Crime & Courts

‘No Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman’ prosecutor warns in sex trafficking case

Before telling jurors what to expect in this week’s sex trafficking trial of Samuel Pratt – who is charged with selling girls as young as 14 for sex – Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim May made sure they knew what they were in for.

“The evidence is of human trafficking, and human trafficking is ugly,” he said during opening statements Tuesday. “There will be no happy stories. There will be no Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.”

Pratt, whose home is listed in court documents as Gastonia, N.C., is on trial this week for eight charges, including conspiring to sex traffic children, child porn, obstruction of justice and a firearm charge.

He was arrested in February at a motel on Two Notch Road after an undercover string operation that, prosecutors say, began when FBI agents in Charlotte alerted Richland County authorities about an ad on that advertised a young girl associated with Pratt.

At that motel, where May said Pratt had been arrested just one month earlier with the same girl and a 15-year-old girl, one team of officers met with the victim while a second team spoke with Pratt. A warrant to search Pratt’s phone revealed nude pictures of a teen girl that were taken at the motel in the days before the sting and posted on the Backpage ad.

May called human trafficking “a real problem,” and cautioned jurors about the “distasteful” material they would see throughout the trial, including testimony from law enforcement and experts that shows Pratt’s alleged manipulation and abuse of vulnerable young girls. The girls involved in the case also will take the stand, May said.

“This case is about the defendant’s greed, his manipulation, his thoughts that he’s better than other people,” he said. “We’re here because that man ... sold a 14-year-old child and a 17-year-old child to strangers for 15 minutes a piece.”

Columbia attorney Victor Li told jurors he initially shared their mindset when he was appointed to represent Pratt.

“All I heard were the headlines,” Li said, saying the case would not be as the government portrays. Pratt regularly paid for sex – “as pathetic as it is,” Li said, and even fell in love with some of the prostitutes he paid.

“This case is not human trafficking,” he said. “You’re going to hear that the girls on the stand are selling their bodies now, or selling their bodies after Mr. Pratt is in jail.”

While the words “child porn” might conjure up images of very young children, Li said, the pictures in question were of the 17-year-old victim, whom Pratt identified as his girlfriend. He added that Pratt’s own mother, who will testify for the government, even acknowledged the 17-year-old as her son’s girlfriend.

“You’re going to experience the full force of the federal government,” he said. “If their case is so strong, why are they coming in here and name calling?”

Pratt’s mother, Daphne, was charged in connection with the case. She pleaded guilty last month to one count of conspiracy to sex traffic children, according to court records. May said that during recorded phone calls Pratt made from jail after his arrest, he told his mother “to get the girls to go out and grind” because he needed money.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center reports there have been 58 human trafficking cases reported in South Carolina in 2016 as of Sept. 30. Since 2007, the organization has tracked 1,330 calls to its hotline and a total of 793 victims.

Attorney General Alan Wilson has made raising awareness about the prevalence of human trafficking in South Carolina one of his priorities, after meeting a victim of the crime.

Since the state passed an extensive law addressing the crime in 2012, Wilson became a crusader for expanding its scope to include bringing cases to a State Grand Jury; a move that gives prosecutors the ability to pursue a case across multiple jurisdictions.

Pratt’s trial is expected to take about a week. U.S. District Court Judge Terry Wooten is presiding.

Staff writer Cynthia Roldán contributed.

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