Uber driver hailed as hero after saving teen from sex trafficking scheme

A California Uber driver is receiving praise for his quick work in identifying a teenage victim of sex trafficking riding in his car and calling police.

Gene Puskar/AP/File
A self-driving Uber sits ready to take journalists for a ride during a media preview in Pittsburgh. An Uber driver in Sacramento was able to save a teenage girl from becoming part of a sex trafficking scheme after listening in on a conversation in the backseat of his car.

Many are praising the quick work of a California Uber driver who intervened in a child sex trafficking scheme involving one of his passengers, saying he likely saved a teenage girl from becoming part of a dangerous ring.

Ride-hailing services like Uber have raised safety concerns for many, with some users reporting sexual harassment or assault at the hands of a driver or taking issue with the app’s abilities to track its riders’ locations and store information. But this week, thousands are crediting one of the company’s drivers with a young girl’s safety.

Keith Avila says he picked up a teenage girl and two women in Sacramento Monday evening and drove them to a Holiday Inn. While en route, he said one of the women, who he described as a “pimp,” began talking to the teenager, explaining what to do when they delivered her to a “John” and how to get money from him, the driver explained in a Facebook livestream that has since garnered some 120,000 views. 

Mr. Avila said he quickly became concerned, noticing that the girl appeared to be underage.

“I’m just sitting there driving and my stomach starts to curl,” he said. “I played it off like I didn’t really care though.”

After dropping the trio off at the motel, he immediately called police, who arrived on the scene and took custody of the teen and two other women.

“I can’t just drive away, of course not. It’s not even an option,” he said. “She was way too young to be talking about that at the Holiday Inn in south Sacramento.”

He also told police what room number the women had planned to meet the men at, allowing officers to apprehend the man involved in the illicit activity.

At the scene, police detained Destiny Pettway and Maria Westley, as well as Disney Vang, who was in the hotel room with the teen, according to NBC.

Ms. Pettaway and Ms. Westley face charges of pimping and pandering, while Mr. Vang was arrested on suspicions of sexual activity with a minor, and later released.

Authorities say the victim was a runaway and was placed in alternative housing while officers attempted to locate her guardians.

An Uber Safety Team member contacted Avila and thanked him for his work. The representative also said that all three riders had been issued permanent bans from the service.

Earlier this year, the company announced a partnership with ECPAT-USA, a nonprofit dedicated to ending child sex trafficking. Uber said it would provide its drivers with materials to help them better identify signs and behaviors associated with the crime.

"Maintaining the platform as a safe and comfortable place for both riders and driver partners is very important to us, and any incident that disrupts that experience for either party is one we take very seriously," an email statement from the company obtained from NBC said. "We appreciate your professionalism in a difficult situation.”

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