Local News

Saturday, Jan 19 2013 09:49 PM

Few new details in sex trafficking arrest

BY RACHEL COOK Californian staff writer rcook@bakersfield.com

Authorities released few new details Saturday about a human trafficking case that landed a Reno man in jail last week on allegations that he forced a Bakersfield girl into prostitution.

Vernon McCullum III, 19, is being held at the Washoe County Detention Facility in Reno on suspicion of crimes including pandering to a child with the threat of force and pandering/transporting a child for prostitution with the threat of force, according to the Washoe Sheriff's Office. He is being held on $210,500 bail and other allegations including suspicion of possession of less than one ounce of marijuana, being under the influence of a controlled substance and a fugitive warrant out of Bakersfield, according to the sheriff's department.

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To learn more about anti-human trafficking efforts, visit polarisproject.org or call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 888-373-7888.

"(McCullum) will not be extradited (to California) until he's done with his local charges," said Debra Robinson, a Washoe Sheriff's support specialist.

Bakersfield police released details of the case Friday but have not disclosed how old the juvenile victim was, what led to McCullum's arrest or the status of the girl following McCullum's detention. Reno Police Department Lt. William Rulla confirmed that McCullum was arrested Tuesday by Reno police.

Police are still looking for Shanell Smith, 19, of Reno, Nev., who allegedly lured the victim to a local market where McCullum was waiting on Jan. 8.

Police said McCullum had sex with the girl at an area motel and that he and Smith offered to take her to school the next day but instead headed north on Highway 99.

The victim was taken to Reno where she was forced to participate in prostitution and pose for nude pictures, according to police. The girl tried to escape more than once, but McCullum assaulted her, police said.

Local anti-human trafficking advocates said the case is one example of a larger problem.

"I'm not shocked (by the news) at all because that's the story of a lot of the girls that are out there (working as prostitutes)," said Amy Ferreira, who reaches out to prostitutes in Bakersfield with the group Magdalene Hope.

Ferreira and Pastor Doug Bennett, founder and president of Magdalene Hope, said they distribute bags of toiletries and gifts to prostitutes twice a month.

"We deal with human trafficking on a weekly basis, every time we go out," Bennett said.

The anti-human trafficking advocates said traffickers prey on girls in vulnerable situations and may use force or charm to exploit them.

"No girl wakes up and thinks, 'OK, I want to be a prostitute today,'" Bennett said. "You're either forced into or you really don't feel like you have any other means to live or make money."

Ferreira and Bennett said they hope the community's awareness of human trafficking will be raised by a new group called the Kern Coalition Against Human Trafficking. The coalition brings together service groups, county agencies and law enforcement to address trafficking issues.

"(Trafficking) exists and it thrives because of the public's ignorance," Ferreira said. "We're getting ready to do a lot of public awareness."

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