Tennesee court handling Minn.-connected sex ring casesby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Several Minnesotans charged in connection with an alleged multistate sex ring based in the Twin Cities are arriving in Tennessee for their first court appearances in that district.
The path between Minneapolis and Nashville likely will be well-traveled by witnesses, investigators and family members of the defendants.
And that's just one consequence of having a case whose center of gravity is in Minnesota but is being prosecuted four states away.
About two-thirds of the 29 people charged in the case are from Minnesota. The alleged recruitment of young girls by Minneapolis-based Somali gangs to work as prostitutes took place here. And many of the alleged sex acts were carried out at local homes and businesses, from a Blaine mall to a Brooklyn Center hotel.
But the girls, who authorities say were as young as 12, were allegedly transported to work in the sex trade in other states, including Tennessee.
Lead prosecutor Van Vincent, an assistant U.S. attorney in Nashville, said that's the only jurisdictional hook he needs.
"If you come to the Middle District of Tennessee and do something like this, you can expect to be prosecuted," Vincent said.
But some defense attorneys are still baffled by the decision to prosecute it outside of Minnesota.
The wide reach of the case recently led to some wrangling between federal judges in Minneapolis and Nashville during the initial round of detention hearings. The Minneapolis judge ruled that some of the defendants could be released -- only to be overruled by a judge in Tennessee.
Attorney Jean Brandl said her client, Abdullahi Afyare, had gotten out of custody and was getting fitted for an ankle bracelet when the Tennessee judge's order came down to detain him again.
"What infuriated me about this was that this judge hadn't met my client, hadn't reviewed the documents I presented," she said. "I put a witness on the stand about his reliability, and the judge in Tennessee never considered any of that."
Brandl says her client has been reassigned to a federal defender in Nashville because it didn't make sense for his family to pay Brandl to fly to Tennessee repeatedly.
Federal prosecutors say it's not unusual for crimes that involve interstate travel to lead to federal charges that will play out in one venue over another.
The decision on where to prosecute the case appears to have emerged during a rocky time for the Minnesota office of the U.S. Attorney. It came before the appointment of B. Todd Jones, and after the resignation of his controversial predecessor, Rachel Paulose.
Jones said even he is not entirely sure how the decision was made, but he said the number of available resources was likely part of the equation.
Van Vincent, the lead prosecutor from Tennessee, spent 18 months working the case, Jones said. Vincent, Jones said, "was in the best position to know the case, to know the witnesses, to know the evidence and to charge the case."
Jones says the trafficking investigation coincided with a trifecta of challenging cases coming out of the Twin Cities: Denny Hecker, Tom Petters, and the alleged enlistment of young Twin Cities men with the al-Shabab terrorist group in Somalia.
"I'm a little surprised at why the concern about somehow the ball got dropped here in Minnesota because the case isn't venued here in Minnesota," he said. "Bottom line, 29 defendants have been charged federally and face serious ramifications if they are convicted in federal court, and they will be in federal prison. And it doesn't matter to me whether that federal trial occurs in Minneapolis or Nashville."
But it does matter to the defendants. Federal defender Manny Atwal says the families of her clients are wondering how they'll travel to Tennessee, whether it's by bus or carpool. Atwal says spouses, girlfriends and parents can be a powerful source of support for those facing charges.
Atwal also worries whether the defendants, all but one who are of East African descent, will be perceived fairly if the case goes to trial in Nashville.
"It's no secret we have a big Somali community here in Minnesota, and somebody who is accused of a crime is entitled to a jury of his peers," Atwal said. "In Nashville, I don't think they have as big of a Somali community as we have here in Minnesota, so I think it's going to be tough for some of these guys."
The charges have produced mixed reactions in the Twin Cities' Somali-American community. Some are skeptical that all 29 people were deeply involved in the underworld of gangs, credit-card fraud, and human trafficking.
They've also questioned whether the Jane Does listed in the indictment were victims, or whether they willingly participated.
But the law doesn't require that distinction to be made. All child prostitutes are considered victims of human trafficking.
Vincent, the Nashville prosecutor, said it's natural for families of people accused of serious crimes to be skeptical of the charges.
"A parent's job is to be a parent, and oftentimes, people who are parents didn't know something was happening or didn't see that activity," he said. "A great amount of times, parents don't have a clue of what they're kids are doing, particularly when their kids aren't kids."
- Morning Edition, 11/24/2010, 7:20 a.m.