Miami jury finds Jamaican guilty of sex trafficking
A federal jury found that an escort-service operator forced a stable of women into a far-ranging prostitution racket.
07/01/2014 3:40 PM
07/02/2014 3:13 PM
He bowed his head as a federal judge read all 21 guilty verdicts.
Then he shook it from side to side, as if in disbelief.
Damion St. Patrick Baston finally lifted his head as each of the Miami federal jurors was polled Tuesday, confirming verdicts that convicted him of sex trafficking and related crimes. They had deliberated for less than six hours.
The 12-person jury heard a half-dozen women testify about how the Jamaican man beat and raped them as he forced them into his prostitution racket, an operation that ranged from Australia to Dubai to Miami. The defendant took the witness stand for three days and denied everything.
“I am not a pimp,” Baston, 37, declared last week.
But the jurors did not believe him, saying afterward that he shouldn’t have taken the witness stand. “He didn’t do himself any favors,” the foreman, who did not want to be identified, told the Miami Herald.
Another juror said the prosecution’s evidence was overwhelming. “All of their i’s were dotted and t’s crossed,” he said.
The jury’s verdicts, after a two-week trial, could result in a maximum life sentence for the Jamaican national, who was charged last year with sex trafficking, money laundering and other crimes. At the very least, Baston faces a minimum-mandatory sentence of 15 years when he appears before U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga on Sept. 5.
U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said the investigation, a collaboration of American, Australian and United Arab Emirates law enforcement agencies, led to the first U.S. prosecution under a 2008 law intended to combat international sex trafficking.
“It is the first time we have used the extraterritorial jurisdiction provision of our anti-trafficking laws to charge someone for sex trafficking that occurred in another country,” Ferrer said after Baston’s conviction.
Raised for part of his childhood in New York City, Baston was deported from the United States in the late 1990s for having a prior criminal conviction. Two years ago, he arrived in Miami with an Australian woman and an American woman, and used “psychological coercion and physical abuse” against them to pick up men at South Florida strip clubs and turn tricks, according to prosecutors.
At trial, prosecutors unveiled documents showing that Baston stole the identity of an American man that allowed him to travel to Australia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States to orchestrate his prostitution ring and earn hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“He converted them into little more than sex slaves,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Roy Altman told jurors during closing arguments on Friday, calling Baston a “kind of monster” who bragged about being a member of the L.A. street gang, the Bloods, to frighten the women.
“He was very much a pimp in every sense of the word,” Altman argued, accusing Baston of lying repeatedly on the witness stand.
But Baston’s defense attorney, David Rowe, argued that he did nothing wrong in Australia, where prostitution is legal, before coming to Miami in 2012 with an Aussie woman and an American women who had worked in his Bachelors Club escort business overseas. Rowe said his client told the truth, and never coerced or abused any of the women for personal profit.
THE OTHER SIDE
“These girls were free to go,” Rowe said, calling the prosecution’s case “much ado about nothing.”
He said that one Aussie woman, with whom Baston had started the escort business in Australia, expressed her love for him, citing proof in emails, videos and her own words on the witness stand.
“There was never any evidence or indication that she wanted to run away from him,” Rowe argued during closing arguments. “If anything, she did not want to be away from Mr. Baston.”
But prosecutor Olivia Choe pointed out that six women from Australia, New Zealand and the United States testified at trial and each one revealed how they fell for Baston, a former weightlifter and black belt in karate — only to discover that he would punch or strangle them, sometimes threatening them with a knife or broomstick. They all called him “Drac,” short for Dracula, or “Daddy.”
“He’s the only one with a reason to lie,” Choe told the jurors Friday. “He wants you to believe him instead of all the women who came here to testify before you.”
During his direct testimony, Baston came across as an easygoing guy who became romantically involved with one woman after another. In 2010, he married an Aussie woman who later divorced him, and last year he impregnated an American woman who is now expecting his baby.
“I was always nice and kind,” Baston testified. “It was love. It was romantic. It was fun.”
Asked whether the young women who fell under his spell suffered from Stockholm Syndrome — the phenomenon that they felt attached to him despite his alleged abuse — Baston said: “They all left.”
Baston’s testimony contrasted starkly with that of the six women who took the witness stand before him. Baston, in often-disjointed testimony, portrayed himself as an entrepreneur who launched an escort business in Australia, and aspired to start a hip clothing line and a Caribbean-Latin American fusion restaurant. He testified that he became partners with one Australian woman in the escort business, in which he played the role of driver and bodyguard.
The woman, identified as K.L., “was an owner and operator of the Bachelors Club” who prepared financial spreadsheets on the customers and split profits with him, Baston testified.
But the Australian woman testified that she was enrolled in college and worked in a restaurant when she met Baston at an Australian nightclub in 2011. K.L. said she discovered a book titled Pimpology in his apartment and that he coaxed her into dancing in strip clubs and picking up clients for tricks. She said Baston was “money hungry” and kept all the profits.
She said Baston took her and a New Zealand woman to Dubai at Christmas that year and forced them to participate in a threesome with him after they celebrated the holiday by opening luxury gifts from Versace, Louis Vuitton and other designer stores.
Jurors saw a video showing the Aussie and New Zealander in what appeared to be a happy mood as they opened their presents with Baston at the Atlantis Hotel in Dubai.
But K.L. said she was hiding her true feelings.
“I was never happy with the situation,” K.L. testified. “The only reason I continued was that my family and I would be harmed if I ran away.”
Baston was able to travel around the globe to recruit the young women because he had stolen the identity of an American citizen. Baston obtained a Florida ID card and U.S. passport in the name of that person, Rayshawn Bryant, a Columbus, Ohio, forklift operator, during the past decade.
Those documents turned out to be crucial evidence that came to light in May 2012, when K.L. left Miami and returned to Australia to renew her visa.
She testified that she continued to strip at Gold Coast clubs and prostitute herself even while Baston stayed behind in Miami. From Australia, she wrote an email to Baston, expressing how much she missed and loved him. She told jurors that she was “brainwashed.”
But soon after her arrival in Australia, K.L.’s family learned about her prostitution activities from someone who saw her escort ad on the Internet and confronted her about it.
K.L. testified that she eventually broke down and told U.S. State Department authorities about her relationship with the Jamaican man, saying he used Bryant’s identity to operate his prostitution business in Australia and the United States.
In December 2013, agents with Homeland Security Investigations and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security arrested Baston at his mother’s apartment in the Bronx, New York.
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