He stole an American citizen’s identity to obtain a false U.S. passport. He traveled the world to hunt down attractive women. And, prosecutors say, he forced them into his prostitution racket in Australia, South Florida and other places.
Damion St. Patrick Baston, a Jamaican national, was “a master manipulator,” prosecutor Olivia Choe argued during opening statements of his sex-trafficking trial in Miami federal court Monday.
Baston, 37, is charged with using “psychological coercion and physical abuse” to manipulate seven young women from Australia, New Zealand, Lithuania and the United States, who earned hundreds of thousands of dollars as high-end prostitutes for him — until the feds arrested him outside his mother’s New York City home in December.
Six of those women — including one that Baston married in 2010 — are expected to testify at his trial.
During opening statements, the prosecutor described an Australian woman whom Baston was accused of luring into his escort service in 2011, while she was working in a restaurant and attending college on Australia’s Gold Coast. Baston told her that he ran an escort business called the “Bachelors” and persuaded her to work for him.
“She wasn’t allowed to talk back and she wasn’t allowed to leave,” Choe told the 12-person jury, alleging that Baston threatened her with a knife, strangled her and banged her head on a car. “She thought she was going to die.”
Baston brought her to Miami the following year and got her escort work through South Florida’s network of strip clubs. But then the woman, identified as “K.L.,” caught a break when her visa expired and she had to return to Australia. Her family contacted the U.S. State Department and said she was being prostituted by an American citizen with the name Rayshawn Bryant.
Agents with the State Department and Homeland Security Investigations say they soon discovered that the identity of Bryant — a Columbus, Ohio forklift operator — had been stolen by Baston.
“They found something that was more chilling — that [K.L.] was not alone,” Choe argued.
“She was not his first victim, nor was she his last,” she told the jurors. “He used threats and rape and violence.”
Baston, who had been ordered removed from the United States in the late 1990s, obtained a Florida driver’s license and U.S. passport in Bryant’s name during the past decade, according to prosecutor Roy Altman. Baston traveled to Australia, Dubai and other exotic places to entice women into his escort service. He would advertise the women on the Internet and keep their earnings for himself, depositing the money in numerous bank accounts under Bryant’s name.
Choe said Baston’s victims allowed themselves to be abused by him because they suffered from “Stockholm Syndrome,” the phenomenon of expressing empathy for their captor.
Baston’s defense attorney, David Rowe, countered that the prosecutors distorted his client’s profile, saying he was a peaceful businessman who ran a legitimate escort service in Australia. Rowe said a Saudi royal prince even asked Baston to come to Dubai to open his escort business in the United Arab Emirates.
He said Baston only ran into trouble when he entered the United States, which viewed prostitution differently.
“Mr. Baston was promoting an alternative lifestyle [for men] to ease the pressure of modern society,” Rowe said, noting his client also dabbled in retail clothing and restaurant businesses.
“He never owned a weapon or a gun or used any threatening language,” said Rowe, who also disputed the prosecution’s claim that Baston was a member of the Los Angeles street gang, the “Bloods.”
“He did not hurt anybody,” Rowe told the jurors.
Rowe said his client plans to testify during the two-week trial before U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga. If convicted on sex-trafficking charges, Baston could be locked up for the rest of his life.