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14 defendants plead not guilty to sex trafficking

SAN DIEGO — Fourteen people accused by federal prosecutors of involvement
in a street gang’s sprawling prostitution ring that spanned dozens of cities and
states entered not guilty pleas Thursday.

Authorities say members of a San Diego-based gang lured women and girls with
promises of luxurious lifestyles. They say the dozens of victims, spread across
46 cities in 23 states, were instead branded with tattoos, passed from gang
member to gang member and forced to sell themselves.

U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy announced the indictment Wednesday, charging 24
people, San Diego residents ages 22 to 36, with racketeering and conspiracy.
She said at the time the sex trafficking was “nothing less than modern-day
slavery.”

Fourteen of 17 defendants arrested Wednesday in raids by police and FBI agents
appeared in a crowded San Diego courtroom and were ordered held without bail by
Magistrate Judge Barbara Major.

Two others were arrested in Arizona, and one was taken into custody in New
Jersey.

Four other defendants were already in custody, and three remained at-large.

Brian Watkins, an attorney for defendant Robert Banks III, said his client did
not commit the crimes described in the indictment. The other 13 defendants who
appeared were assigned court-appointed attorneys.

The indictment alleges that women and girls were recruited from city streets or
social media, then forced to deliver their earnings to pimps in exchange for
protection, food, housing, clothing and cars.

The pimps took the trafficking victims to Alaska, Hawaii, Florida,
Pennsylvania, Texas and other states, prosecutors have said.

The U.S. attorney’s office said authorities have offered assistance to 60
female victims, including 11 children.

The network was run by a gang known as BMS, which traces its origins to San
Diego’s increasingly gentrified North Park neighborhood in the early 1990s, and
whose members have nicknames like “Pimpsy,” “Stick Up” and “Li’l Play
Doh,” prosecutors said.

Members would post photos and videos on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter
advertising a high life of jewelry, champagne and parties, authorities have
said. But gang members would use threats or violence to force their victims into
prostitution, tattooing them with gang monikers, pimps’ names and bar codes,
they said.

Authorities also seized luxury cars, dozens of expensive gym shoes and pimp
paraphernalia like diamond-studded canes, hats and chalices, much of which
prosecutors said they would seek to have forfeited.

Racketeering conspiracy charges traditionally are used for organized-crime
syndicates. Fourteen of those arrested could get life in prison if convicted.

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