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Runaway children at risk of sex trafficking

Posted at 1:16 PM, Oct 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-30 12:51:21-04

Editor's note:

Lester Matute's mother said on Oct. 30 that her son is back home with her and safe. The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office also confirmed that the teen was recovered safely.

Authorities said charges of interference of custody of a minor and sheltering a minor runaway have been filed against Priscilla Ann Gonzalez-Robledo, who is Matute's girlfriend's mother.

Help bring them home.

More than 27,000 children reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2020 were labeled runaways. Oftentimes, these cases don’t get the media attention or priority from law enforcement that stranger abductions do.

Sept. 11 was the last time Yeni Murillo saw her 16-year-old son.

"We haven’t had a moment of peace," Murillo said.

Murillo and her husband gave their son, Lester Matute, permission to go to the movies with his girlfriend and her older brother, and he never came home.

"I received a text from him that night, asking if he could stay overnight. And I was upset. I said, I gave you permission for the movies only," Murillo said.

Murillo said the next day she spoke to the girlfriend’s father who told her he would take Lester home, but was later told he left on his own. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office is working the case as a runaway, as listed in its report.

"We’re working on about 30,000 missing children's cases at any one time, and 92% of those are children who have run away," said Callahan Walsh, a child advocate for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which was co-founded by his parents after his brother, Adam Walsh, was abducted in 1981. "We work every day to find missing children, to fight exploitation and prevent future victimization."

But over the years, Walsh has also realized that missing children's cases fit in different categories, and runaway cases are often perceived as rebellious.

"It really is about law enforcement and the media and the public coming together to get rid of these biases that they have against runaway children," Walsh said. "To understand that they are in a very vulnerable situation. They are endangered and we should be doing everything in our power to bring them home."

But in reality, Walsh explains that one in six runaways is likely a victim of sex trafficking.

"We had over 17-and-a-half thousand reports of child sex trafficking last year alone," Walsh said. "We know this is a huge issue in this country and a lot of it goes under the radar because it’s children who have run away. There isn’t the media support. Law enforcement isn’t, you know, really looking for them like a stranger-abducted child, and they fly under the radar. Then they are even more susceptible to becoming homeless or a victim of violence or, unfortunately, being trafficked."

In Lester Matute’s case, law enforcement has not labeled him an endangered runaway but confirmed he has stopped attending school. His mom said his phone has been shut off.

Matute's family has shared posters of him at gas stations, restaurants, and supermarkets, with no leads.

"Our lives have changed and we can’t stop looking for him," Murillo said.

Ten days after her son's disappearance, Murillo said she received text messages from an untraceable number saying it was Lester. She asked him to call her to verify it was really him. She said he did briefly and only told her he would call again. But she said he hasn’t.

"That’s my son. I know him and I heard his voice cracking," Murillo said.

The call worried Murillo even more. The family is now begging for answers from PBSO and concerned about where and who Lester could be with.

"Who is he with, what can they be forcing him to do? My son is 16 years old, he doesn’t have money or a credit card. Who is helping him and in exchange for what?" Murillo said.

If you've seen Lester Matute, please call the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children encourages you to go to and take a look at the missing children in your area, share their poster, and help bring them home.