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Slain teen inspires SMU assistant chief’s Amber Alert work


The following ran in the April 1, 2012, edition of the Dallas Morning News. Jim Walters, SMU assistant police chief, and Patricia Davis, instructor at SMU's Dedman College of Humanities and Science, provided expertise for this story.

April 12, 2012

By Dianne Solis

Jim Walters describes murder victim Casey Jo Pipestem as a crushed poet once full of promise. Others simply note she died a prostitute.

 In many ways, she lives in the work of Walters, a 52-year-old assistant police chief at Southern Methodist University.

Away from University Park, Walters serves on the Department of Justice’s Southern Border Initiative, whose mission is to spread the Amber Alert child-abduction information system across cultural, national and tribal borders.

 Pipestem, 19, was a member of the Seminole tribe. She died after being picked up at a truck stop near Oklahoma City. She’d been beaten and strangled and thrown from a bridge into a Grapevine creek. Her case remains open.

Walters believes she was probably underage when lured into prostitution.

“This was a beautiful young girl,” Walters said, “an intelligent, thriving human being.”

“One of the problems we face is we see a lot of these at-risk kids as delinquent,” he said. “We see them as prostitutes, gang members and drug addicts, and we lose sight of them as human beings.”

And in a refrain he mentions often, the cop and father adds, “This could be your daughter.”

 A 2007 Amnesty International report said American Indian women face sexual violence at a rate 2.5 times higher than U.S. women in general.

“Casey Jo is just representative of a bigger problem,” Walters said. “One of the growing areas of focus is domestic trafficking of Native Americans. It is a real problem and most people are not aware of it.”

At Mosaic Family Services in Dallas, which runs a 24-hour trafficking hotline, deputy director Bill Bernstein said defining the extent of trafficking in communities is difficult.

“It is such a hidden crime,” Bernstein said. Sometimes, victims don’t even see themselves as trafficked, he said. But trafficking always involves force and control by another person, and it takes astute law enforcement agents to recognize it, he said.

A 2011 report by the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn., looked specifically at prostitution and trafficking of American Indian women. Half of the women interviewed met the legal definition of sex trafficking with third-party control over the victim, and more than half of the women met diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Even among women working to assist those who’ve suffered violence, there’s a lack of awareness about the role prostitution and trafficking play, said Sarah Deer, a lawyer and member of the Muscogee tribe who worked on the study.

“There has been a disconnect,” Deer said. “They don’t know the sexual violence happened because of a pimp or a john.”

In a presentation on human trafficking to a small group in criminal justice fields at SMU, Walters tightly reconstructs Pipestem’s life as an athlete and artist. The lanky teen loved basketball and was recruited by colleges. He shows her poetry on a big screen.

International alerts

The Amber Alert program has been adopted by several foreign nations, including Greece, Portugal, Canada and the Netherlands. Most recently, Mexico adopted the program to help combat the kidnapping arm of the country’s crime wave, dubbing it Alerta Amber Mexico.

Walters assisted Mexican officials in establishing their program — a sobering process, as about a dozen of the Mexican law enforcement officials he worked with are now dead. They had also worked to fight drug trafficking in battles that have claimed thousands of lives in recent years.

Patricia Davis, a professor at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology and associate director at the Embrey Human Rights Program, said she admires Walters’ diplomacy in maneuvering university, tribal and binational politics.

“I give him a lot of credit for the fact that the Mexican government trusted him enough,” Davis said. “That is miraculous.”

 Walters spent spring break with a group of students in New Mexico to research public safety strategies for tribal youth. Jurisdictional boundaries can be complex, and much is determined by whether the victim or the accused is American Indian and, thus, subject to tribal, state or federal justice.

Thoughts of Casey Jo

Walters grew up in Kilgore, Texas, and was a police officer in Escondido, Calif., near the Mexican border early in his career. He was assistant police chief in Placerville in Northern California before taking the SMU post in 2006.

Finding missing children has often been part of his job duties. Reuniting families through the Southern Border Initiative brings special satisfaction.

“The thing that has made me the proudest is when I see a tribal police officer or a Mexican police officer that goes out and works those cases that brings children home safely,” he said.

Conversely, he finds it hard to let go of a case of a child who will never go home.

 So when he recently watched the women’s basketball team from Baylor University play, his thoughts turned to Casey Jo and whether she would have been a college basketball star.

“I don’t know if she had the grades and would have made it,” he says. “She did have offers.”