more people than those who are caught.
"I just think of all the people who purchased her, you know, that's rape. That's rape. There should be many charges of many customers who went in there and paid money or gave cocaine to rape her," Ward said.
She said crimes like the one Collins and Thomas Jr. are charged with are usually motivated by addiction and greed.
"We have to connect all the dots. We can't just look at this terrible criminal and this poor victim, but there is a demand to purchase and there's a willing body of community members who are willingly going in and wherever it is, a hotel or wherever it might be, and paying in some form, something of value, to the trafficker and raping," Ward said.
Tracy Gonzalez, First Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, said these kind of crimes can happen closer to home than people may realize.
"We hear, not just here in Boone County, but nationally, about human trafficking so it brings it to light that it's a real issue and it does happen," Gonzalez said. "The evidence was sufficient that that was the appropriate charge here in Boone County."