‘Morgan’s life was not in vain:’ Group empowers young girls to avoid becoming victims of sex trafficking

MILWAUKEE -- The scope of sex trafficking is mostly underground until a high-profile case brings it to the surface. The death of 19-year-old Morgan Huennekens appears to be such a case, but as tragic as her story is, it has spawn a movement that may prevent other young girls from traveling the same path.

Morgan Huennekens

Huennekens' body was found wrapped in sheets in March. 29-year-old John Gillum turned himself in to police -- telling them he bought sex from her, and killed her over a dispute about the money. It was an incomprehensible explanation for those who knew Morgan as a sensitive, caring young woman.

"She was a big animal lover and she was always concerned about everybody else," said her mother, Kelly Huennekens-Lewis of Milwaukee.

John Gillum

Morgan graduated from Mukwonago High School at age 17 and headed straight to MATC to study non-profit business management. Shortly after, her mother noticed a change in her daughter.

Morgan Huennekens

"I Googled her phone number and ads popped up," said Kelly Huennekens-Lewis.

Kelly Huennekens-Lewis

They were ads for sex.

"I found out she was coerced into sex trafficking," said Huennekens-Lewis.

Tracking the memories, Huennekens-Lewis says Morgan befriended an older woman she met at school -- who groomed her.

Grooming is something April Bentley teaches young girls to be aware of. Bentley is a sex trafficking survivor and a friend of Huennekens-Lewis.

April Bentley

"They have to be able to deceive you, right?" Bentley said to a group of young girls enrolled in R.U.B.I.E.S. It's a sex trafficking awareness and prevention organization she founded.

April Bentley

Bentley was groomed by an older woman when she was only 14. She told her story to FOX6 News back in 2014.

The 25-year-old woman who befriended her and became a surrogate big sister sent her down a dangerous path -- convincing her to go to a neighbor's house.

Bentley recalls the woman saying, "All he wants you to do is make him some breakfast. He's going to give you $200."

But Bentley didn't want to go.

"I even said to her, 'he's a grown man.' You know, I didn't want to be down there by myself, but she went on to say, 'do you trust me?' And I did trust her," said Bentley.

That trust led to a frightening encounter and 19 years of sex and drugs. Bentley said she watched the interview on FOX6 News over and over, wondering why she was crying after so many years.

"And it hit me that there were so many other girls out there just like me," said Bentley.

That is when Bentley formed R.U.B.I.E.S., which stands for rare, unique, beautiful, intelligent, excelling, sister. It's a 12-week program for girls 11 and up.

Bentley said she was compelled to go to Huennekens-Lewis with a message and an invitation for her to join R.U.B.I.E.S.

April Bentley

"It was just as clear as day that Morgan's life was not in vain and neither will her death be, and it was like a light bulb went off in her," said Bentley.

"I needed to turn my Morgan's death into something beautiful," said Huennekens-Lewis.

Morgan's likeness is now the face of R.U.B.I.E.S. -- and Huennekens-Lewis now shares her daughter's story with the girls.

"What surprised me was that it can happen to anyone, and the trafficker can be anyone", said Makenzie Stephens, 13, who completed the program.

Morgan Huennekens

Morgan came from a middle-class family. Her mother says she was naive, childlike and very trusting.

Huennekens-Lewis and Bentley make sure these girls know how to identify traffickers -- protect themselves in public and on social media -- care for others being exploited -- and report suspicious activity anonymously -- and abstain from sex until marriage.

"How much are you worth?" Bentley asked her class of teenage girls.

"I'm not for sale," they responded.

Morgan Huennekens

July 28 would have been Morgan's 20th birthday. In her memory and the relaunching of the program, R.U.B.I.E.S. is hosting a community block party Saturday, July 28 at 22nd and Townsend, the area where Morgan was killed.

A doctor's report concluded the man who killed Morgan is still incompetent to proceed with the court case. He remains in custody. His condition will be reviewed in October.

If you are interested in learning more about the R.U.B.I.E.S. program, call April Bentley at 414-214-7298 or visit rubiesmke.org.