As the summer break wound down, two sisters in Orlando, Florida, set out to enjoy their last week of reprieve before heading back to classes, cheer squad and volleyball tryouts.
Those plans were dashed after a visit to a friend’s house turned sinister.
There, the girls, ages 14 and 15, met 22-year-old Jose Ignacia Santiago-Sotomayor, a convicted felon, their mother tells PEOPLE exclusively. Hours later, her daughters found themselves in a stranger’s house, waking from a drug-induced haze.
Thus began what police later described as a weeklong nightmare of sexual assault and trafficking, forced drug use, threats of gun violence and — for the 14-year-old aspiring model — death in the back seat of her alleged captor’s car.
“I blacked out,” the girls’ mother tells PEOPLE of learning of her younger daughter’s death. “I don’t recall a whole lot except that I got really sick.”
“She was so precious to me,” her mom says. “I’ll never haver her to hold, hug or kiss goodnight again. It breaks my heart.”
(PEOPLE does not identify underage victims of sex crimes, and has declined to identify the victim’s mother to preserve her anonymity.)
‘I Got a Sense That Something Wasn’t Right’
The Orlando Police Department and Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation say they launched a joint investigation on Aug 14, when the 14-year-old was driven to Orlando Regional Medical Center by Karla Michelle Quiros Alsina, 20.
Medical staff tried to help, but the girl had already died from a drug overdose after she was forced to ingest cough syrup and Xanax, among other substances, authorities tell PEOPLE.
Though Alsina’s demeanor sparked suspicion, she was questioned and let go.
“The only thing we had was an unidentified female dead in the car,” Orlando police detective Michael Fields tells PEOPLE. “There was no trauma, and Karla Alsina indicated that the victim may have had a drug overdose. All indications were that it was possible.”
The death probe became a homicide investigation when police discovered incriminating data recovered from the girls’ cell phones and tablets.
According to allegations in her arrest warrant, Alsina “knowingly and purposely removed crucial evidence of drug dealing and human trafficking from the cell phone in her possession and belonging to the decedent.”
Further evidence shows that Alsina, Santiago-Sotomayor and two others, Arthur Lee Coleman III, 26 and Avorice Jeno Holman, 19, allegedly kept the girls captive, plied them with drugs and advertised them in sexual services ads online over a period of at least seven days.
Police say the sisters were threatened to keep their situation quiet and were often drugged. Meanwhile, their mother thought all was well: She’d given them permission to stay with a friend in their apartment building, and that’s where she thought they were.
“The girls were staying in contact with me,” she tells PEOPLE. “They’d say, ‘Everything’s okay. We just want to enjoy the last few days of summer.’ ”
But by the Friday night before her daughter’s death, “I got a sense that something wasn’t right but didn’t know what to do.”
“I thought if I call the cops, what am I going to tell them — that my girls are talking to me but just not coming home? So I told my girls on Saturday, ‘I want you both home at 11.’ ”
In a final Saturday night call, the 14-year-old assured her mother that she would be home soon. She never made it.
Instead, the vivacious and affectionate teen, who wanted to become a veterinarian and “made friends no matter where she went,” has been laid to rest and the four suspects in her captivity and death are behind bars.
A Family Heals and Looks for Justice
Police arrested Santiago-Sotomayor in August and Homan earlier this month in Florida. Alsina and Coleman were arrested on Monday in Atlanta, caught up in an FBI-led sting operation that netted 239 arrests of sex traffickers and associates nationwide and rescued more than 80 minors.
The foursome are all charged with first-degree murder, human trafficking of a child and racketeering, among other crimes.
It appears Holman has not retained an attorney, and Santiago-Sotomayor’s attorney was not immediately able to comment. It is unclear if Alsina or Coleman have retained attorneys, or if any of the four have entered pleas.
The victim’s 15-year-old sister is home safe, back in school and getting counseling. “Always” very social, with dreams of medical school and becoming a trauma surgeon, she’s more withdrawn since her little sister’s death.
Meanwhile, their mother is learning all she can about sexual trauma and human trafficking.
“I’ve learned that Florida is the No. 1 state for human trafficking, that traffickers will use a female to lure in girls, that they target girls as young as 12 by watching them on social media,” she says.
“They’re predators. They manipulate … and they’re very good at doing it,” MBI Agent Aaron Blankenship tells PEOPLE. “It doesn’t matter your race, age, gender, socioeconomics. I’ve been to mansions and I’ve been to crack motels. Anyone can be a victim.”
Last year alone, more than 4,130 sex trafficking cases were reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
“When I’m stronger,” the mom says, “I want to work with a law enforcement officer who specializes in human trafficking.”
Today she and her daughter are focused on healing and preparing for potential legal battles, and they hope to help others avoid their tragedy.
“We want to make a positive out of this,” the mother says. She wants to “help shine light on young girls and boys who fall victim to the kind of horrible crime that took my daughter.”
“[My daughter] wouldn’t want us to be silent,” the mom says. “She would want us to be strong.”