A St. Paul man and his friend were found guilty Thursday afternoon of trafficking a vulnerable girl and woman from Superior, Wis., and Duluth last year.
Fonati Diggs, 24, of Northfield, and Timothy D. Cross, 20, of St. Paul, were accused of luring the 16- and 18-year-old to St. Paul, where they were allegedly raped by the men and their friends before being forced to work as prostitutes on the street. The men each faced two counts of aiding and abetting sex trafficking in Ramsey County District Court, and Cross faced two assault charges and a count of possession of a firearm by an ineligible person.
It was the second sex-trafficking trial in as many weeks in the county, where County Attorney John Choi has taken a hard-line stance against the crime, working with advocates on a national level to crack down on the website Backpage.com, where victims are commonly trafficked. Choi’s office is also working to create an investigatory and prosecutorial “tool kit” in Ramsey County by early 2014 that can be used as a statewide model to combat sex trafficking.
“The verdict sends a very important message that we’re not going to tolerate the buying and selling of children for sex in our community,” Choi said, adding that the two recent sex-trafficking trials will play a role forming the “tool kit.” “The experience of having those jury trials is very important.”
Diggs was convicted of both counts against him, while Cross was convicted on four counts and acquitted of a second-degree assault charge on the younger victim.
Assistant Ramsey County Attorneys Jill Gerber and David Pinto told the jury of 10 men and two women that because the victims were terrified and overwhelmed with “guilt, fear and shame,” they told inconsistent stories at different times to police. But, Gerber said during her closing arguments Tuesday, that doesn’t mean they weren’t trafficked and raped.
“They were the perfect vulnerable girls from outstate,” Gerber told jurors Tuesday.
Witnesses testified that the victims were developmentally delayed and struggled with personal and family problems.
Choi’s office did not press rape charges, a detail that defense attorneys said showed weakness in the state’s case. “We go where the evidence is,” Choi said on Thursday.
The 18-year-old had been involved in a relationship with Diggs at one point when he lived in Duluth, but the two hadn’t communicated for about a year. Then Diggs initiated contact and asked her to visit him in St. Paul, prosecutors said. The woman and girl, a runaway, took a bus to St. Paul where Diggs, Cross and their friends raped them at a motel, Pinto and Gerber said.
Attorneys for the men, who were tried together, tried to raise skepticism by noting that the victims changed many aspects of their stories in interviews with police and on the witness stand. The minor admitted that she lied to police.
“She is scared, but that still doesn’t excuse her from lying,” Diggs’ attorney, Murad Mohammad, told jurors Tuesday.
“Overall I think the jury was willing to ignore any evidence that didn’t support the state’s theory,” said Cross’ attorney, Christopher Anderson.
The 18-year-old was in St. Paul for about a week, during which witnesses testified that she was made to walk Payne Avenue to prostitute herself. Witnesses testified that she made $40 having sex with a “crackhead” and that Cross punched her and held a gun to her head because she was not making enough money. She stayed because she loved Diggs and she thought he loved her, Gerber said.
The 16-year-old girl called 911 the second day she was in St. Paul. The girl’s frantic, breathless call was played for jurors, who heard her telling the 911 dispatcher she was being prostituted. She also said that she had been kidnapped from her home, which she later said was a lie. She can be heard running in high heels toward a police squad car in the audio recording.
During her closing arguments, Gerber played an excerpt of squad-car video footage showing the girl sitting in the back seat, rocking back and forth, and sobbing uncontrollably.
“Take me somewhere,” the girl yelled as she looked over her shoulder and out the back windshield. “If they see me, they’re going to kill me.”
Last week a jury deadlocked in the trial of Otis D. Washington, who was allegedly involved in a sex-trafficking ring that included his brother, the brother’s ex-girlfriend and the brothers’ two uncles. Authorities allege that the St. Paul family victimized multiple vulnerable girls and women, between ages 15 and 40, who were trafficked as far away as Ely.
Washington is scheduled to be retried later this year. His uncles pleaded guilty to driving women to meet “johns” and await sentencing. The cases against his brother and the brother’s ex-girlfriend remain open.