SAN DIEGO (AP) — Fourteen people accused by federal prosecutors of involvement in a street gang's sprawling prostitution ring that spanned dozens of cities and states entered not guilty pleas Thursday.
Authorities say members of a San Diego-based gang lured women and girls with promises of luxurious lifestyles. They say the dozens of victims, spread across 46 cities in 23 states, were instead branded with tattoos, passed from gang member to gang member and forced to sell themselves.
U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy announced the indictment Wednesday, charging 24 San Diego residents, ages 22 to 36, with racketeering and conspiracy. She said at the time the sex trafficking was "nothing less than modern-day slavery."
Fourteen of the 17 defendants arrested Wednesday in raids by police and FBI agents appeared in a crowded San Diego courtroom and were ordered held without bail by Magistrate Judge Barbara Major.
Two others were arrested in Arizona, and one was taken into custody in New Jersey.
Four other defendants were already in custody, and three remained at-large.
Brian Watkins, an attorney for defendant Robert Banks III, said his client did not commit the crimes described in the indictment. The other 13 defendants who appeared were assigned court-appointed attorneys.
The indictment alleges that women and girls were recruited from city streets or social media, then forced to deliver their earnings to pimps in exchange for protection, food, housing, clothing and cars.
The pimps took the trafficking victims to Alaska, Hawaii, Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas and other states, according to the indictment.
The U.S. attorney's office said authorities have offered assistance to 60 female victims, including 11 children.
Robert Howe, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI in San Diego, said gang involvement in prostitution has intensified in the last two years in San Diego with the explosion of social media and use of smartphones as recruiting tools.
"It's all very anonymous for the johns," he said. "You're not out walking the streets and getting harassed by the local police departments."
The network was run by a gang known as BMS, which traces its origins to San Diego's increasingly gentrified North Park neighborhood in the early 1990s, and whose members have nicknames like "Pimpsy," ''Stick Up" and "Li'l Play Doh," prosecutors said.
Members would post photos and videos on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter advertising a high life of jewelry, champagne and parties, authorities have said. But gang members would use threats or violence to force their victims into prostitution, tattooing them with gang monikers, pimps' names and bar codes, they said.
Authorities also seized luxury cars, dozens of expensive gym shoes and pimp paraphernalia like diamond-studded canes, hats and chalices, much of which prosecutors said they would seek to have forfeited.
Racketeering conspiracy charges traditionally are used for organized-crime syndicates. Fourteen of those arrested could get life in prison if convicted.