Cara had just jumped out of the shower, thrown on a T-shirt and plopped down on the couch to finish some homework when she heard someone pounding at the front door. She was stunned by what she saw when she peered out the window: Several uniformed police officers had gathered on her lawn, some, she thought, with guns drawn, "like I was some killer or something." Police cruisers swarmed the front of her father's League City home.
Cara (not her real name) recognized one officer in particular, Webster police detective David Nettles, who shouted that he was there to arrest her. As soon as she saw him, Cara knew why Nettles was at her doorstep.
Weeks earlier, Cara had lied to the detective about what happened with Money Mike, the nickname Cara and her friends gave the 62-year-old big-tipping regular at her old restaurant job. She met the Friendswood businessman the summer of 2013, right before her sophomore year in high school.
With all the attitude an obstinate just-turned 17-year-old could muster, Cara flatly refused to talk with Nettles about Money Mike or how the man showered Cara and her friends with a seemingly endless amount of cash -- at first, just for flirting or for "looking pretty." In part because she was embarrassed and afraid she'd get in trouble, and in part because she locked horns with Nettles when the detective deployed a tough-guy approach ("I was like, this guy's a prick," she says), Cara lied about how well she knew Money Mike. She claimed she'd never been to his house, never drove her friends there or encouraged them to come with. She didn't know anything about Money Mike paying high school girls for sexual favors, she told Nettles.
As far as Nettles was concerned, however, all signs in his investigation pointed to Cara. As Money Mike's teen victims began to slowly surface, Nettles learned that many, if not most, met the man through Cara. Nettles claims his investigation showed that not only did Cara drive many of the girls to Money Mike's for sex, she pressured and coerced them. Some victims, he claimed, told him Cara sometimes took a cut of their money.
Cara and her attorneys insist there was a much more simple explanation Nettles failed to consider: that Cara's friends gave her gas money for driving them to and from McIntosh's house; that the other girls, reluctant to admit what they'd done, looked for someone else to blame; and that all the girls, including Cara, were simply victims of Money Mike.
Home alone on November 1, 2013, Cara called her father in a panic when Nettles mentioned the warrant for her arrest. Let the cops in and don't resist, her father told her. The family would find her an attorney. Cara claims the officers, all men, kept their eyes glued on her as she struggled to put on pants before they cuffed her hands behind her back.
"They wouldn't leave my room," she recalls. "I'm just changing in front of a bunch of guy cops."
Before officers walked her out the door, Cara asked if she could set the alarm system; her father gave her hell whenever she'd forget it. She awkwardly strained her arms behind her back to reach the panel and punch in the numbers.
As they dragged her out of the house, officers told Cara she was under arrest for a charge she couldn't quite understand: compelling prostitution of a minor.
"I didn't even know what those words meant," she told the Houston Press in an interview at her attorney's office last month. She wanted to reach for her phone to Google the words. The handcuffs stopped her.
Cara's parents would soon learn the charge against her -- a first-degree felony, punishable by up to 99 years in prison -- contained an inherent juxtaposition. Police and prosecutors acknowledged that Cara was targeted, groomed and ultimately sexually assaulted by Michael McIntosh, more popularly known by Clear Creek High School students as Money Mike, when she was just 16 years old. Yet authorities effectively called her a pimp, claiming she'd helped orchestrate a private underage prostitution ring at McIntosh's urging.
Law enforcement gave local media Cara's name and mugshot just one month and two days after she'd turned 17. She was no longer a victim but a defendant and co-conspirator in a scandal that rocked the school district and surrounding community for well over a year.
She also became the only person charged with compelling prostitution in Galveston County in the past 13 years, according to the Galveston County District Attorney's Office. As far as police, prosecutors and the public were concerned, Cara was -- as one headline declared -- a "schoolgirl madam."
On Friday, October 11, 2013, Webster police detective David Nettles got a call from a Clear Creek Independent School District police officer he knew well. The two officers worked together whenever allegations of child abuse, child pornography or sexual assault involving a student brought Nettles out to the district's campuses to investigate. That day, the school officer called Nettles to talk about a case unlike any the district had ever encountered.
Soon after school started that year, rumors that an older man was soliciting high school girls for sex began to spread like a virus across the district. If the rumors were true, many, many girls were involved, some as young as 14 years old, the school officer warned Nettles. The man supposedly met his young victims at Hooters, Twin Peaks or Bone Daddy's -- any local restaurant that required hostesses and waitresses to show a lot of skin. Word had it the man used wads of cash to pry sexual favors out of the girls.
"All they knew him as at that point was Money Mike," Nettles told the Houston Press.
At Michael McIntosh's trial for sexual assault of a child last month, Galveston County prosecutor Adam Poole told a jury that Nettles broke the case with "good old-fashioned police work," according to the Galveston Daily News, which provided gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial. Police records, however, show that before a clear picture began to emerge, Nettles had to slog through a thick muck of high-school rumor, phone conversations with terrified parents and interviews with reluctant teen victims who initially lied or gave only half-truths.
Money Mike, Nettles learned, was a poorly kept secret around town. One officer who'd just started training in Nettles's department told him she'd recently quit a waitressing job at the nearby Twin Peaks restaurant. The officer-in-training told Nettles she knew of Money Mike. Everyone at the restaurant did. She told Nettles her Twin Peaks manager banned the old man because he kept offering waitresses money for sex.
That night, Nettles drove to Bone Daddy's, where a manager told the detective he'd banned Money Mike from the restaurant months earlier. According to Nettles's report, the manager also told the detective, "This Money Mike person was notorious for soliciting the youngest of the waitstaff for sex."
Eventually, Nettles got a name: Michael McIntosh, a well-known local businessman and owner of the fireworks company Alpha Lee Enterprises, which in recent years has held the contract to put on the fireworks show for Galveston's annual Fourth of July celebration.(The Galveston Park Board of Trustees voted last month to reject the company's bid to run this year's show.)
Nettles's report shows that over the next five days, the detective worked to turn up victims in the case. One 15-year-old girl's father, who suspected his child was involved with Money Mike, called Nettles to tell him his daughter was ready to come clean. When she got to the station, however, she denied ever meeting McIntosh. When Nettles pressed, the girl admitted to meeting McIntosh through an older high-school friend who once worked at Bone Daddy's, but denied she'd ever had sexual contact with the man.
The next day, with the help of school district officials, Nettles started to track down more parents of girls rumored to have received money from McIntosh in exchange for sex. One teenager admitted that Cara had driven a group of girls over to McIntosh's house sometime that summer; the girl also insisted nothing sexual had happened, but told Nettles that Cara and McIntosh often texted back and forth. Some of the texts were sexually suggestive, she said.
A teenage boy admitted he often drove one particular girl to McIntosh's house in exchange for $100 per trip. At some point, Nettles notes in his report, worried parents began seizing their daughters' cell phones, turning them in to police as possible evidence in the case.
At 16, Cara was the oldest in her clique of friends that summer of 2013. With her early-fall birthday, her parents held her back a year before starting her in school as a child. She was held back again in middle school when her grades started slipping. She was among the first of her friends to get her driver's license. Soon after her grandmother gave her an old Jeep, Cara became the de facto chauffeur for her friends. She started working odd jobs -- Subway, Panera Bread -- to pay for gas and car insurance.
That summer, one of Cara's friends, who once worked at Bone Daddy's, told her she could make good money hostessing at a new restaurant opening in town called Ojos Locos. Cara's father and stepmother admit Cara's new work uniform made then uneasy -- "Boobs hanging out, and a skirt so short that, if you bent over, you're showing everything there is to show," as Cara's stepmother described it. "She was 16; she didn't have no business working at a place where you're selling sex," the father groused.
Cara remembers the first time she learned of Money Mike that summer. A girl at work walked past her, flashing a $100 bill. "Where'd you get that?" Cara asked in amazement. Go say hello to that old guy sitting alone at the table, the coworker told her. Cara and some friends walked over, introduced themselves, and each was given a $100 bill on the spot.
"At first I just figured he was weird," Cara says.
By the time Nettles started investigating Money Mike, Cara's name kept popping up. His report first refers to her as "Victim 5."
With rumors swirling around the school, Cara's principal called her father in to meet with a school counselor and school police officer. They told him about Money Mike and how they suspected his daughter might be involved.
He felt sick to his stomach walking out of the meeting. "You run the whole gamut of emotions when you hear something like that," he says. He questioned Cara that night, but she lied, saying she had met the guy at work once, nothing more.
When Nettles showed up at Cara's house on October 16, 2013, Cara's father was eager to see if the detective could suss out the truth. Nettles asked Cara's father and stepmother if he could question the girl alone in another room of the house.
"As far as I was concerned, she was innocent," Cara's father said. "She's either a victim or she's not involved...I love my daughter, but I don't necessarily trust her all the time. I want to believe her, but I also want to know the truth."
What happened next startled Cara's father. Nettles came back from questioning his daughter, visibly frustrated. "She's lying; she's definitely involved in this," Cara's father recalls the detective saying. "I don't know what she's told you, but she's lying to you...Do you mind if I scare her a little?" Go ahead, he told the detective. We all want the same thing, he thought at the time.
"I advised her that I could lump her in with the other victims in this case if she was willing to tell me the entire story, or she could keep lying and be considered a suspect of compelling prostitution," Nettles wrote in his report. He showed Cara a printout of the Texas Penal Code section outlining the charge. Cara had turned 17 just two weeks before, a newly minted adult as far as Texas law was concerned.
"I don't normally go from talking to a victim to all of a sudden talking with a suspect," Nettles says. "Because that's very rare that a person can be both like that."
"I explained that she did cause the other young girls to go to the suspect's house and that the other people involved used the word 'recruited,' meaning that she actively pursued her young friends and drove them to the suspect's house in her own vehicle," Nettles wrote -- it's the first time his report mentions the word "recruited."
Cara wouldn't budge and instead stared down at her phone. She began texting one of the other girls who visited Money Mike with her, writing, "This guy's a prick...he won't leave." According to Cara, Nettles snatched the phone from her hands. "Oh yeah? I'm a prick?" she recalls him saying.
Cara says Nettles promised her the next time he saw her, he'd have a warrant and she'd be in handcuffs.
On his drive home, Nettles got a call from a girl saying she was friends with one of Money Mike's victims. According to his report, the "young lady" told Nettles one of the victims had left her Twitter account open after visiting her house earlier that day. The girl took some screen shots of the direct messages floating among victims.
"...just denied everything...we are fucked."
Detective Nettles followed through on his promise, arresting Cara at her father's house on November 1, 2013.
"We had information that [Cara] was bringing girls over to McIntosh's house, and some girls claimed she had pressured them and that she had taken cuts of the money," prosecutor Adam Poole says, explaining why he authorized charges against Cara. "There was evidence that it began when she was 16 but continued after she turned 17."
Thrown in a holding cell at the Friendswood jail, Cara saw officers counting wads of cash. She remembered the last time she saw so much cash: Money Mike. "I thought, 'Oh no, what if Money Mike's in here.'" Soon enough, guards walked McIntosh past her cell. They'd been arrested the same day.
"He was giving me a death stare," Cara says. She tried to keep her head down as officers walked McIntosh outside to transport him to the jail in Galveston County. Later on, medics were called to Cara's cell when she collapsed from a panic attack.
Cara was bailed out the next morning. She went home and shut herself in her room most of the day. Eventually her father came knocking. "Honey...you're famous," he warned her.
It's difficult to know whether the case would have received the onslaught of press coverage had Cara's mugshot and name been kept from the media, as is standard practice for sexual assault victims, particularly teenagers. What had started out as a troubling sexual assault case soon ballooned into a full-blown scandal: "Teen pimps friends to 62-year-old businessman," blared one headline. Poole told reporters Cara had coerced her "easily manipulated" friends into prostitution. An Associated Press story ran in the British tabloid the Daily Mail under a headline calling Cara a "schoolgirl madam."
Cara's father borrowed thousands of dollars to retain a criminal defense attorney for his daughter. Shortly after McIntosh's arrest, one victim's family sued McIntosh in civil court, seeking damages for the abuse -- two others would later file suit. Months later, however, with Cara still listed as a co-conspirator in the criminal case, the families sued Cara, too.
Cara's father borrowed more from his parents, who in turn had to take money out of their retirement savings to hire a civil attorney. "I don't have $25,000 lying around," he said. "We don't even own our own cars."
While it's pretty clear most of the victims unearthed by Nettles's investigation met McIntosh through Cara, whether Cara recruited or coerced them into having sex with McIntosh is a much more complicated question.
In his report, Nettles states that a few days after he confronted Cara at her father's house, a victim came forward to say she'd had sex with McIntosh on four occasions; she was just 14 years old at the time. It was Cara who first took the girl to McIntosh's house, the girl told Nettles. Later, the girl kept returning to McIntosh on her own, without Cara.
Nettles's report also claims he spoke to another victim over the phone, a 16-year-old girl who accompanied Cara on trips to McIntosh's house numerous times. Nettles, in his report, claims the girl told him that Cara urged her to have sex with McIntosh -- to "take one for the team," as she put it. Yet the girl also told authorities she'd witnessed Cara have sex with McIntosh, too; the girl told authorities this happened in August 2013, when Cara was still 16 years old.
Mike Elliott, Cara's criminal defense attorney, says he spoke with that particular victim shortly after police arrested Cara. "She informed me that she operated of her own free will...She said she felt that [Cara] was being demonized and that she didn't quite know why."
As Elliott puts it, "We saw pretty quickly that what they (police and prosecutors) were trying to say wasn't supported by the evidence...[Cara] was as much a victim as the other young ladies were."
Months after Cara's arrest, that same 16-year-old victim reluctantly gave another statement to authorities. It is at points damning and exonerating for Cara. Sure, Cara introduced the girl to McIntosh, but also told the girl, "If you don't feel comfortable, you can stop." The girl claims Cara first urged her to have sex with McIntosh to make more money, but admits she went back numerous times -- sometimes even on her own, without Cara. She tells authorities Cara threatened to "ruin my life" by spreading rumors around school and on Facebook and Twitter if she stopped seeing McIntosh. When asked about why she gave Cara some of her money, however, she told authorities it was because Cara drove her around all the time and paid for her tanning membership. "She didn't ask for it...She gave me reasons why she needed it...I don't wanna sit there and be harassed by her, or her sit there and think I owe her something," the girl told authorities. "[Cara] always got way more money than me...I was mad about that."
Another teen victim first lied to investigators, saying nothing happened between her and McIntosh. Then, later, she saw Cara's name and mugshot splayed across the evening news. "I was scared; I didn't know what to do," she later told authorities. She knew Cara had refused to tell the truth; she figured that's why she was arrested. "Once I saw that, I was just like, no. I'm not getting put up on the news. So I didn't know what to do." She eventually came clean to her mother months later. She ultimately told investigators McIntosh paid her $300 to have sex with him.
If you believe the girls' statements to authorities, there's every indication McIntosh knew just how young some of his victims were. He told the girls he'd looked them up on Facebook to see if they had boyfriends. He didn't like it when he found out they were dating someone. One 15-year-old claimed McIntosh would ask her when she was going to start driver's ed; McIntosh, she said, told her he'd give her a car once she was old enough. The girl also claimed McIntosh harbored a bizarre fantasy -- that once the girls "grew up," they would all move in with him in his Friendswood house and live together.
When questioning another girl who came forward, an interviewer struggled to connect Cara and Money Mike as co-conspirators. The interviewer asked the girl, "Have you ever heard of any of the other girls making another girl do something with Money Mike?" No, the girl responded. "Have you ever heard that rumor?" No.
The girl added, almost as an aside: "Honestly, all the rumors on the news and stuff, it's like, '[Cara] manipulated, [Cara] manipulated.'" Everything "seemed voluntary," she insisted.
This past summer, Cara's civil attorney, Robert Clements, gathered numerous statements McIntosh's victims had made to authorities and threw them together in a PowerPoint presentation. Clements says he showed it to Alton Todd, the attorney representing the girls who sued McIntosh and Cara in civil court (soon after she was sued, Cara lodged her own suit against McIntosh, seeking some $2 million in damages, as well). Clements wanted to prove that Cara, too, was a victim. Even if she asked some of her friends to go with her to McIntosh's house, it was because he'd groomed her to think it was normal, Clements insists.
"It was all part of McIntosh's game," Clements says. "What you had here was a serial pedophile who knew how to convince a bunch of dumb teen-agers to do things they shouldn't have ever been doing," Clements says. "They made terrible decisions, but that's why the law protects kids...the law's meant to stop a predator from using someone's immature, childish behavior against them."
Clements says he showed the PowerPoint to the other victims' attorney -- "I needed him to realize that [Cara] was a victim, just like the other girls," he says. All three civil suits against Cara were dropped that same day, Clements says (Todd didn't respond to several requests for comment from the Press).
Included in that PowerPoint are text messages from one of the girls police and prosecutors have claimed Cara coerced into having sex with McIntosh. Sometime after Cara's arrest, the girl texted her: "If anything your [sic] a victim to just because you got older doesn't mean anything. Yeah you brought people there but you didn't force them like idk."
The text messages continued: "...you just turned 17 before us so it isn't fair...Mike took advantage of us he offered us money and made us feel like we owed something to him for it and that's wrong. You're a victim and that's not okay that they are giving you a felony for that I swear that pissed me off so bad."
Cara texted back, "I just wanna be a normal girl again."
Cara's father says she stayed inside for months like a distraught hermit after her arrest. She dropped out of high school and enrolled in a home-schooling program. The rumors and bullying reached a fever pitch. Two months after she was charged, someone sent Cara's family a fake "breaking news" story with the headline "Houston Teen Commits Suicide." The story, complete with a photograph of Cara, claimed she'd overdosed on Oxycontin.
Cara's ten-year-old brother came home one day last year with tears in his eyes, asking why kids were calling his sister a prostitute. A family member who works at a local bank had to take down family photos; patrons kept recognizing Cara from her mugshot. Cara's father says that sometimes when they go out for dinner as a family, people snap cell phone photos of Cara; they recognize her from the TV stories.
"We've been living in hell since the fall of 2013," he says.
Prosecutors ultimately decided not to go forward with charges against Cara last December -- while they'd filed a criminal complaint against her, the case never went to a grand jury for an indictment. Mike Elliott, Cara's criminal defense lawyer, insists that's an indication of how thin the evidence against her was to begin with. "She never guided anyone, intimidated anyone or forced anyone to do anything," Elliott says. "It was one of those situations where, pretty plainly, the officer was displeased with her lack of cooperation and wanted to make a point."
Detective David Nettles doesn't particularly agree with prosecutors' decision to drop charges against Cara: "I can tell you that I don't think charges should have been completely dropped; that's just my opinion."
Last month, Cara was the last of eight girls -- most of them younger than 17 when they first met McIntosh -- who testified at Money Mike's first trial on a single charge of sexual assault of a child. According to prosecutor Adam Poole, multiple girls claimed that Cara pocketed money whenever they'd visit McIntosh's house; multiple girls testified that Cara told them to lie about their age so McIntosh would be more interested; multiple girls alleged that Cara told her friends McIntosh would give them money if they hung out with him, kissed him or engaged in sexual acts with him.
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For the better part of two days, McIntosh's defense attorney, Charles Thompson, grilled Cara about every aspect of her relationship with McIntosh. (Thompson did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Press.) Thompson, according to the Galveston Daily News, told the jury: "You are going to have a group of what the state has called prostitutes that are coming in and saying, 'Yes, we took money for sex, but we're not going to take responsibility for what we chose to do.'"
A jury convicted McIntosh, but only recommended ten years probation as punishment. State District Judge Lonnie Cox instead handed McIntosh a 180-day jail sentence. Three other indictments against McIntosh still loom; prosecutors have yet to decide whether to try those other cases, although one case is still set for trial next month.
In her testimony, Cara told the jury, "I never forced or compelled anybody to do anything...They came with me willingly."
Poole says his office dropped the charge against Cara "in the interest of justice...We always knew that she started out as a victim."