Murderer or Victim? Family of Texas Teen, Charged as Adult, Say She Was Sex-Trafficked — and Is Innocent
Before the summer of 2019, Zephaniah Trevino – known as "Zephi" to friends and family – was living like a typical teen: a fun-loving sophomore attending high school in Grand Prairie, Tx., she "lit up a room with her smile and laughter," says her mom, Crystal Trevino.
By the end of the school year, her family noticed her mood and appearance began to change. Zephi, then 16, started losing weight, with dark circles appearing under her eyes and bruises showing up on her body.
"That summer was pretty much like a hurricane," recalls Crystal.
On the night of Aug. 3, 2019, Crystal remembers Zephi climbing onto the couch with her, crying and trying to bury herself under her mother. When Crystal asked what was wrong, Zephi wouldn't answer.
"I felt something was really bad," Crystal says. "Something was really wrong."
It was much worse than Crystal imagined.
Earlier that day, authorities allege, Zephi — along with Jesse Martinez, then 18, and Philip Baldenegro, 19 — had taken part in a robbery that left one man dead from a gunshot wound and another injured.
All three have now been arrested and charged with murder and aggravated robbery, and have pleaded not guilty. Zephi has since been charged as an adult, though she was only 16 at the time of the shooting. (Zephi's case will be featured on tonight's episode of PEOPLE (the TV Show!).)
There is no mistaking that Zephi, who turned 18 in February, was at the scene of the fatal shooting — but what remains in dispute is why she was there.
Her parents and her lawyer, civil rights attorney Justin Moore, say Zephi was being sex-trafficked by Baldenegro who was using her as bait to lure two men to the scene that day.
Baldenegro has allegedly confessed he was the one holding the gun when the shots went off, but authorities say Zephi was complicit in the crime.
For more on Zephaniah Trevino's case, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.
Since Zephi's arrest, her case has gained national attention. Music mogul Jason Flom featured it on his popular podcast Wrongful Conviction last year, and celebrities such as Jamie Lee Curtis have spoken out on her behalf, insisting she is a victim of sex trafficking and not a killer.
While Baldenegro's attorney David Finn maintains that his client was in a consensual relationship with Zephi, who he says, "set the whole thing up," sex trafficking advocates say the exploitation of underage girls and the complex ways they are controlled are being ignored in this case.
"We have evidence to show she was being sex trafficked and abused by the triggerman in this case," says Zephi's attorney Moore. "She should be receiving services, not punishment."
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