Nackiya Stewart struggled with how to start the memorial for her 16-year-old sister.
Traffic zipped past at rush hour, breaking the quiet in the north Phoenix park, and a strong breeze blew out the candles she’d arranged on a bench. Guests arrived in staggered bursts, looking at Stewart to speak.
“Honestly, I’m lost for words,” she said.
Then she spotted Sherika Buckley — her mother, and “the glue” of the family — walking toward her from across the green. Friends and relatives formed an arc around the women. Buckley brought a board covered in photos of her youngest daughter that read across pink paper: “Anaiah you are loved.”
Anaiah Walker had been missing for months when her family learned in early June she was dead. She was found 30 miles west of Phoenix lying in the middle of Interstate 10. It took police 12 days to identify her disfigured body, which they believe was abandoned after a hit-and-run in May.
“Obviously we’re standing up here, we look and appear strong, but our whole family is broken,” Buckley said.
Anaiah’s last few years of life were fractured after officials say she was the victim of sex trafficking. She ran away three times from the group homes where she lived since December 2017 as a temporary ward of the state.
Hundreds of people each year are the victims of sex trafficking in Arizona, according to estimates from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, and like Anaiah, the vast majority of child victims are running from state custody or foster care.
“We failed her. Her family didn’t fail her — we failed her,” said Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, a sex trafficking expert at Arizona State University.
DCS care was temporary, turbulent
Stewart held the vigil at Quail Run Basin Park, where she and Anaiah used to walk when their family still lived in the neighborhood.
In their last conversation, Anaiah wished her a happy birthday and talked about painting her nails, Stewart recalled. She loved purple and blue, colors of royalty in the Bible, and had a talent for the arts. Her mother recalled Anaiah plucking piano keys at just a few years old and crafting her own jewelry as a teen. She was smart and strong-willed.
“It was Anaiah Walker,” Stewart said. “Her way or no way.”
Anaiah’s stay with the Arizona Department of Child Safety was always meant to be temporary, her parents said, until her flights from home and unexplained death unraveled that plan.
She started lashing out physically and verbally in the years before she first went missing, her family said, and her school in Phoenix was prepared to expel her. Buckley believes her daughter was angry about something: Anaiah was bullied at a young age, she said, and later struggled as one of few Black students in a predominately white school.
In junior high, Anaiah traveled to San Diego to spend the summer and following school year with her dad, Adrian Walker II. Buckley and Adrian Walker divorced in 2007, and they hoped the move would give Anaiah a fresh start.
“We thought, ‘You know let’s give it a try,’” Buckley said. But Anaiah remained rebellious.
Although Adrian Walker said he was close with his daughter, her behavior was more than he could handle, even with counseling sessions and discipline. He said Anaiah once threatened his stepson who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, and he decided the situation was untenable.
He brought her back to Phoenix and called police, who called the Department of Child Safety. Buckley met with a caseworker.
“They decided that they wanted to keep Anaiah for her to go through therapy,” she said. Anaiah was to stay in a group home until the family could safely be reunited.
“We both wanted her home … Especially me,” Buckey said. But “the determining factor was not up to us.”
Less than six months into her care with the state, Anaiah ran away for the first time and was pulled into sex trafficking by older men, according to Phoenix police reports filed in court.
The Department of Child Safety was unable to comment due to confidentiality laws.
‘She was never the same’
Anaiah had been missing for five days when she and another girl appeared at a Circle K gas station in April 2018. They told an employee they’d been forced to have sex and sell drugs, police and court records show.
The girls told authorities they’d been living with two men in the Payless Inn near Van Buren and 24th streets, and were told to walk the area selling sex and crack cocaine. They were threatened with beatings if they didn’t earn $250 per day, and were listed in sex ads on Backpage.com, according to a police report filed in court.
Anaiah hadn’t yet celebrated her 14th birthday.
Three people were arrested and are awaiting trial in connection with Anaiah’s trafficking. Jamal King Pennington Sr., 35, and Kamil Pennington, 28, are charged with child sex trafficking and aggravated assault on a child, and attorneys for both men said they will plead not guilty.
A defense attorney for Aaleah Barginear, 25, who was charged with child sex trafficking and sexual conduct with a minor, did not respond to a request for comment.
Stewart said her sister met the Penningtons online where they posed as younger men. She remembered how Anaiah feared living in Phoenix in the months and years after her abuse; how she dreaded testifying in court.
“My daughter could not recover from being sex trafficked,” Buckley said at Anaiah’s vigil in June.
Anaiah ran away a year later in April 2019, then again in December while at a Mesa roller skating rink. She was there on an outing from Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health, her group home in Scottsdale, according to the missing juvenile report.
She had not been in any trouble at Devereux, a chaperone told police, and she had no access to money or a cell phone. The chaperone thought Anaiah was in the bathroom or had gone to take off her skates.
She was last seen that day in a green sweater and black sweatpants, according to Mesa police. She was not wearing any socks when her body was found destitute on the freeway.
Running away is a red flag for abuse
Arizona is a known hotspot for human trafficking, with year-round sunshine, sporting events and conferences that draw visitors and sex customers from afar, according to a report from Attorney General Mark Brnovich.
The average trafficking victim in Arizona is 14 years old when they enter the sex trade, and many underage victims are approached online.
Roe-Sepowitz, the sex trafficking researcher, said about 80% of child runaway victims nationwide are in the custody of the state’s child welfare system when they’re trafficked.
“We see that in every state in the country,” she said, because children in welfare have more reasons to leave home.
Their guardians are being paid to take care of them, and they don’t have access to phones, money or as much freedom as other teens. When they run, they have fewer people looking for them — perfect for a trafficker, Roe-Sepowitz said.
“It’s such a vulnerable time, where you want people to accept you. You’re growing into your body. … Someone tells you you’re beautiful and you’re worth something and if you just do this thing, you can make lots of money,” she said. “It’s very alluring for kids, even those who have people who love them.”
It’s also common for young victims to run away and rejoin an abusive situation, Roe-Sepowitz said. When Anaiah ran away for the second and third times, her parents believe she was seeking out teens she bonded with in trafficking circles.
Breaking that cycle means providing victims with a safer, more attractive home than sex trafficking, Roe-Sepowitz said. The Juvenile Sex Trafficking Collaborative in Maricopa County is one organization that supports trafficking victims in DCS care, working to provide resources across law enforcement, health care and social services.
The Department of Child Services has face-to-face contact with all children who return from running away, according to the agency’s 2019 annual report. The report stated the department was aware “several” children in DCS had been advertised on Backpage.com, where Anaiah was reportedly listed. The FBI has since seized the website for investigation and the creators are facing federal charges.
Despite Anaiah’s contact with multiple group homes and state agencies, she still skirted out of reach.
The last her family heard of her was an arrest by California police in January. According to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, San Bernardino police arrested a 20-year-old woman named Nackiya Stewart for loitering with the intent to commit prostitution. It was Anaiah, Adrian Walker said — using her older sister’s name.
He was upset that authorities didn’t check her identity, realize her missing status and return her to their care. The arrest may have been a chance to save Anaiah’s life, he said. A spokesman for the San Bernardino police declined to talk in specifics about the case.
Buckley felt a fleeting sense of relief when police called her on June 3 amid the panic of searching for Anaiah.
“I actually thought they found her,” Buckley said. “They were coming to tell me, ‘We have your daughter. You need to pick her up.’”
She never expected she would bury Anaiah this summer.
Family in search of answers
Anaiah’s cause of death is still pending, according to the Maricopa County Office of the Medical Examiner, but police said the initial autopsy shows she died from a high-velocity impact, likely from being hit by a car.
Investigators speculate her body may have lain in the freeway median for days before a driver called police. Officials were forced to rehydrate the skin of her fingertips to use the prints to find her name.
When he heard the news, Walker drove from San Diego to identify the body in a Phoenix funeral home. The fastest way from California to Arizona took him along Interstate 10, the dusty trucking route where police found Anaiah in western Maricopa County. He exited at Watson Road, asking shop-owners and customers in Buckeye if they’d seen his daughter. They offered their condolences but couldn’t help, he said.
Walker described the trauma of seeing his daughter dead and nearly unrecognizable in an emotional video posted to Facebook.
“I was able to recognize her because of her trademark cheeks, like mine, her chin and her teeth,” he said.
Stewart doesn’t believe her mother will ever be able to visit the stretch of interstate where Anaiah was found.
At the vigil, she said her sister’s death hurt her to the core. She hoped the memorial would raise awareness about the dangers of sex trafficking and meeting strangers online. Adrian Walker has started a new organization called Justice for Anaiah to support child victims of sex crimes, and Buckley is offering a $10,000 reward to anyone with information leading to an arrest in her death.
“Having a child that goes from missing to dead is not closure,” Buckley said.
She still does a double-take at any girl who resembles her youngest daughter. Out driving, she’ll sometimes slow the car to gaze at the girl or pull over to get a closer look.
She thought she saw her daughter just last week.
“I don’t really believe she’s dead. I know she is, but it’s hard to cope with and to understand it,” Buckley said. “I don’t know if I will ever feel differently.”
Reach the reporter at Helen.Wieffering@arizonarepublic.com or on Twitter @helenwieffering.