By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 6, 2006; A01
The teenagers testified for hour after agonizing hour about their months of prostitution, quietly describing the tricks they turned on some of the District's and Maryland's seediest strips.
They performed sex acts with men in cheap motel rooms, alleys and the back seats of cars, they said. Clients had 10 minutes or it cost extra. One girl, 14 when she was recruited, said her quota was $500 a night, with various sex acts ranging in price from $50 to $150. Every dollar she and her "stable sisters" earned, she said, was turned over to the sometimes loving, often brutal man they were told to call "Daddy."
That man, Jaron R. Brice, 27, of Northeast Washington, was convicted last week of sex trafficking of a minor, transporting prostitutes across state lines, pandering and child sexual abuse -- a litany of federal charges that probably will land him in prison for decades.
The five-day trial, at the federal courthouse in Washington, included lengthy testimony from three young women who described in sober, graphic detail the life they were introduced to through Brice. They met Brice at parties or through friends, and with his instruction and encouragement soon were trolling for "dates" outside motels in the District, Silver Spring and Capitol Heights; through an X-rated phone chat line; and, for repeat customers, via cell phones.
The activities came to light after investigations by the District's Human Trafficking Task Force and the U.S. Justice Department's Innocence Lost initiative, separate efforts that target pimps accused of using violence and preying on girls. Innocence Lost, which is concentrated in 14 U.S. cities, has launched 140 investigations resulting in convictions of at least 68 pimps. The D.C. task force has initiated more than 30 investigations and has won 17 convictions.
Both efforts make use of federal anti-trafficking laws -- passed by Congress in 2000 and reauthorized this year -- that offer tools for prosecuting pimps and stiffer penalties for those convicted than local statues would have allowed. The first pimp tried in the District under the federal statute, Carlos Curtis, will be sentenced March 17. He could face life in prison for prostituting a 12-year-old runaway he recruited from New York and a 17-year-old he brought to the District from Maryland.
Starting this year, the laws will also offer money for programs to steer young women and girls away from prostitution in the United States and abroad.
The legislation, supported by a coalition of liberal and conservative groups, addresses foreign and domestic sex trafficking. In the District, the victims of those charged with trafficking have been U.S.-born -- girls and young women from urban, suburban and rural areas, many of them runaways, all of them searching for security, stability and love.
"We talked about having sex for money. Paying him. Being happy," testified one girl, who was 14 and living in Prince George's County when she met Brice in March 2004.
"You'll have everything you want, and I'll take care of you," the girl recalled Brice telling her. Then he drove her to a Silver Spring Travelodge with a veteran prostitute and another underage recruit. Brice had sex with the three of them, testified the girl, whose name is being withheld by The Washington Post because she is a minor and a victim of a sex crime.
Over the next day or so, the new girls were outfitted with short shorts and revealing tops and taught to apply heavy make-up. They sat in the back seat of Brice's purple Chevrolet Caprice to watch a video that laid out the rules and jargon of what she and the others learned to call "The Game":
Call your pimp "Daddy." Walk behind him, keeping your gaze down.
Never speak to or look at another pimp.
Get the money in advance.
Obey your pimp's "bottom" -- the prostitute he trusts most. She and the other prostitutes who work for your pimp are your "sisters." All of you make up a "stable." Along with the pimp, you are a "family."
Similar language and hierarchies are used across the country by pimps who recruit and coerce girls and young women, said Lois Lee, a Los Angeles-based advocate who runs shelters for former prostitutes and testified as an expert witness for the prosecution. Sex traffickers focus on emotionally troubled targets, she said, such as girls who have been sexually abused.
"They love their pimp, and they believe their pimp, and they believe that if they keep doing this, eventually the pimp will buy them a home and he'll have a baby with them -- what everybody wants," she testified.
Prosecutors said runaways and other vulnerable girls make up a significant portion of the District's prostitute population. Authorities said that about 30 prostitutes who are known to be juveniles are arrested each year for soliciting in the District, but they added that many more prostitutes who are arrested lie about their ages or have false IDs that say they are at least 18.
Brice was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Sharon Marcus-Kurn and Justice Department trial attorney Myesha Braden, in cooperation with the myriad law-enforcement agencies and social service and advocacy groups that are part of the D.C. task force and Innocence Lost. The groups share information and forge strategies for building cases against violent pimps, with the nonprofit organizations helping find and draw out traumatized, often wary prostitutes whose testimony is crucial but who might still be seeking their pimps' affection and approval.
Advocates helped reassure the teenagers who testified against Brice, who looked on from the gallery in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer. They ensured the girls had tissues and pink rubber balls -- decorated with smiley faces -- they could squeeze to relieve stress.
"The more you work with this population, the better you get at learning how to reach them, and how to help them get away from the man who's been abusing them," Marcus-Kurn said. "It's like a cult. We as a community . . . are called upon to try and hear what the victim is not saying or cannot say or is told not to say."
Those who defend alleged pimps often argue that the women were not forced to prostitute -- but that strategy applies only when the prostitutes are 18 or older. Trafficking of a minor, even without coercion, is a felony that carries a maximum sentence of 40 years. Defendants charged with pandering -- essentially managing adult prostitutes without coercion -- face far less serious penalties; for example, Dontae Reed, who pleaded guilty in D.C. Superior Court in January to running a two-prostitute ring, was sentenced Thursday to 36 months in prison.
In Brice's case, the jury of eight women and four men found him not guilty of coercing a 9-year-old prostitute, apparently rejecting testimony that he beat and threatened her. But the jury, after deliberating for three hours, declared Brice guilty of trafficking and sexually abusing the 14-year-old.
Marcus-Kurn said testimony from the older prostitute bolstered the charges involving the girl. Bringing the case in federal court, she said, also allowed the government to charge Brice with transporting the minor and the adult teenager across state lines for prostitution, charges for which he was found guilty.
Shawn Moore, the federal public defender who represented Brice, said after the trial that use of the federal statutes could be seen as excessive, especially because Brice could have been tried in Superior Court only in connection with the younger prostitute and still would have faced hefty penalties.
"It's like using a hammer on an ant," Moore said. "Just because you have jurisdiction doesn't mean that you have to utilize it all the time."
Brice will be sentenced May 11. He did not take the stand during the trial, and his attorneys did not call witnesses.
The former prostitutes said they walked the streets all night, in all weather -- outside motels; downtown at 14th and K streets NW, once the city's premiere red-light district; and near Eastern and Minnesota avenues NE. They told of a private bar known as Clicks on the second floor of a building in the 1400 block of L Street NW, where sex acts took place behind a curtain in the VIP room. Wes Dimov, the proprietor, pleaded guilty Feb. 25 in a separate case to operating a bawdy house, a misdemeanor.
Brice took the 14-year-old to prostitute in New York and Atlantic City, the girl said at trial, and traveled with the 19-year-old to Miami, where they worked the South Beach strip.
The younger prostitute, a runaway, said she helped recruit the older teenager -- who had just graduated from high school in Southern Maryland -- during summer 2004. Several weeks later, the girl testified, Brice began showing the other prostitute more attention. He beat the girl when she complained.
"Why did you end up staying?" Marcus-Kurn asked gently, as the girl, now 16, sat in the witness chair and squeezed her pink ball.
"Because he said he loved me."
"And how did that make you feel?"
Both teenagers have received support, including counseling, from agencies linked to the task force. They are off the streets and trying to restart their lives.
In her closing argument, Marcus-Kurn told the jury that the former prostitutes had not seen each other in more than a year and that they were rivals rather than friends. Yet their descriptions of life with Brice matched almost exactly, Marcus-Kurn said: the codelike language, Brice's tattoos and the promises he made but never kept.
"The defendant had no intention of loving or protecting them," the prosecutor said. "The only thing the defendant was interested in was the money and the life and the control.
"He was their daddy, and he liked that status."