DURHAM — A Durham County Sheriff’s deputy pulled over a Cadillac Escalade with a Michigan plate last week because it was moving erratically on U.S. 70.
What has spilled out of that SUV since is an eerily consistent story of teenage runaways so desperate to fit in that they fell prey to Internet lurkers and set off on a cross-country odyssey with two men.
One of the runaways, a 13-year-old from Baltimore, was in a Durham courtroom earlier this week, offering details of a plot so incredible that at one point her mother tearfully blurted out: “This is like some kind of terrible movie.”
Now two men from out of state, ages 20 and 22, are being held in the Durham County jail on charges of kidnapping, possession of a stolen weapon, possession of a stolen vehicle, and, in one case, contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile. Investigators are looking into possible sex-trafficking ties.
“After 14 years as a judge, I have never seen anything like this,” said Marcia Morey, the district court judge who presided over the juvenile hearings on whether the teens should be returned to their parents. During the past week, testimony in the juvenile courtroom revealed the bizarre plan to collect runaways from across the country and create a “new Eden” in California where they would hunt and fish.
In juvenile court, judges have more leeway to try to work with parents and the youngsters before them to set up counseling and other plans to help prevent more trouble down the road. The testimony that unfurled over several days in the Durham juvenile courtroom, where the names of the youths are kept private, led to the charges against the two adults – Hang Wu, 22, and Ryan Wurzel, 20.
Journey from Michigan
The story began May 28 in Michigan. A 15-year-old boy packed two .22 rifles, a filet knife and a suitcase into his mother’s Escalade and began the first leg of a journey that would take him from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Hazelton, Pa., then to Silver Spring, Md., Baltimore and eventually Durham.
Along the way, he picked up four teenage girls who ranged in age from just barely 13 to 15. In Hazelton, Pa., a former coal town in the Pocono Mountains, Wu and Wurzel, each purporting to be homeless, joined the carload.
Wu, who came to the United States from China on a student visa, had taken a bus from New York to Pennsylvania. Wurzel, described by law enforcement officers as the mastermind of the plan, had come in from Delaware, his home state.
The group had planned to pick up two other young people, possibly in Florida or California, after they left Durham.
The teens had never met each other or the two adults. But all claimed to be familiar with each other from the Experience Project, a website at www.experienceproject.com that has the hook “Find people who understand you.”
Contact information for the website lists Kanjoya, based in San Francisco, as a company founded on the principle “that technology should serve to enrich lives” and states that they “power human-to-human emotional connections through shared life stories.” The pages offer numerous photos and comments on such topics as parenting, dating and relationships, food, health, family, travel, hobbies, the military and politics.
“Experience Project is used by over 10 million people per month, and is widely hailed as a valuable and positive resource for our users, who connect on shared experiences,” the company said in an email response Thursday after being asked for comment. No name was attached to the email and none was provided upon further inquiry.
“Experience Project takes any violations of its terms of service seriously, and aims to quickly remove, eradicate, or report (as appropriate) such content and users,” the message stated. “We comply with all laws regarding investigation and removal of any inappropriate content, and partner with law enforcement as appropriate. Like all user-generated content sites, including Facebook and Twitter, users are responsible for the content they post, with our site’s supportive culture guiding, but, not guaranteeing their contributions are valuable and helpful.”
The website’s policy is to prohibit anyone younger than 13 to participate, and it purports to “have severe usage restrictions” for anyone under 18.
Still, the teens who ended up in Durham claimed to have found fellowship on the site. Through text messages, private Facebook posts and cellphone calls, they planned a new life for themselves on the West Coast, according to testimony. They had ambitions of being a family – a nurturing one they were certain would alleviate the angst, depression and common aches of teenage life.
Durham investigators have contacted the federal Department of Homeland Security, the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to look into the possibility that a sex trafficking ring based in California may be involved.
“This has all the typical marks of a sex-trafficking situation,” said Deputy Paul Sherwin, a public information officer with the Durham County Sheriff’s Office. “We have a lot of young, vulnerable kids.”
The men are being held in Durham County jail, each on a $1.6 million bond. Wu also faces immigration proceedings.
Had it not been for the father of the 15-year-old girl from Durham, the two might have been on their way to Florida or California – their stories were inconsistent on the next stop – to retrieve two others.
The Durham girl got on board the Escalade with the six others just before 1 a.m. on May 30. As she was instructed, she snuck out of her family’s home with a suitcase and as much money as she could collect. She met the group in a nearby park.
A Durham deputy was drawn to the Escalade on U.S. 70.
The boy who took his mother’s Escalade in Michigan did not have a driver’s license to make the 1,000-mile journey. But after posting on Facebook that he wanted to run away and was looking for people to run away with, he left his home state the day after returning from a Memorial Day vacation with his family, according to testimony.
Not far from his home, he switched license plates with a similar Escalade in a neighbor’s driveway to confuse law enforcement officers who might be looking for the SUV if his mother reported it stolen. As he set off to pick up a 14-year-old girl outside a public library in Ann Arbor, his driving inexperience showed. The boy got lost several times and ran into a light pole as he tried to make his way through a difficult roundabout.
Eventually he found his passenger, a ninth-grader with $15 among her possessions. The unfamiliar pair proceeded with the 411-mile trip to a designated bus stop in the Poconos. There they met Wurzel and Wu.
Their next stop was Colesville, Md., a suburb of Silver Springs, where an eighth-grader with a backpack full of pennies – $24 worth – jumped in for the journey. They moved on to Baltimore, where a girl who had just turned 13 several weeks earlier met up with them at a park near her home. Her mother was tearful and on edge when she did not come home at her regular time.
The next stop was Durham.
The Experience Project website has a section titled “I Wanna Run Away From Home.” “This group is for people who just want out,” the section states. “Something at home is hurting them and they just want to leave. They can’t stand it anymore and they don’t want to deal with it anymore.”
As the carload left the Durham park with its newest passenger on board, the plan was to include two others in a plot that Wurzel had detailed online.
“We can go live in our own little community and call it our Eden,” the mother of one of the girls said Wurzel wrote on The Experience Project website
When the Durham deputy pulled over the Escalade for what he thought might be a DWI stop, the teens all got out. The law enforcement officer detained them as possible runaways. But he let Wu and Wurzel go.
But after the father of the Durham girl was informed about her plans to run away, he used her phone to track down the two men. The dad and his former wife got the two, who were still in Durham, to come to juvenile court with them under the ruse that they would be able to retrieve their wallets.
Morey, the district court judge presiding over the juvenile runaway cases, asked the teens to tell her what happened. She encouraged open dialogue between them and their parents while in her presence.
As more and more details emerged from the runaways, Morey asked for law enforcement officers to be present in the courtroom.
When the judge realized Wu and Wurzel were in her courtroom, too, she asked them to step forward and instructed them not to tell her anything because they were likely to be detained for investigative purposes.
The men were charged last week with possession of a stolen vehicle and stolen firearm. The kidnapping charges were added this week.
Ron Christie, a detective with the Durham County Sheriff’s Office, said in court this week that his early investigation had turned the focus to a man in California with ties to a sex-trafficking ring.
The teens have all been released to the custody of their parents.
Many of them met further with Durham investigators with their parents by their sides to offer as many details as they could before leaving the state.