If you read The Dallas Morning News on Sunday, you might have seen actress Jamie Lee Curtis' full-page ad coming to the defense of Zephaniah “Zephi” Trevino, a North Texas teen charged in a 2019 murder case. The ad parrots the claims of Trevino's family and legal team that she was actually being trafficked at the time of the murder.
The ad read, in part: "[Trevino] didn’t hold a gun. She didn’t create the scenario. She was being sold for sex. And now, after being abused and victimized by her trafficker, she’s being victimized again — this time by the legal system that should be protecting her.”
The lawyer for one of her codefendants, the man police said did the shooting, says the ad's claim is "bullshit."
Last August, residents of an apartment complex on the 300 block of Northeast 5th Street in Grand Prairie heard the loud bangs of two gunshots. The shooting left 24-year-old Carlos Arajeni-Arriaza Morillo dead and another person wounded.
Trevino was there, as were Philip Baldenegro and Jesse Martinez, authorities say. It was a robbery gone wrong. Baldenegro and Martinez have already been charged with capital murder and aggravated robbery, but now, Dallas County prosecutors are working to certify Trevino for trial as an adult. She was 16 at the time of the murder. If convicted, Trevino could be looking at life without parole. She turns 18 in February.
Her family, legal team and now Curtis, however, say Trevino was used to lure in the two victims with promises of sex. "Hearing her story pierced my mother’s heart, and I am writing this as a way to help Zephi’s own mother, Crystal, fight to free her daughter," Curtis' ad read. "As a mother of two children, I am outraged."
Curtis finishes by asking for help to put pressure on Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot to have the charges dropped. The DA’s office said it couldn’t comment on a pending case.
The case has garnered attention from national media as celebrities like Curtis and Kim Kardashian West use their platforms to spread the claim that Trevino was a victim of sex trafficking. Kardashian West advocated for Trevino on Twitter in July. Additionally, a change.org petition in support of Trevino has amassed over 300,000 signatures.
The case was also highlighted on the Wrongful Conviction Podcast, which helped spread Trevino’s story across social media. The podcast tells the story of Trevino, a Grand Prairie High School student and a pitcher for their softball team, the Lady Gophers, spiraling into a life of drug abuse and hanging around the wrong crowd.
But Baldenegro’s attorney David Finn said the narrative that Trevino is a victim is false. He claims that while it was his client who shot Morillo as he fought back, Trevino might as well have pulled the trigger because she set the whole thing up.
“This allegation, or this defense that [Trevino] was sex trafficked is complete bullshit,” Finn said. He claims he’s seen the phone records of all parties involved and no evidence exists to support the claim Trevino was a sex trafficking victim. Finn said he believes the sex trafficking claims are a way to build sympathy for Trevino and raise money to help pay for her legal fees.
It’s a hard case for Trevino’s legal team to defend in the media, as they can’t comment on the specifics of the case because of juvenile confidentiality laws in Texas, said Justin Moore, one of her attorneys. Moore said he can only comment on facts of the case that have already been widely reported.
“You have one side who can speak freely because their client’s an adult, and we’re very restricted in what we can say,” Moore said.
Trevino spent about a year at a juvenile facility before being offered a plea deal to spend 10 years in custody, according to the DMN. She rejected the deal and the state eventually took back the offer. Her legal team is now trying to either get the DA to drop the capital murder charge so she can’t be tried as an adult, or give her 10 years on probation.
Moore maintains that the evidence strongly suggests Trevino was being trafficked at the time of the murder.
“Victims of sex trafficking and young girls who are forced to endure the trauma of violence deserve more than this,” Moore said in a statement on Facebook. “The danger these young women live with is compounded by the fact that when they do talk about their trauma, they are summarily dismissed by a criminal legal system that oftentimes does not mind demonizing victims.”
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.