Miami-Dade County

Miami jury will decide: Violent pimp or legit escort operator?

The slender college coed met the charming Jamaican man with a running back’s build at a nightclub on Australia’s Gold Coast.

She fell hard for “Drac,” and he coaxed her into doing something she had never done before: dancing in strip clubs and then turning tricks for his “Bachelor’s Club” escort service.

Drac, whose real name is Damion St. Patrick Baston, hustled her in Australia, the United Arab Emirates and eventually Miami, where prosecutors say the “master manipulator” forced her to pick up clients at a trio of South Florida strip clubs, Deans Gold, Cheetah and Wonderland.

Now, Baston, 37, is standing trial on sex-trafficking charges in Miami federal court, charged with using “psychological coercion and physical abuse” against a string of women he pimped around the globe. The Jamaican national, who was arrested at his mother’s New York home in December, could be locked up for the rest of his life if a Miami jury convicts him.

Last week, Baston’s defense attorney, David Rowe, described him as a peaceful businessman who ran a legitimate escort service in Australia, and ran into trouble only when he returned to the United States. He challenged the credibility of the Australian woman and other alleged victims who took the witness stand, suggesting they had all fallen for him and had the freedom to leave whenever they wanted.

Baston is expected to testify in his own defense this week.

Federal prosecutors Olivia Choe and Roy Altman have portrayed Baston as a charismatic sociopath who used “threats and rape and violence” to control the young women who worked for his escort business.

The Australian woman, who discovered that Baston had married another Aussie in 2010 before she met him the next year, testified that he would fly into a rage for the slightest reason. He threatened her with a hot knife, strangled her, punched her in the face and slammed her head on a car, she told jurors last week.

Yet, “K.L.” — the Australian woman’s initials — would break her physical connection with “Drac,” but not her psychological bond with him, when her visa expired and she left Miami alone to return to Australia to renew it in 2012.

Once back in Australia, she continued to strip in clubs and turn tricks, while calling him “Daddy” and expressing her love for him in an email. “I know I’ve got a messed up way of showing it sometimes but I miss you like crazy!!” K.L. wrote to Baston in a May 27, 2012, email, saying she wanted to start a family with him and open a restaurant together.

“And I can’t wait for the day where I won’t have to see another client, do another lap dance or share you with any bitch,” she wrote Baston, who was in Miami.

During her testimony, K.L. said she had been “brainwashed” by Baston and was not expressing her true feelings, and was “playing mind games” with him to survive — despite being on a different continent.

Asked by a prosecutor why she continued to work for him as a prostitute in Australia, she said flatly: “He said he wanted me to.”

“I was scared about what would happen to me and my family if I did not — that he would kill me or my family,” the woman testified. She said Baston bragged that he was connected to law enforcement in Australia and had ties to the violent Los Angeles street gang, the Bloods.

K.L. was not alone. Five other women from Australia, New Zealand, Florida and Georgia also testified that Baston swept them up, then forced them into his brutal prostitution racket while he collected hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Although they did not know each other, they all shared the same fear of running away from the alleged abuse and violence because of the “traumatic bonding” between them and Baston, said a world-renowned psychiatrist who testified as an expert for the prosecution.

Frank Ochberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University, told federal jurors that “so often, they don’t run away” because they “feel an unusual attachment to the person who doesn’t kill” them.

Baston, who had been ordered removed from the United States in the late 1990s, 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 that person’s name, Rayshawn Bryant, a Columbus, Ohio, forklift operator, during the past decade.

Those documents turned out to be crucial evidence that came to light when the Australian woman returned to her homeland to renew her visa. Here’s how: Another woman who knew K.L. sent an email with an Internet ad about her escort services to her mother and aunt. They confronted K.L. about it, but she refused to report Baston to the Australian and U.S. authorities.

“I told them that I got myself into this situation and I that I will get myself out,” K.L. testified.

But her aunt went behind K.L.’s back and told U.S. State Department authorities not to renew her visa. When K.L. herself spoke with U.S. authorities about renewing it, she lied when they asked about her prostitution activities, she testified. But K.L. said she “started crying and broke down” when they asked whether her pimp had ever been violent with her.

Finally, she turned over a copy she had of Baston’s bogus Florida ID card. Agents with the State Department and Homeland Security Investigations say they soon discovered that Bryant’s identity had been stolen by Baston.

That discovery helped lead them to other victims of his alleged prostitution ring in Australia and the United States.

An Atlanta woman testified Friday that she fell for Baston while they got to know each other on the Internet in 2013. “J.R.” said she was working as a stripper in Atlanta and he enticed her to come to Miami, leading her to believe he was a modeling agent.

As she soon as she arrived, “Drac” had her working at two Miami-Dade strip clubs, The Office and Tootsie’s. He created an escort service ad for her that ran on the Internet, and forced her to pick up clients for prostitution, she testified.

She also worked for him as a hooker on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach. For no reason, she said, he got mad at her after she was talking with a client, as if he were jealous. She said Baston hit her repeatedly in the face while they were parked in a car.

“He told me he would chop my body up and put me in the Everglades if I f---ed around,” she testified. “I was scared.”

J.R., the single mother of a baby girl, testified that Baston took her to Orlando, where his mother owned a two-bedroom home. While they lived there for a few months, she continued to work at strip clubs in Orlando, Daytona Beach and Cocoa Beach and picked up prostitution clients.

Asked what she did with her money, she said: “I gave it to Daddy. He hid it all over the house.”

Whenever he got angry with her, she said, Baston would force her to perform oral sex on him on her hands and knees.

“He made me,” she testified. “I had no choice.”

Baston took her on the road again, to Atlanta, Texas and New Orleans, where she worked in more strip clubs and was forced to hustle clients, she said.

Finally, he brought her and her baby girl to New York City. They visited with his mother, who had an apartment in the Bronx. J.R. was with Baston when federal agents arrested him on Dec. 17, 2013.

Throughout her ordeal, she testified, Baston impregnated her three times. She suffered a miscarriage once, and forced her to have an abortion the second time. Now, she’s carrying his baby.

J.R., who was visibly pregnant, repeatedly referred to Baston as “Daddy” during her testimony.

“There was a time when I did love him,” she said in her soft voice. “I thought I did.”

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