Palatka man pleads guilty to sex trafficking
Published: Monday, October 29, 2012 at 8:43 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 29, 2012 at 8:43 p.m.
A Palatka man pleaded guilty to sex trafficking with a minor on Monday afternoon in a federal courtroom.
Bertram J. Harrison, 35, was arrested and charged with buying or selling a minor for prostitution in April, according to an arrest report.
Alachua County Sheriff's deputies received an anonymous tip about the activity, and Harrison was arrested at the Days Inn hotel at 7516 Newberry Road, with the underage girl.
Deputies found images of the girl on Harrison's phone and laptop — ones that matched advertisements on a website used to solicit clients. They also found the girl's clothing and underwear, sex devices and lubricant, condoms, a hotel key card and two bottles of prescription medication for the girl.
According to the report, the girl told police she met Harrison through a friend, and that he and an accomplice trained her how to talk to men over the phone for sex. Harrison instructed her to charge $200 for an hour and $150 for half an hour.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Williams, who prosecuted the case for the state, said this type of crime is more common than people might think.
"There is a misconception that this is not a crime that occurs locally," he said.
According to the report, the girl's parents did not know about the activity, and she told them she was staying with friends. Harrison would pick her up around 9 p.m., and return her early the next morning. The two checked into the hotel numerous times between March 27 and April 26, according to a court document outlining facts in the case. Because the crime involves transactions over the Internet, it falls under the jurisdiction of federal court.
There was a similar case on March 23. Gainesville Police Department officers arrested Gainesville man Shay Ward Thomsen for procuring a minor for prostitution after a 13-year-old girl was found in his car during a traffic stop. The girl told officers she met Thomsen in church, according to published reports, and he gave her the idea to prostitute herself.
Harrison walked into the courtroom in an orange jumpsuit, shackled at his hands and feet. His wife, Nicole, and two family members sat in the front row of the gallery, and two U.S. Marshals escorted him to a table. One of the Marshals told the family about the rules regarding communicating with Harrison.
"You can wave to him but you can't talk to him," he said.
Harrison looked at his wife and smiled. She acknowledged him. She rubbed her fingers together and yawned, frequently. He made a phone with his fingers and pointed to himself. She nodded.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Gary R. Jones presided, and explained the proceedings to Harrison, and his federal public defender, Darren Johnson. Harrison originally pleaded not guilty, and Jones explained that he could only take a guilty plea with Harrison's consent, and he had to be sure of Harrison's awareness of the situation.
Jones asked a series of questions methodically and evenly. He found out that Harrison lives in Palatka, and he has six children between 3 and 15 years of age. He has a GED and a little technical training in computers.
Jones explained by Harrison's pleading guilty that he was admitting the truth of all the charges. Harrison said he understood.
Harrison's punishment carries a minimum sentence of 10 years, up to life, and the possibility of a $250,000 fine.
His wife tilted back her head and breathed in heavily when the judge said that.
Harrison also will have to register as a sex offender when he is released from prison, and he is ineligible for parole.
Before the marshals took him away from the courtroom, he looked back at his wife and lifted his eyebrows.
Harrison's sentencing is set for January.
While not allowed to talk about the specifics of this case, Williams said some men plead guilty in cases like this hoping for mercy.
Richard Tovar, 35, is the president of FIGHT, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about human trafficking. He said when most people think about trafficking, they assume it's more prevalent in other countries. But situations like the one with Harrison are common, and don't necessarily straddle low socio-economic borders.
"A lot of these kids are poor, but they're middle class, too. They have problems at home and they run away, and they get picked up by a trafficker (like Harrison). Whether it's willing or not, at 14 or 15 they can't make those decisions. They think they're ‘dating the trafficker.' It's happening here in the states, and it's happening here in Alachua County."
Tovar said some children start as early as 12 in sex trafficking, and that the majority of sex workers, he estimates, are underage.
"I think it is more often than not minors," he said. "It's a lot easier to coerce minors, and unfortunately, men like to buy sex from younger women."
He said the issue is more prevalent now than in the past because of the proliferation of Internet pornography and easy-to-access websites that advertise sex services from women. And the majority of those women, he said, are underage.
"If you're buying sex," he said, "you're probably buying from a minor."
Another issue to think about, he said, is demand. If the demand for paid sex goes up, then there are only so many women to fill that need. Eventually, you have to turn to children to fill those quotas, he said, and that's part of the reason sex trafficking is on the rise.
He said sex is so ingrained in our culture that we come to expect certain things as ordinary, things like bachelor parties or strip clubs. The solution, or at least a way to combat the culture, he said, is awareness. Most people don't realize, he said, that even strip club dancers and escorts might be underage.
"Most of us are desensitized to it," he said. "It has to be a mind-changer. You need to see it in a different way."