Long before she was shot and killed in the Albuquerque foothills early this year, Tobi Lynn Stanfill was a child growing up in the small New Mexico town of Tularosa.
She was the only girl to talk her way onto the youth football team.
She was the middle daughter of four kids, “always protecting her sisters or anyone else that she thought would be harmed,” her mother recalls.
But no one could help her in the end, when police say she was forced into prostitution and a terrifying last few weeks of life.
“When things were getting bad, she could not leave,” said Shelley Repp, executive director for Spoken For, a group whose mission is to prevent human trafficking in New Mexico. “That’s how quickly the situation escalated.”
In May, federal authorities arrested three people, including an Albuquerque couple, on sex trafficking charges. Detectives said they had hired a hit man to kill Stanfill and another man “because their activities were contrary to the objectives of the criminal sex trafficking organization.”
As a child, Stanfill was bounced from home to home, living with her mother, then with each set of grandparents, said her mother, Cynthia Salazar.
“She was very strong-willed,” Salazar said. “She was a happy girl growing up. She was always protecting her sisters or anyone else that she thought would be harmed.”
But her grandmother said Stanfill began to change around the age of 12 when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and started getting into fights with other students in Tularosa.
“I tried to keep her in school and in the eighth grade, I took her to psychiatric hospitals in El Paso and Las Cruces,” said Rebecca Christopher, her grandmother. “She had a lot of anger at one time.”
Stanfill was eventually sent to a juvenile justice center in Albuquerque after violating probation on charges that neither her mother nor grandmother could remember any more. They say she blossomed at Camino Nuevo Youth Center, earned her GED, and took theater and Bible classes.
At 18, she was released to a reintegration home and Christopher said that’s when they began to worry about her again.
“Something went wrong and she got mixed up with the wrong people,” Christopher said. “Things went downhill.”
‘She had a heaviness’
Both her mother and grandmother said Stanfill had changed in the months leading up to her death.
They said when she returned home to Tularosa to visit, she was skittish and scared and depressed. When they talked to her on the phone, she was always in a rush to hang up.
“She had a heaviness about her when she had to go back (to Albuquerque),” Salazar said. “She said, ‘I just have to go back, you don’t understand. Maybe one day you will, but right now you don’t understand.'”
During a visit with her mother in early December, just weeks before she was killed, Stanfill received a text message, and packed up and left almost immediately.
“A vehicle came later on that evening or early that morning to pick her up,” Salazar said, choking up at the memory. “That’s the last time I saw my baby. She wasn’t even home 24 hours.”
Christopher said that although the family suspected something bad was going on with Stanfill, they could never have suspected she was being forced to have sex for money.
“I never dreamt it was human trafficking,” Christopher said. “I didn’t even know it was a thing in Albuquerque. It’s really shocked our family.”