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Police: Md. human traffickers released on bond despite immigration, public safety concerns

Maryland human traffick suspects released on bond despite immigration, public safety concerns. (ABC7)

Three weeks after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared war on human trafficking, two men accused of taking part in the illegal sex trade, were released from jail despite immigration, flight risk and public safety concerns.

The case highlights the frustrations shared by multiple law enforcement sources working to eradicate pimps and madams, but finding themselves at the mercy of the judicial system that can often have a more lenient worldview.

The Brothel Along Garland Avenue:

In August 2018, the Montgomery County Police Department’s gang unit conducted an undercover sting at an apartment building along Garland Avenue in Silver Spring, near Rolling Terrace Elementary School. The officers witnessed various men come and go from the building.

Police stopped a number of suspected “johns” as they left the area. All admitted to paying for sex with an unknown woman inside. One man confessed to shelling out $30 for a 20-minute appointment. Another man explained he knocked on the apartment door, was let in by a short, heavyset man, paid that individual $35 and was then allowed into the bedroom.

The following day, police entered the first-floor apartment with a search warrant. Inside they found a man, woman, condoms, lubricants, wipes, lingerie, ledgers, $1,000 in cash and a small bag of cocaine.

The 39-year-old woman — who ABC7 is not identifying — told investigators that she had traveled from New York City to Silver Spring to work as a prostitute. She further claimed to have provided sexual services to 63 clients in less than three days.

In a separate interview room, Roberto Diaz-Mejia, 38, explained he had been living in the apartment for approximately two months.

“Diaz-Mejia is not on the lease, but is living there as part of an arrangement where he collects the money from clients when they come to have sexual intercourse with prostitutes,” police wrote in court documents obtained by ABC7. “He also cooks and provides security for the prostitutes as necessary.”

Diaz-Mejia freely stated that a man by the name of Herlan Javie Rosales-Velasquez, 34, would come to the apartment every two days to collect money. Rosales-Velasquez reportedly paid Diaz-Mejia around $260 a week for his various household services.

“Rosales-Velasquez brings in news girls and takes out the old girls,” police further noted in the same criminal affidavit.

Unjust Clemency By The Court?

In court a few days later, the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office told District Court Judge Karen Ferretti it had a list of concerns about Diaz-Mejia’s being released from jail on any sort of bond.

“There’s no form of employment aside from the illegal form of employment described in the charging document,” the prosecutor opined. “And I do have concerns about potential for flight risk and danger to the community.”

In its rebuttal, the public defender’s office explained Diaz-Mejia is a native of the Dominican Republic, moved to the U.S. in 1996 and currently holds a resident card. It went on to explain Diaz-Mejia has an eighth-grade education and recently suffered a “serious accident” that impacted his employability.

After listening to both sides, Judge Ferretti granted Diaz-Mejia a $10,000 unsecured personal bond, which allowed the 38-year-old to walk out of jail without putting down any money. Ferretti declined comment for this story, citing Maryland judiciary policies.

In a separate court proceeding, the state’s attorney’s office told Montgomery County District Court Commissioner A. Onwuzuruike, it did not think it was appropriate to grant Rosales-Velasquez an affordable bond.

“Mr. Rosales-Velasquez is a danger to the safety and welfare of the woman he is alleged to have been exploiting, as well as a danger to the community,” the prosecutor argued. “Furthermore he is facing up to 30 years of incarceration, and up to $20,000 in fines if convicted. So the state thinks that presents an incentive for flight.”

Yet, Commissioner Onwuzuruike stated that because Rosales-Velasquez was gainfully employed and had no apparent criminal record, she was willing to grant the undocumented immigrant a bond that required he post $800 for release. He was out of jail hours later.

The court system, however, neglected to confirm Rosales-Velasquez’s home address prior to his discharge from jail. A Hyattsville address listed in court documents turned out to be invalid.

“Oh my God,” said Karen Ayala-Ventura after ABC7 knocked on her front door. “We rented the basement to Herlan, but he moved out more than a year ago.”

Ayala-Ventura explained she and her husband had no indication that Rosales-Velasquez was dabbling in nefarious circles. In fact, the alleged human trafficker had invited the couple to his daughter’s birthday party a few years ago.

“What if he doesn’t show up for court? Will the police kick down my door looking for him?” Ayala-Ventura asked while showing ABC7 her empty basement in effort to prove her account.

After Commissioner Onwuzuruike’s set a nominal, $800 bond, ICE agents were left scrambling to detain Rosales-Velasquez for fear he might flee. According to ICE, the 34-year-old entered the U.S. in April 2005 without proper documentation. An immigration judge later ordered Rosales-Velasquez be deported, but ICE says for some reason that never happened.

Like Judge Ferretti, Commissioner Onwuzuruike declined to comment for this story, citing Maryland judiciary policies.

A Clash of Governing Worldviews?

This sequence of events transpired in the immediate wake of Gov. Larry Hogan declaring war on human trafficking in Maryland. The governor made that avowal during an August 9, press conference attended by local law enforcement and political leaders, including then Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett.

“For four years we have been working to combat the criminal gang enterprises that are terrorizing our communities,” a tearful Hogan stated before a crowd of around 100 people at Montgomery County’s Department of Health and Human Services building in Rockville.

Hogan took the opportunity to reveal a new statewide initiative aimed at cracking down on human trafficking. The list of improvements included $9 million in funding to strengthen victim services and police efforts, a $500,000 grant to create a human trafficking research center at the University of Maryland, plus re-introducing legislation in Annapolis that would classify felony human trafficking as a “violent crime.”

“These vulnerable young victims are being coerced and threatened. They’re exploited and enslaved and then they’re often repeatedly sexually assaulted and raped,” Hogan shared. “As a father, I’m heartbroken for these daughters and sons who are being victimized and brutalized.”

ABC7 contacted the governor’s office three times over several months asking for its opinion on how the court system has handled Diaz-Mejia and Rosales-Velasquez’s cases, but did not receive a reply.

Human Trafficking On The World Stage:

“This is what’s manifesting in all 50 states across the country,” said Bradley Myles, CEO of the Polaris Project, a D.C. based non-profit formed to prevent human trafficking worldwide. “It’s happening at a gigantic scale.”

According to Myles, at any given time, 25 million people are victimized by human trafficking worldwide. Two-thirds of those individuals are trapped in labor trafficking (i.e. agriculture, construction, fishing, carnivals). The remaining one-third consists of the sex trade, the majority of those victims being women and girls.

“The fact is most of the sex trade has moved online for the efficiency gains where you can attract thousands of customers who are anonymous, and you don’t have police cars driving around,” Myles shared.

Truck stop prostitution, however, is still rampant in certain parts of the county. In those circles, pimps advertise women on CB radios or order girls to knock on windows of parked tractor-trailers.

Although there are numerous sub-categories of prostitution, Myles explained there are three primary types of sex trafficking in the U.S.

1.) U.S. citizens pimp out females by posting ads online, and then directing “johns” to a local hotel room where the woman is waiting. These pimps typically assign women with a daily monetary quota. In other words, the number of clients does not necessarily matter so long as the women hit their preset number.

2.) Women from Asian nations like China, Korea and Thailand are brought to the U.S. and placed in massage parlors. The women work 10 to 12 hours a day, usually providing services to a different customer each hour. These woman are often kept in “debt bondage” by way of threats, manipulation and deception.

3.) Latino gangs bring women from Central American nations like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, and place them in bars, houses and apartments. The women are priced not in hour-long increments, but rather by the quarter hour.

“So usually those types of brothels have guys pay $30 per 15 minutes of sexual intercourse,” Myles remarked. “Those women work a 12-hour day — from 10am to 10pm — and usually have to be with 30 to 40 guys in a day. It’s the highest volume anywhere in the commercial sex trade.”

And that’s precisely why law enforcement sources tell ABC7 that Montgomery County District Court Judge Ferretti and Commissioner Onwuzuruike missed the mark by granting bond to Diaz-Mejia and Rosales-Velasquez. Both men are scheduled for trial in late March, and face up 41 and 31 years in prison respectively.

The Polaris Project’s Roots:

Two students at Brown University formed the Polaris Project in 2002 after learning about a human trafficking case near their Ivy League campus in Providence, Rhode Island. The group later moved to D.C., and now has 110 employees. It also runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline for the U.S., which is manned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

“The hotline is really a lifeline for victims because increasingly victims are calling from within the trafficking situation. They’re hiding in a hotel room or they are hiding in a house. They’ll call or send a silent text message while their trafficker is still there.”

The hotline accepted its first phone call in 2007. It now averages 100,000 calls per year. Operators have more than 3,000 non-profits and 1,000 law enforcement agencies listed in their digital Rolodex. That helps pair callers with assistance including, but not limited to safe housing, job placement, attorneys, churches and hospitals.

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