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Wednesday, Jan 23 2013 10:00 PM

Human trafficking victim discovered through online ads

BY RACHEL COOK Californian staff writer rcook@bakersfield.com

The young Bakersfield girl at the center of a disturbing human trafficking case willingly joined a pair of adults in prostitution but had no idea she'd be taken so far from home, according to a federal criminal complaint obtained Wednesday.

The document, which also sheds light on how police found the 15-year-old girl, became public the day her accused pimp was indicted in the case.

Vernon McCullum III, also known as "Fifth," was indicted on one count of illegal transportation of a minor for prostitution or other illegal sexual activity, said Natalie Collins, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for Nevada.

If convicted, McCullum faces a minium of 10 years to a maximum of life in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000, Collins said.

The complaint sheds light on the victim's relationship with McCullum and how investigators found her.

According to the affidavit written by an FBI agent, the girl was reported missing to the Bakersfield Police Department on Jan. 10 and the case was referred to the department's detective division on Jan 14.

Detectives searched the teen's cell phone number online, which led them to escort ads posted Jan. 8 and Jan. 15 on a website that features prostitutes' profiles and ads.

The ads matched the girl's description and the latter posting said she was available for prostitution in Reno, according to the affidavit.

Bakersfield police reached out to Reno authorities for help on Jan. 15 and Reno Police Department investigators called the number listed on the second ad to make an appointment with the girl, the complaint said. The person who answered the call told police the girl was at the Showboat Motel.

That evening, the "Innocence Lost Task Force" made up of members from the Reno Police Department and the FBI found and "recovered" the girl at the motel. McCullum and Shannell Smith, 19 and of Reno, according to Bakersfield police, were also discovered at the motel.

According to the complaint, the girl gave officers the following account of what happened:

The victim said she knew Smith and knew she was a prostitute. (How they knew each other was not in the reports). On Jan. 8, Smith contacted the teen about working as a prostitute with her and McCullum, whom Smith introduced as her "brother."

The girl agreed to go with them "in order to engage in prostitution, however, she believed that she would be engaging in this activity in the Bakersfield area."

The pair took the victim to the Super 8 Motel on Real Road. She spent the night with them and had sex with McCullum.

"The following day, (the victim) told Smith and McCullum that she needed to leave to go to school but McCullum refused to let her leave and continued driving north on SR-99," the complaint said.

The victim learned they were taking her to Reno, where McCullum said she could make $1,000.

At the Showboat Motel, they went to a room rented by another prostitute connected to McCullum and Smith. McCullum instructed Smith to take nude pictures of the victim and the photos were posted with the second escort ad.

After the second ad went up online, the victim "engaged in approximately 15 acts of prostitution at McCullum's direction."

The girl got about $1,000. She was "required" to turn the money over to Smith, who then gave it to McCullum.

At some point in Reno, McCullum told the victim he would have "Fifth Loc." tattooed on her lower back, his mark that "all his 'girls,'" including Smith, had on them.

McCullum was interviewed by members of the task force on Jan. 19, according to the complaint, four days after he was arrested in Reno. He admitted that he took the victim from California to Nevada and said he knew the teen and Smith were prostitutes, but "claimed he was not a pimp."

According to the complaint, McCullum was connected to another Reno sex trafficking case from May 2012 that police are still investigating. In that case, "McCullum was (allegedly) working as a pimp in the Reno area" with two female prostitutes.

"Subsequent investigation has corroborated many of (the victim's) statements, including her statements that she worked as a prostitute for McCullum, that McCullum acted as her 'pimp', and that McCullum transported (the victim) from California to Nevada for the purpose of engaging in prostitution," the complaint said.

He was expected to be transfered from state to federal custody Wednesday or Thursday and could make his first appearance before a federal magistrate judge in Reno as soon as Thursday, she said.

Reno police Lt. Scott Dugan said it isn't uncommon for sex workers from California to make their way to Reno, but that he was not familiar with any other cases involving a Bakersfield connection.

"Reno is a tourist community so we will get people pimps and prostitutes coming up from Sacramento and the Bay area" trying to take advantage of the destination before slipping back into California, the lieutenant said.

Dugan said the police department has been part of the Innocence Lost Task Force for several years and seen some success from their efforts.

"We've had multiple indictments and we've even had convictions of cases over the last couple years," he said.

Participation in the task force also represents a cultural change in how investigators look at these cases, Dugan said. In the past, prostitutes were treated like criminals but authorities are recognizing the "true victimization piece" of the cases, he said.

"This can happen in any community. These girls are preyed upon by predators...that are looking to find vulnerable kids," he said.

Adolescents, especially runaways, may develop a strong relationship with their pimps, who are their providers, and be leery of turning on their pimp because of that connection, he said.

Dugan encouraged anyone who suspects their child is a runaway that might be caught up in prostitution to report it to local police.

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