BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) – Throughout the post-war years and into the 1970s, Union Avenue — the six-lane boulevard just east of the city’s central commercial district — was Bakersfield’s neon-lined welcome mat. From about 1949 on, the highway gave motorists the sense they were entering a little Las Vegas, greeting them with an unmistakable salutation shouted in vivid blue letters affixed to a gateway arch of gold.

Today, however, Union Avenue — a half-mile stretch of it, anyway — is better known for a grim but generally tolerated characteristic: It is the gritty, dismal domain of Bakersfield’s sex trade

Drivers who use the route — still a major north-south arterial — may have become desensitized to the sight of provocatively dressed women loitering on the sidewalk outside peeling-paint motels. But how would those drivers feel if they knew some of those figures in the shadows were mere girls — children as young as 14, 13, 10 years old — and in danger?

This is the story of three of those girls. Two are dead.

It was 4 a.m., Sept. 24, 2023, and 13-year-old Emily — whose identity we are concealing — was text-messaging a man she called Daddy.

The cops call him her pimp.

Daddy texted her a request. He wanted Emily to meet him at a truck stop. “To have sex?” she asked. His answer, according to court documents:

“No,” Daddy texted in response. “So you can work. If you get 1 customer, that’s a room for 2 days. Pls babe.”

Emily protested.  “But guys there are soooo ugly and I don’t wanna (expletive) an old guy,” she texted.

Daddy told Emily she’d be allowed to charge clients $400. Then Daddy texted the 13-year-old girl this: “You’re fresh meat to them.”

“I mean if we find someone who ain’t that old,” Emily texted back, “then maybe. But you do the talking, not me.” She punctuated her acceptance of the terms with a smiling emoticon.

“All you would have to do,” Daddy responded, “is walk around the lot and wave when someone makes eye contact with you. And smile. Be flirty.”

Emily agreed to work the next day, but not at the truck stop. She said she wanted to work downtown, and she eventually settled on Union Avenue, which she believed would be most profitable. She wanted to work the Blade, as streetwise people call red-light districts. And Emily wanted her friend to work next to her.

“Can u give me and my sister a ride downtown?” Emily texted.

The detective working the case knows who Emily is referring to when she mentions a sister. She is talking about Sandra, Emily’s 14-year old housemate at a girls’ group home, whose last name we are withholding. Daddy also knows who Emily is talking about. It’s settled: Both Emily and her “sister,” Sandra, will walk Union Avenue for Daddy the following evening.

The night of Sept. 25 was bright and cloudless, a waxing two-thirds moon hanging over Bakersfield’s most infamous street. 

It was a little before 11 p.m. Sandra was standing near the corner of Union and 9th, in the heart of the Blade, when something on the east side of Union Avenue, beyond the center median, caught her attention. A friend? A prospective john? Perhaps it was Daddy, who, according to court documents, was supposed to be there. We may never know. 

Sandra darted into the street and was almost halfway across when she was struck by a red hatchback, make and model unknown.  The driver sped away, his windshield shattered, his front end smashed, his identity still not known. Sandra died three days later.

Sandra and Emily, sisters of circumstance, lived at a home for girls that have been subjected to sex trafficking: Girls between 12 and 17 from all over California who’ve been rescued from the streets and, in compliance with court orders, sent to Bakersfield. Most of the girls had been directed to remain at the Daughter Project for an entire school year. Sandra was sent there after being discovered unconscious in Porterville. She had been sexually assaulted.

Jennifer Jensen, founder and executive director of  the Global Family Care Network, which has offices in nine countries, has dedicated her life to eradicating human trafficking. She and her husband Clark are former missionaries determined to address the global crisis, which, sadly, has found a home in Bakersfield as well.

Jensen, who opened The Daughter Project’s safe house in 2017, focuses on wards of the state who are in the foster care system. The home is part of the state’s Short-Term Residential Therapeutic Program.

“These girls have been through a great deal in their young life,” Jensen said. “You can’t get them from A to B in a couple of months. It takes a long time to break down everything that has happened to them before they feel comfortable sharing (personal issues), before they even want to change.”

They often deal with other issues such as addiction, Jensen said.

“The desire to run away is also very common,” she said. “And just separation, sadness, depression, mental health. We kind of have all of that. We try to get them to a place where they’re able to step back down into a family based level of care.”

So, like their eight young housemates, 14-year-old Sandra and 13-year-old Emily brought their heartbreaking habits and life choices with them to Bakersfield. They weren’t giving up those habits just because their counselors asked them to. They would slip away from the girls’ home at night – it’s not a lockdown facility – to find their way to the Blade, a short distance south – Union Avenue between First and 11th streets, most concentrated between 2nd and 4th streets. Here, prostitution is rampant.

Doug Bennett, founder of the prostitution recovery organization Magdalene Hope, said many of the women here start very young. Typically they’re groomed by men five, 10, 15 years older than them, a seduction process that may take two years, two weeks or just a few minutes.

“A lot of them approach junior high and high school girls,” Bennett said. “Maybe (these men) have a car, have some weed, have some money. (They) start buying them some things and (the girls) start getting pampered and what not. And then he’ll say, ‘Well, why don’t you make me some of that money back? You’re giving it up for free, why not get paid for it?’”

More than once, Bakersfield police have had opportunities to extricate Emily, Sandra’s best friend at the Daughter Project, from compromising situations, according to her parents, Jake and Amanda, who live in San Bernardino. We are withholding their last names to protect their daughter’s identity and using the name Emily, one of her street pseudonyms, to safeguard hers.

“Her social workers, all the people in her team, know that she is engaging with older men all over Bakersfield,” Amanda said. “I’m learning about all the (loitering for prostitution) spots in Bakersfield and I know that the girls in that group home, as well, participate in those activities.”

Her husband said he has provided police with all the support they should need.

“The cops know about everything,” Jake said. “There were times when I gave the police the address, the phone number, the make and models of the cars that she was in. They would go and do their checks, and they would do absolutely nothing. Twice they found (Emily) with a grown man but because both of them denied doing anything, they let it completely go. My daughter stayed there with this grown man.”

But police need more than a telephone tip to make an arrest, according to Sgt. Andrew Tipton, a BPD spokesman. Misdemeanor offenses typically must occur in an officer’s presence for them to act. Without reasonable grounds, police can only do so much.

The night she was fatally injured crossing Union Avenue, Sandra, according to surveillance video, was picked up outside the Daughter Project’s building by a man in his late 20s driving a red Tesla. A short time later, she was walking the Blade. 

Bakersfield police believe the man in the red Tesla who likely dropped her off there is the same man who’s already under investigation for alleged human trafficking crimes.

Police, investigating Sandra’s death, confiscated Emily’s cellphone, telling a judge the device could help them identify individuals who had sexually trafficked underage girls.

Emily continued to advertise sex acts on social media. On her Facebook she lists her profession as “Prostitute at Prostitute,” and she includes her price range, payable up front: $200 to $400. A recent Snapchat posting of Emily’s, a map showing potential customers her location one recent evening, features her avatar standing at a two-star motel just off 24th Street, about $60 a room.

Emily’s friend Sandra was not the first troubled resident of the Daughter Project to be killed on Union Avenue. In 2020, the night before Thanksgiving, 14-year-old Kaylie Corbella got into an argument with a group home staff member. She bolted out the door onto a darkened Union Avenue and was struck by a car just north of 34th Street.

Kaylie’s death underscores another aspect of Union Avenue’s deadly nature. Apart from the troubled girls and the predatory environment of the Blade, Union is the deadliest single road in Kern County. Eleven pedestrians have been killed on Union Avenue or streets directly adjacent to the Blade in the last 18 months.

Kaylie’s mother, Jody Corbella of Sacramento, still grieves. For her daughter’s loss, yes — but also because Kaylie’s court-ordered counseling seems to have made things worse, not better — at least as far as Jody could tell from the limited contact she was allowed to have with her daughter.

“I was hoping she’d get counseling that every child needs, I think, but her especially,” Corbella said. “She just needs counseling. She had to start acting right before they were going to let her come home. I believe she was acting out just because she wanted to be home.”

Jensen, the program’s executive director, said it’s hard for the girls to completely turn away from their previous lives, especially at first.

“They have lots of days where they don’t want to stay here,” she said. “Once they start to perhaps think about things that they’ve been through — they’re very very resilient — but once you start to open up that process it can become even more challenging. So the idea to run, or maybe go back to an exploiter, to go back to where they came from, or just run anywhere, is very common with this population. … We can only do so much.”

Jensen wishes society would pay more attention to the factors that make girls vulnerable to sex trafficking. She advocates an approach that gives families and their communities the tools to recognize and address risky behavior before it descends into exploitive vulnerability. 

“It’s very challenging and some days it’s very heart-wrenching,” she said, “because you can see the potential in these girls, and you can also see everything that’s happened to them. No child deserves to have those kinds of atrocities in their life in their young life.”

Jensen hopes a change of scenery will help them overcome the mental scars of those atrocities.  The Daughter Project is moving — away from Union Avenue and the Blade.

The Daughter Project is moving before year’s end to a new, secure 2-acre facility 30 miles away — a semi-rural setting where girls like Kaylie and Sandra might have had a chance to avoid the perils of Union Avenue and the Blade.

“We have the privilege of having the opportunity to really try to help them — help them see that their life is not over,” Jensen said. “That this isn’t it. That there’s so much more that they can do, and be, in life if they’ll give us the opportunity.”

If you would like to help the Daughter Project continue its mission — steering teen girls away from human trafficking and the destructive sex trade — in a new and better environment — call 661-213-3380 or visit Funding for the nonprofit’s new building south of the city is especially welcome.

The Sept. 25 hit-and-run accident that killed 14-year-old Sandra Herbert remains unsolved. If you think you may have information about that incident, call Bakersfield Police at 661-327-7111.