Carissa Phelps was riding in the backseat of a white Pinto driven by the pimp who had forced her into childhood prostitution. Another sex trafficker rode shotgun.
That's when she had a realization, the author of "Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets," told the audience at a fundraising luncheon held Sept. 6 in Fairbanks Ranch .
"I was being taken to be murdered," she said, describing the paralyzing hopelessness she felt.
"At the age of 12, I was thinking, this was it," said Phelps, the keynote speaker for the Lynch Foundation for Children's inaugural Circle of Hope Founders' Luncheon.
Miraculously for Phelps, a police patrolman pulled the Pinto over and arrested her along with the other occupants. She was taken to Fresno's juvenile hall and eventually placed in yet another of the many group foster homes that the perpetual runaway had experienced.
Though her progress was slow and sometimes emotionally painful, Phelps began to stabilize and pursue her education. That led ultimately to a law degree and MBA from UCLA, she told the crowd of several dozen attendees.
After her volume published by Penguin Books garnered critical acclaim leading to national media attention, the Central Coast resident decided to dedicate herself to protecting and aiding youths in crisis through her organization, Runaway Girl Inc.
The luncheon was intended to generate support for Runaway Girl as well as the Lynch Foundation's Circle of Hope campaign against human trafficking. Phelps serves as a survivor consultant for the Lynch Foundation.
Her experiences as a victim exemplify the plight of far too many children, said San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan, also a speaker at the luncheon.
Subjected to the horror and indignities inflicted by human trafficking, victims often have no chance of escaping the cycle they've been sucked into because of the tremendous challenges they face, Stephan said.
Calling Phelps one of her "personal heroes," she explained that about 15 years ago while working within the district attorney's office, she was assigned to the sex crimes division in 2003.
She said learning of the extent to which such crimes were prevalent in this area was an eye opener.
San Diego now ranks eighth among the top 10 cities in the U.S. for prevalence of human trafficking, according to foundation information.
"I thought to myself, 'How could this be going on in this beautiful place?" Stephan said.
She encouraged the foundation to continue its partnership with her office in fighting a scourge she described as "modern day slavery."
Others who spoke were Circle of Hope Honorary Chairwoman Yvonne Parziale, Lynch Foundation representatives Suzi Day and Brooke Burris, Saved in America Executive Director Joseph Travers, longtime foster parent Maureen Toal and Angelica Gomez, a survivor of trafficking who now counsels victims in the Los Angeles area.
"I've had girls come in and look at me and say, 'I wish I could have the ability to be free and to be like you," Gomez said.
She compared the path offered to victims by Circle of Hope, the foundation and organizations represented at the event to "the yellow brick road" in "The Wizard of Oz."
"That's what my dad says: 'You clicked your little red heels and came home,'" Gomez said.
Information on the Lynch Foundation for Children is available at www.thelynchfounddation.com. Information on Carissa Phelps, her book and her organization is available at carissaphelps.com and runawaygirl.com.