Breaking News Blog

Friday, Jan 18 2013 07:59 PM

Girl kidnapped, assaulted, taken to Reno

BY JASON KOTOWSKI California Staff Writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

Bakersfield police said late Friday that they are investigating a human trafficking case in which a juvenile victim was lured to a market and kidnapped for sexual exploitation.

Police provided a number of details about how the case transpired but not how it concluded, with one suspect in custody. The status of the victim also wasn't disclosed.

The dramatic case comes only months after voters in California and Kern County easily passed a state ballot measure to toughen penalties on human traffickers.

The incident began Jan. 8, a Tuesday, when a girl left her home and came into contact with 19-year-old Shanell Smith, of Reno, Nev., according to police. Smith allegedly lured her to a market on Brundage Lane where Vernon McCullum III, 19, also of Reno, was waiting in a vehicle.

The girl, whose age was not released, entered the vehicle with the men and was taken to a local motel where she engaged in a sex act with McCullum, police said.

The next day, the girl asked the men for a ride and they offered to take her to school. Instead, the suspects drove onto northbound Highway 99 and, despite pleas from the victim to be let go, continued driving north to Tulare County, police said.

Driven to a location that she apparently couldn't identify, the girl tried to escape, police said. But McCullum assaulted her and Smith brandished a knife and pepper spray, according to police.

The victim was then driven further north, to a motel in Reno, where she was forced to engage in prostitution and forced to pose nude for photographs. Police said she again tried to escape and was again beaten by McCullum and forced back into the room.

No details of what took place after that were made available.

But in their announcement Friday, Bakersfield Police said McCullum has been arrested on suspicion of human trafficking, kidnapping, false imprisonment, criminal threats, unlawful sexual intercourse, conspiracy and publishing child pornography.

Smith was not in custody Friday but is wanted for questioning in connection with the same charges, police said.

The issue of human trafficking received statewide attention last year when a measure to toughen penalties, Proposition 35, was approved overwhelmingly by voters in November.

The measure, which increased prison sentences and fines for human traffickers, was endorsed by a long list of prosecutors, law enforcement officials and politicians.

More than $2 million from Chris Kelly, Facebook's former privacy chief and an unsuccessful candidate for California attorney general in 2010, helped put Prop. 35 on the ballot.

Proponents drafted it to make sex trafficking of a minor with force or fraud punishable with up to a life term in prison, the Los Angeles Times noted at the time. They wanted to increase the fine for the offense to as much as $1.5 million from a maximum of $100,000, and to expand the definition of human trafficking to include creation and distribution of child pornography.

Known as the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act, the measure was also drafted to prevent re-victimization, prohibiting evidence of commercial sex acts by those were trafficked from being used against the victims in court.

Opponents, including some veteran advocates and academics, said that while the measure brought much-needed attention to the issue, it was misguided and could harm victims.

They expressed concern that the hefty criminal fines under the proposition would hurt victims' chances to be compensated in civil court. The measure was written to direct revenue from those fines to law enforcement and victim service organizations.

Californians heartily approved the measure with about 83 percent of voters voting yes. In Kern County the measure passed by a similar margin.

In regard to the new case here, Bakersfield police on Friday appealed to the public for more information about the case. Tipsters are asked to call the Bakersfield Police Department at 327-7111 or Detective Gary Carruesco at 326-3544.

To send an anonymous text message to the BPD, enter 274637 and text BPDCRIMES along with the message. Tips can also be anonymously sent through the smartphone TipSubmit mobile app or via email at tipsubmit.com.

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