Family says North Texas teen murder suspect is sex-trafficking victim; co-defendants’ attorneys call it a false narrative


A murder case against a North Texas teenager is drawing national media attention as celebrities have helped spread her defense on social media: that she’s a victim of sex trafficking, not a killer.

Zephaniah “Zephi” Trevino is among three people who are facing capital murder charges in connection with a robbery last year in Grand Prairie, in which 24-year-old Carlos Arajeni-Arriaza Morillo died and another man was wounded.

Trevino’s family and attorneys have said she was being trafficked by Philip Aguilera Baldenegro, the man who is accused of shooting Morillo, when she was only 16 years old.

But Baldenegro’s attorney called the suggestion that his client was involved in trafficking “absolute fiction.” He said Trevino was far from a victim and that she set up the robbery and fled when it went wrong.

The case, which was recently the subject of a podcast, Wrongful Conviction, has been widely discussed on social media.

In a full-page ad in The Dallas Morning News on Sunday, actress Jamie Lee Curtis threw her support behind Trevino, whose cause also has been joined by Kim Kardashian West.

In the ad, Curtis called on the public to put pressure on Dallas County’s district attorney, John Creuzot.

“All the DA has to do is drop the charges against this innocent girl,” Curtis said. “She didn’t hold a gun. She didn’t create the scenario. She was being sold for sex.”

Creuzot said Sunday that he couldn’t comment on the case, explaining that speaking publicly about it would violate the Texas Family Code as well as the code of ethics for lawyers and prosecutors.

The men charged in the fatal robbery, Baldenegro and Jesse Martinez, are accused of luring Morillo and the other victim to the 300 block of Northeast Fifth Street in Grand Prairie in August 2019.

Both victims fought back before Morillo was shot, police said. The second victim, whose name has not been released, suffered minor injuries.

Baldenegro and Martinez, who were 18 at the time of the crime, have been charged with capital murder and aggravated robbery.

Baldenegro’s attorney, David Finn, said his client doesn’t dispute that he pulled the trigger in the fatal robbery. But Finn said the sex trafficking allegations against Baldenegro are lies designed to garner sympathy for Trevino. He called them a “smokescreen,” a “diversion” and a disservice to victims of sex trafficking.

“I’ve been a state prosecutor. I’ve been a federal prosecutor. I’ve been a criminal trial judge,” Finn said. “I prosecuted real sex trafficking cases, both state and federal. As a judge, we had domestic violence cases that had elements of coercion and trafficking. And this allegation by Zephi Trevino, or her mother … and her attorneys — who are very good attorneys, I know them well — it’s complete [expletive].”

The Dallas Morning News ordinarily doesn’t name juvenile suspects unless they’ve been certified to stand trial as adults, nor does it typically identify people who allegedly were victims of sex crimes. But Trevino’s family and supporters have shared her name and photographs of her to help bring attention to the case.

Court records for juveniles are not publicly accessible under state law, but Finn said he had reviewed the evidence, including Trevino’s phone records.

“There is not one single shred of evidence that’s backed up in allegations of sex trafficking — not only as it relates to my client, but to anyone,” he said.

An attorney for Martinez, the other defendant in the case, said he was troubled by the false narrative surrounding the case but declined to comment beyond that.

One of Trevino’s attorneys, Ashkan Mehryari, said Trevino became involved with the wrong crowd and was slowly groomed for prostitution and forced to sell herself.

Contrary to the assertions of the gunman’s attorney that Trevino orchestrated the robbery, the girl’s family and her attorneys say she was “acting under duress.”

They say the adult shooting victims were seeking sex from her, even though they knew she was underage.

Mehryari said widespread attention to the case may have helped Trevino, noting that she was released from juvenile detention after about a year behind bars and is now confined to her home.

When Trevino had a public defender, the state offered her a plea bargain of 10 years in custody, he said. But after she rejected it, prosecutors rescinded the offer, Mehryari said.

Since then, Trevino’s legal team has gone to prosecutors with two counteroffers, asking for 10 years’ probation or for the capital murder charge to be dropped so Trevino wouldn’t face up to life in prison if she is certified as an adult.

Mehryari said the state is pursuing adult certification for Trevino, who will turn 18 in February. If she is certified as an adult, she could be ordered to jail, he said.

Trevino’s mother said that while other families are looking forward to Christmas, she’s dreading the adult-certification hearing scheduled for her daughter in January.

“We went to church today and we worshipped, and you just try to enjoy those times,” said Crystal Trevino, 48. “But it’s very real, and it’s very much a nightmare that we have been in for over a year.”

It gives her family hope to see celebrities helping raise awareness of the case, she said.

“My daughter is a beautiful young girl who has been victimized and is continuing to be victimized by the legal system,” she said. “We love our daughter. Our family is 100% bound to fighting for freedom and getting her story out there for this case to be dropped.”

Staff writer Nataly Keomoungkhoun contributed to this report.





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