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Innocence Sold: The disappearance of Sophie Reeder – Sun Sentinel

Third of four parts.

It was after midnight, and her father was asleep.

Fifteen-year-old Sophie Reeder slipped out of her Fort Lauderdale home wearing a short black skirt, high-top sneakers, a leopard-print coat and headphones. Her hair was neatly twisted into side buns.

She took nothing with her. In her bedroom, she left a stack of cash, a diary and a date mysteriously marked on her calendar. Maybe she thought she’d be back to blow out the candle she left burning.

That was five and a half years ago.

Somebody knows what happened to Sophie Reeder. But not the police. Not her parents. Not the private investigators who tried to find her.

Despite powerful evidence that she fell into the hands of a sex trafficker, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department’s handling of her case diminished the chance she’d ever be found.

Sophie’s case was part of the South Florida Sun Sentinel’s year-long investigation into child , a vile crime that is relatively easy to get away with in Florida.

Sophie wasn’t a runaway, or a foster child, or an abused daughter, like many girls who fall under a predator’s sway. She was a middle-class girl with two parents who loved her — parents who had the means to help. Friends and family saw red flags, but no one realized quite what they were seeing.

Her case shows that sex trafficking is common, hiding in plain sight.

In Sophie’s cell phone, police found messages she sent a friend, discussing prices charged for commercial sex acts.

“There are so many cases in our local community, and the average person has no clue,” said John Rode, a former South Florida cop who has searched for Sophie for five years. “If I ask 10 people, ‘What is human trafficking?,’ most are going to say it’s a container on a ship, and there’s 50 Haitian people packed into the container like the movies. Most of the cases are just young runaway girls that get mixed up with the wrong person and sooner or later they can’t get out or they can’t be found.”

Nicole Twist, whose 15-year-old daughter, Sophie Reeder, disappeared in May 2017, suspects her daughter fell into the hands of predators.
Nicole Twist, whose 15-year-old daughter, Sophie Reeder, disappeared in May 2017, suspects her daughter fell into the hands of predators. (Brittany Wallman)

Although most of their stories aren’t told, children are reported missing every day in Florida. Last year, 2,166 kids were reported missing in Florida, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. All but 145 of them were found.

These children — runaways and other missing kids — are among the most vulnerable to sex trafficking, researchers have proven.

Their stories are eerily similar: a girl with low self-esteem meets an attentive older man. He may offer gifts, compliments, promises of a better life — or even love.

But it’s a trap.

And finding them is an overwhelming task for local police.

The year Sophie went missing, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department’s missing persons unit had just two detectives and an aide to handle nearly 2,500 cases. When her father reported her missing, they didn’t look for her, at least not initially. They sent him home, assuring him she’d be “back within a week.”

After seven weeks of utter silence from Sophie, police carried out a search warrant at the apartment where a felon was living — the man Sophie last called.

The police department denied repeated requests from the Sun Sentinel for interviews or the case file, preventing anyone — including Sophie’s family — from knowing what they’ve done to find her.

The department has had five chiefs since Sophie disappeared. The latest chief, Patrick Lynn, declined to discuss the case or to allow those involved with it — Det. Jennifer Saint-Jean, Det. Jason Wood and Sgt. Steve Novak — to talk to the Sun Sentinel.

“He believes we have provided you with all of the information that is available at this time related to this active case,” spokeswoman Casey Liening wrote in an email.

During the Sun Sentinel’s reporting of this project, though, the police department in May offered its first reward in her case — $25,000 for key information — five years after she disappeared.

And in September, the day after declining the Sun Sentinel’s most recent request for comment on the case, the department announced the creation of a new Endangered Persons Unit, where missing person cases will benefit from a team of experts in human trafficking, and .

The department declined to say whether the renewed attention to Sophie’s case was an impetus for its new unit, whose seven detectives and one sergeant could dramatically improve outcomes in cases like hers.

The agency said there are thousands of internal emails about the unit’s creation, and the newspaper would have to pay $16,538.40 to obtain them.

If Sophie is alive out there somewhere, she’s 20.

Her room in her dad’s home on Citrus Isle in Fort Lauderdale remains that of a girl with one foot still in childhood: Pink walls, a doll collection, a bear in a pink dress on her bedspread, its nose bitten off by Roxy, the family dog.

Patrick Reeder has kept the bedroom of his daughter, Sophie, unchanged since she left his house just after midnight on May 20, 2017, and disappeared.
Patrick Reeder has kept the bedroom of his daughter, Sophie, unchanged since she left his house just after midnight on May 20, 2017, and disappeared. (Mike Stocker / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

But beneath the surface, Sophie was floundering. She was caught between battling, estranged parents. She was attending high school from home, and was mixing with a dangerous crowd. She was distant and seemed depressed.

“I’m used. Unwanted. Unloved. Lonely,” she wrote in her diary. “I’m like the penny you dropped under the sofa. But you don’t care cuz hell it’s just a penny.”

Her computer screensaver, now in police hands, poses a question that remains unanswered: “Where do all the sad girls go?”

“She felt very misunderstood,” said her longtime friend, Alaiza, who asked that her last name not be published. “She didn’t want to go to regular schools. She didn’t want to be around, these, you know, regular people. … When you feel like that, you feel alone, feel like nobody gets you.”

Sophie was “in the middle of puberty, figuring herself out,” said her aunt, Kirsten Milhorn, a schoolteacher.

She was looking for affirmation, for someone to tell her she was “amazing,” Milhorn said. Her dad could have told her that a million times, she said, but “it wouldn’t have been enough.”

She was easy prey.

On her bedroom calendar, Sophie had marked one date: May 19, 2017.

Nobody knows why she marked it, but it was, in fact, a remarkable day. It was the last time anyone in Sophie’s family saw her.

The week leading up to Sophie’s disappearance was an emotional tempest — not unusual for a teenage girl.

She was at turns hopeful and happy, then despairing and lost.

Sophie Reeder, left, and her mom, Nicole Twist, in a selfie taken on Mother's Day 2017, the last time Twist saw her daughter. Five days later, Sophie vanished.
Sophie Reeder, left, and her mom, Nicole Twist, in a selfie taken on Mother’s Day 2017, the last time Twist saw her daughter. Five days later, Sophie vanished. (Courtesy Nicole Twist)

Nicole Twist last saw Sophie on Mother’s Day, five days before her only child vanished. Sophie sat across from her at a Sweet Tomatoes restaurant in Fort Lauderdale.

“She seemed like a different person — super talkative, talking about how beautiful she was, how she could be a model, she was going to go to California and marry Quentin Tarantino,” Twist said in an interview with the Sun Sentinel. “All this stuff. She was going to change her name. She told me that. When I look back, I just wanna knock myself in the head.”

The conversation that day may have been just the latest warning sign for Twist. But she didn’t know at the time just how dangerous Sophie’s situation had become.

In a Facebook photo from that afternoon, Sophie is smiling in a white dress from the restaurant booth. A week later, that photo of Sophie would become a missing child poster.

She spent her last day at home gluing artificial flowers to her computer, wall mirror and bikini. She put a daisy in her father Patrick Reeder’s hair, and they snapped a photo together — their last.

Sophie Reeder spent her last day at home gluing artificial flowers around her room. She put a daisy in her father Patrick Reeder’s hair for this selfie.
Sophie Reeder spent her last day at home gluing artificial flowers around her room. She put a daisy in her father Patrick Reeder’s hair for this selfie. (Courtesy Patrick Reeder)

Her friend Brooklynn Sharpe said Sophie was unusually down that day, saying she felt like a “nobody.”

Around 11:30 p.m., Patrick Reeder saw Sophie pacing inside the house and told her to go to bed.

Then he fell asleep, he said. “And that was the last time I saw and spoke to Sophie.”

Late night walks weren’t unusual for Sophie. Reeder allowed his daughter to come and go, family and friends told the Sun Sentinel.

Sophie’s parents were in conflict, court records show, especially about custody and parenting of their daughter. And Sophie, who was in the care of a therapist, was lashing out — sometimes violently — against her mother.

A judge granted Reeder full custody in 2015. Twist said her friends at the time counseled her to accept it. One of her last communications to Reeder was to insist that he get their daughter back in school. They’ve never spoken about her disappearance.

Milhorn said her brother is by nature laid back and non-confrontational. He did his best at parenting an emotional teen girl, she said.

“It’s just a hard time,” Milhorn said. “Pat did everything he could, and you know, there’s no manual for kids, especially teenagers in this day and age.”

When Sophie disappeared, she left a candle burning on her dresser. Her family believes it's one of several clues that indicated Sophie was not intending to run away from home.
When Sophie disappeared, she left a candle burning on her dresser. Her family believes it’s one of several clues that indicated Sophie was not intending to run away from home. (Mike Stocker)

So on Saturday morning, May 20, when Reeder poked his head into his daughter’s room and found it empty, he wasn’t alarmed. He saw the candle burning and thought she’d lit it and gone on a morning walk, he said.

Two days passed before he reported her missing. Reeder told the Sun Sentinel that he believed she’d be back on her own.

When she didn’t turn up on Monday, the quiet mortgage consultant drove to the police department. He was met with nonchalance.

“That lady I did the report with on Monday morning, she said, ‘They usually come back within a week,’ ” he recalled. “I was like, ‘OK, this must be the timeline.’ I have no detective experience, just what I see on TV, that’s it.”

Police released a missing person poster for 15-year-old Sophie Reeder five days after she disappeared in 2017.
Police released a missing person poster for 15-year-old Sophie Reeder five days after she disappeared in 2017. (courtesy)

On May 25, five days after she vanished, the police put out a missing child poster. There were five sentences, including this: “Reeder suffers from undiagnosed depression and anxiety.”

For Sophie’s family, the line suggested police saw her as another troubled runaway.

“That’s the issue,” Reeder said. “They treated her like a runaway and didn’t put the full force of the law in there and get to the bad guys.”

When police did investigate, they learned that something far more tragic may have happened to Sophie. A search warrant granted two months after her disappearance listed just how grave police came to believe her situation was.

They sought to search a convicted felon’s apartment, not far from Sophie’s house. It listed the potential crimes being investigated:

Kidnapping. Human trafficking. Murder.

Police determined that when Sophie stepped out of her house while her father slept, she retraced a walk she had already made earlier that night.

 

To Jay’s place.

According to one of the few Fort Lauderdale police documents released to the Sun Sentinel, Sophie often called Leonard “Jay” Jennings, a 37-year-old felon. At the time, he had 31 felony charges, nine felony convictions, and three imprisonments — mostly for theft, drugs, and assaults. Only her father, listed in her phone as “Papaaaa,’’ was in the call history of Sophie’s phone as frequently.

Her friend Brooklynn said Sophie knew Jennings from the neighborhood and that Sophie usually went there to buy marijuana.

While that might explain Sophie’s first walk to the Jennings apartment that night, it’s her second walk there hours later that is the enduring mystery of her case.

Brooklynn said she didn’t understand it.

Sophie left home and first walked in the opposite direction from the Jennings apartment, police established with phone records. A couple hours after leaving, she turned back toward the neighborhood and called him. Her casual saunter was captured by a surveillance camera as she headed westward down Davie Boulevard near the Brightline tracks.

A Broward sheriff’s cruiser passed by the teenager without stopping.

She walked to 1725 SW 11th Court, a drab fourplex, where Jennings was staying with his mother and brothers.

At 3:07 a.m., she called him again, police records show.

Her phone remained at the Jennings address until 9:13 a.m., “when it then ceases to transmit any records thereafter,” the police report says.

Jennings’ number was the last she ever dialed from that phone.

All three Jennings brothers have lengthy felony records and were questioned, police records say. They all “denied ever knowing, seeing or communicating with” Sophie, according to a police document.

“These lies directly contradict all of the obtained records and statements from friends regarding [Sophie Reeder’s] relationship with the Jennings family,” Fort Lauderdale police recounted in a July 11, 2017, search warrant application.

That search warrant was executed at the Jennings apartment the next day, almost two months after Sophie disappeared.

The search was led by Det. Ali Adamson, an expert at the agency in , according to the search warrant. Police took 25 cell phones, two media players, three tablets, one journal, headphones, a hard drive, two computer towers, ammunition, a wig, a camcorder and three digital cameras.

But nothing belonging to Sophie was found there.

They waited another year and went back, after the Jennings family had moved. This time, police dusted for fingerprints and used chemicals to check for blood. Investigators took a few items, including a silver butterfly charm. But nothing helped them solve the case.

When reached by phone by a reporter on Feb. 22, 2022, Leonard Jennings denied knowing Sophie.

“They came in and searched the place and took me down to the Fort Lauderdale Police Department and asked me a few questions. That was it,” Jennings said. “I don’t know what happened to her. I can’t answer you on that, ma’am. I don’t know,” he said. “… If I knew anything, I would have let the police know when they took me in. Ma’am, I’m going to have to call you back. Is that OK? Is it OK if I call you back?”

He didn’t call back.

His mother, Ora Jennings, also denied having information about Sophie.

“She didn’t go missing at my apartment,” she said in a call with the Sun Sentinel. “I never seen her.”

Pressed about the evidence, she changed her tack: “I mind my business and go to church. I don’t trying to be in no one’s business.”

Nearly four years after Sophie vanished, the lead detective on the case, Jennifer Saint-Jean, announced a new detail during an interview on a national television show.

If true, it would have been explosive.

She said that Jennings had a neighbor, 41-year-old John Mobley, who was surveilled by police and was “believed to be involved in human trafficking.”

“We did surveillance on multiple locations in that area and, um, the information that we obtained indicated that there was some sort of operation going on,” she told host Callahan Walsh, brother of Adam Walsh, who was kidnapped in 1981 at age 6 from a Hollywood, Fla., mall and murdered.

Saint-Jean went on to say that Jennings had called Mobley at 5 a.m., when Sophie was believed to be at the Jennings apartment.

That bombshell revelation wasn’t exactly true.

A police spokeswoman later contradicted Saint-Jean, telling the Sun Sentinel that the call wasn’t made that night. Still, police say there was a connection between Jennings and the man police suspected was a trafficker. Police told one of Sophie’s family members that Jennings called Mobley at 5:17 a.m. on May 23, three days after Sophie disappeared.

Court records show that around the time Sophie disappeared in 2017, Mobley lived at 1721 SW 11th Court, in an apartment directly across from Jennings’ unit.

Fort Lauderdale police say Mobley is a suspected trafficker, though he has no trafficking arrests.

Despite that, Fort Lauderdale police didn’t question Mobley, Saint-Jean said in March 2021 on Walsh’s program, “In Pursuit with John Walsh.”

“We knocked on his door with fliers of Sophie. He used very explicit language and told us to get a search warrant. So there was no cooperation whatsoever,” Saint-Jean said on the show. The agency was unable to get a search warrant.

No evidence has tied Mobley to the case, the agency told the Sun Sentinel, and he could not be reached by reporters for comment.

Another member of the Jennings family, Leonard’s nephew, Christopher Jennings, may also have been in contact with Sophie, her friend Tionni Mcdaniels told the Sun Sentinel.

Nicknamed “Goony Goon,” he was 28, had a criminal record, and the two talked on the phone and were friendly, Mcdaniels told the Sun Sentinel.

His name surfaced when police searched the apartment building, records show. He spent time at the Jennings place, sometimes broadcasting live on Facebook.

After her disappearance, Christopher Jennings agonized in Facebook posts about hearing voices. He became homeless, and lived on the streets, he wrote in May 2018. The Sun Sentinel was unable to make contact with him.

Fort Lauderdale police declined to say whether Christopher Jennings was questioned in Sophie’s case.

Fort Lauderdale police shunned and alienated those trying to help find Sophie.

Rode, the private investigator whose non-profit Global Children’s Rescue exists for cases like Sophie’s, said he was threatened with arrest for his efforts to find her.

Former Miami-Dade police detective John Rode has been helping Nicole Twist look for her daughter, Sophie Reeder, since just weeks after the teenager disappeared in 2017. Rode suspects Sophie was taken by a child sex trafficker.
Former Miami-Dade police detective John Rode has been helping Nicole Twist look for her daughter, Sophie Reeder, since just weeks after the teenager disappeared in 2017. Rode suspects Sophie was taken by a child sex trafficker. (Mike Stocker / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

A former longtime Miami-Dade detective who has given and taken gunfire, Rode volunteered to help Nicole Twist find her daughter, and has worked on her case for free for five years.

The week she disappeared, he said he called her phone repeatedly, multiple times a day. It went straight to voicemail.

Finally, on a Sunday soon after she vanished, Sophie’s phone rang. In an adrenaline rush, he contacted the detectives working on Sophie’s case, but three days went by before they responded, Rode said.

By then, Sophie’s phone was off again.

Rode was fuming. Novak told him to butt out, or he’d be arrested for interfering, Rode said, in an account the department hasn’t refuted.

“I read you loud and clear!” Rode said he retorted. “I hope one day your daughter goes missing, and the case is assigned to you and Det. Saint-Jean.”

Like Rode and Twist, Sophie’s father and aunt were vexed over what they called “lack of urgency” by Fort Lauderdale detectives. Milhorn was shut out by police after she took a lead role for the family this year, pressing the agency for answers.

In a March 11, 2022, letter to local and federal elected officials, Reeder and Milhorn wrote that “FLPD never seemed like they cared whether they found her or not.”

They relayed an example: A private detective found an Atlanta escort’s ad online last fall with a photograph that was a “97 percent match” for Sophie.

“The resemblance was uncanny,” they wrote.

As Milhorn pressed the agency to look into it, police sent Reeder an email saying they’d only communicate with him and Twist.

Twist, Sophie’s mother, said she has been treated coldly.

She said that without any evidence, Novak in 2019 told her that he believed Sophie was dead — something he had never told Sophie’s father. Would police bother looking for a girl they’d written off as dead? She doubted it.

“He said, ‘Well, we think she’s deceased.’ That’s what he told me. And I started crying,” Twist remembered. “What they said was, ‘We know based on the people she was hanging out with, they weren’t good people, and we think she’s deceased.’ I left in a ball of tears.”

Nicole Twist turned over to police a series of text messages she exchanged with one of her daughter's friends, Tionni Mcdaniels, in April of 2021. In the texts, Mcdaniels described Sophie Reeder's behavior before she disappeared in 2017.
Nicole Twist turned over to police a series of text messages she exchanged with one of her daughter’s friends, Tionni Mcdaniels, in April of 2021. In the texts, Mcdaniels described Sophie Reeder’s behavior before she disappeared in 2017.

Then, two years later, in 2021, Novak and Saint-Jean went to Twist’s house to retrieve a series of text messages Twist received from Mcdaniels, Sophie’s friend. She thought the texts, about Sophie’s connections to the men at the Jennings apartment — might lead to a breakthrough.

Saint-Jean asserted in a recent that the case “haunts” her and she thinks about it “all the time,” but at Twist’s home that day, she didn’t greet or even speak to Twist. In fact, Twist said, Saint-Jean didn’t even look at her.

And despite being promised an update about the potential new evidence, Twist said the officers never brought it up again.

Although no one knows what happened to Sophie, it’s clear she had entered the world of commercial sexual exploitation.

“Observed within the Instagram application on the cell phone was a lengthy conversation between Sophie and her best friend where they were discussing prices related to performing commercial sex acts,” a police record says.

When police interviewed the friend, an unidentified 15-year-old, she admitted “considering joining [Sophie] and working in the commercial sex industry but never followed through with it.”

Sophie’s email address was [email protected] — a suggestive handle.

When Sophie was 14, Twist already had her suspicions about her daughter’s activities. Sophie was living with her for a short time and used Twist’s iPad.

“I found that she had visited a sugar daddy website,” Twist told the Sun Sentinel. Sugar daddy websites charge men to connect with younger women. The women are ostensibly 18 or older but, like in Sophie’s case, that isn’t always true.

“Of course, I confronted her about this,” Twist said, “but she denied it.”

After Sophie vanished, her father looked on her computer and he, too, found she’d been visiting those websites.

Her friends Alaiza, Brooklynn and Tionni all said Sophie had told them about her online activity.

“She has mentioned, like, she wanted a sugar daddy when she was younger,” Alaiza remembered, “but I always thought that was a joke.”

“This is what happened,” Brooklynn said. “Sophie was on a website. She was talking about it like the sugar daddy thing and everything like that. And she said she was meeting up with people but I never believed her. I thought she was just saying stuff to seem cool or whatever.”

Sophie told her one man had paid her $400, Brooklynn recalled.

Tionni said she saw her standing on a corner near where she went missing, dressed “like a prostitute,” in early May 2017 — just weeks before she disappeared.

Sophie’s dealings with adult men had already turned ugly. She’d been raped in a hotel room, her friends said.

Although her diary doesn’t name names or recount specifics about what she was going on in her life, one entry does shed a little light.

Sophie wrote: “What to do when I’m 15: Make 10 new friends. Go to the beach 3 times a week. Get 10 sugar daddies.”

Twist said she worries when she looks at young girls. In any small group of them, one of them will be sexually exploited.

Sophie is not the only one.

“We worry so much about stuff that is meaningless,” Twist said. “But we aren’t protecting our kids. And that’s the truth.”

If you have information on the disappearance of Sophie Reeder, contact Crime Stoppers USA at 1-800-222-TIPS. Tips can be made anonymously.

If you have tips, feedback or information for the reporters, email [email protected]. More ways to submit confidential tips can be found at SunSentinel.com/tips.

If you are a human trafficking victim or have information about a potential trafficking situation, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) at 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733. NHTRC is a national, toll-free hotline, with specialists available to answer calls from anywhere in the country, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also get more information and submit a tip on the NHTRC website.

If you believe a child is involved in a trafficking situation, submit a tip through the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s CyberTipline or call 1-800-THE-LOST. FBI personnel assigned to NCMEC review information that is provided to the CyberTipline.

Parents and caregivers of children who have been victims of sex or can find help and through the ’s Office for Victims of Crimes.

 

EYES ON TRAFFICKING

This “Eyes on Trafficking” story is reprinted from its original online location.

ABOUT

PBJ Learning is a leading provider of online human trafficking training, focusing on awareness and prevention education. Their interactive Human Trafficking Essentials is used worldwide to educate professionals and individuals how to recognize human trafficking and how to respond to potential victims. Learn on any web browser (even your mobile phone) at any time.

More stories like this can be found in your PBJ Learning Knowledge Vault.

 

EYES ON TRAFFICKING

This “Eyes on Trafficking” story is reprinted from its original online location.

ABOUT PBJ LEARNING

PBJ Learning is a leading provider of online human trafficking training, focusing on awareness and prevention education. Their interactive Human Trafficking Essentials online course is used worldwide to educate professionals and individuals how to recognize human trafficking and how to respond to potential victims. Learn on any web browser (even your mobile phone) at any time.

More stories like this can be found in your PBJ Learning Knowledge Vault.