Anaiah Walker would have turned 17 years old this week. Instead of celebrating her birthday with a party, her family is gathering at her gravesite to honor her memory with a new tombstone, and they are still trying to figure out how she died and who was responsible for killing her.
"They think she was hitchhiking, hit by a car and somebody just kept driving," said Nackiya Stewart, Anaiah's older sister and best friend. Stewart called Anaiah the "yin to her yang".
She described her baby sister as an amazing person who loved to sing and dance. She said Anaiah dreamed of becoming a phlebotomist someday.
All of those dreams were cut short when Anaiah's life took a different turn.
"On May 22nd, 2020, they found a decomposing body that had been there for a couple days, in a ditch kind of area," said Stewart.
The area was a median along Interstate-10, near Watson Road in Buckeye.
"She had no phone, no purse, no shoes. She had nothing," explained Stewart.
Buckeye police had to hydrate her fingerprints to positively identify the body, like that of Anaiah Walker. Police have said the death was caused by a "high-velocity impact", but a lot of circumstances that led Anaiah to where she was in her life on that day have led the family to believe, this death could be more than just a hit-and-run crash.
"Unfortunately, my sister did experience some sex trafficking like a few years before this happened. It is still a case that's going on, so we don't like to talk about it," said Stewart.
Anaiah was a key witness in the sex-trafficking trial involving a high-profile suspect. The teen's mother, Sherika Buckley tells ABC15 her daughter had met the suspect online where he had been posing as a younger boy. Anaiah met the suspect in person with a friend, and that is when her life changed.
"It has been the testimony of both of these girls, they were stalked by them when they arrived to the location, held against their will, and sex trafficked. They were forced to sell, put on Backpage.com, they were forced to sell their bodies as well as drugs for these men," said Buckley.
She did not know how long the girls were allegedly held captive by the men, but Buckley said her daughter had been traumatized by the incident. In the months leading up to her death, Anaiah had been a ward of the State of Arizona and was enrolled in a group home that housed a specialized program to help treat and heal victims of sex trafficking in Arizona. However, she fled from the group home she was housed in. Her sister offers some insight into what Anaiah was going through.
"She told me that she was scared to live here," said Stewart. "She was scared of the people they knew," she added.
No one knows where exactly Anaiah went after running away. Her family believed she may have been trying to get to California, where her father lived. The teen was listed as a missing juvenile in the state of Arizona. The Department of Child Safety entered her information into a national database for missing children, and the city of Mesa put out some flyers, but as is the case with most 'runaway' juveniles, no one was actively looking for Anaiah.
Her family calls it a series of failures by the system in place to protect a child. Her family later learned Anaiah had made it to California for a brief period of time. She was even arrested on a minor offense there, but gave the police officer a different name, before her release.
"Had those officers in California bothered to check up on her and checked the name she gave them they would have found out it was wrong. They would have seen she was a missing Juvenile from the state of Arizona because she was in the system. She may have been home with us, she may still have been alive today," said Stewart.
A year after running away, Anaiah was finally found. Dead, at the age of 16 along a busy highway.
"I feel her death could have been prevented," said Stewart.
The family has put up a $10,000 reward to anyone who can provide information that will lead to an arrest in this case.
Buckeye police tell ABC15 they continue to investigate this case. In a statement, a spokeswoman says:
"The Buckeye Police Department’s investigation into the death of Anaiah Walker remains open and active. Our detectives continue to work leads and analyze evidence. BPD has been in close contact with the family and continues to keep them updated on our efforts to determine the unfortunate circumstances of her death and bring whoever may be responsible to justice."