Family fears for missing Vancouver teen

Aunt believes she may be victim of sex-trafficking

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A Vancouver family searching for their missing teen fears she may have gotten caught up in the local sex-trafficking scene. While Vancouver police investigate the disappearance of 16-year-old Isabella Castillo, the family is asking the public for help in the search.

Castillo was last seen by her aunt and guardian, Cymany O'Brien, around noon Monday when she left for class. O'Brien believes Castillo may be involved with sex-trafficking because one of her friends said she was with a girl known in the local sex-trafficking world.

O'Brien met the girl about 10 months ago after Castillo ran away with her for a few days. O'Brien picked her up at a gas station, returning her to their home in the Heights neighborhood of central Vancouver.

Although O'Brien discouraged Castillo from hanging out with the girl after she learned of her involvement in sex-trafficking, Castillo was convinced her friend would never lead her down that path.

O'Brien last heard from her niece Monday night, when she received a text message from an unknown number. "Cym this is Isabella. I wanted you to know I'm safe. I'm so sorry for doing this and I'm sorry for putting stress on you. I keep trying to do better, but I keep messing up and (I don't know) how to fix it. I'm sorry. If you reply I won't get your message. I'm sorry. I love you and thank you for everything. I'm safe," the text message said.

When O'Brien attempted to contact the teen, her cellphone went straight to voicemail. There was no way to reach her and no way to know what could be happening -- aside from a tip from one of Castillo's friends who indicated that Castillo was with the girl.

"We're starting to be more and more concerned about the circumstances, and not knowing where she's at," O'Brien said.

There was no indication at home that Castillo was troubled by anything. The teen recently talked about getting her license and a job, and finding something fun to do for spring break next week.

Portland-based human-trafficking intervention and prevention program Tomorrow's Hope posted a photo and description of Castillo to its Facebook page on Tuesday. By Thursday evening, the social media post had been shared more than 3,000 times.

Tomorrow's Hope Director Steve Trujillo said that Castillo is potentially at risk because she has run away from her home in the past and because she was seen with a girl who is already part of a sex-trafficking gang. One of the most common ways that sex-trafficking organizations recruit is by having girls already involved in the ring to persuade new girls to join, according to Trujillo. They befriend them, groom them and gain their trust.

"You have to connect the dots, because if you don't, it's too late," he said. The longer you wait, he said, "the chances of getting her back become so much more difficult."

O'Brien is left on edge, jumping at the sound of every text message and phone call -- hoping it might be information that will lead to her niece.

"There's no handbook on what you're supposed to do when your kid runs away," O'Brien said. "The next step? It's getting through the next hour."

She's grateful for the many people, some friends and some strangers, who have offered to help in the search.

Anyone with information about Castillo can call 911 or the Vancouver Police Department's detective unit at 360-487-7400.