Unlikely pair kept sex case alive

A feisty prosecutor and passionate cop go after Minnesota-Somali gangs. It took a never-give-up attitude to build the case of a Somali runaway into a massive human trafficking prosecution.

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Van Vincent, assistant U.S. attorney general from Nashville, spoke in front of St. Paul police headquarters about federal charges against local Somali gang members in connection to a human trafficking ring that spanned three states. Behind him are St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith and Mike Feinberg from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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NASHVILLE - "British" and "Moe D" sulked at a table inside courtroom A859. Each wore jail coveralls, their legs shackled.

A St. Paul vice cop faced them in silence while an intense Nashville prosecutor presented rapid-fire reasons why the men should stay locked up pending trial.

They made for something of an odd couple. Investigator Heather Weyker with her long blond hair and passion for this work. Assistant U.S. Attorney Van Vincent with his military-style buzz cut and Tennessee twang.

Nashville, too, seemed an unlikely place to charge mostly Minnesota gang members of Somali descent with selling Minnesota girls for sex. But to those who have worked this complex human-trafficking case that crosses state lines and involves 29 defendants and at least four young victims, Weyker and Vincent are the reason this is a case at all.

"From my perspective, Van and Heather are the heroes of this case," said Ed Yarbrough, former U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee. "Minneapolis dropped the ball."

Despite a decision by the U.S. attorney in Minnesota two years ago to not prosecute, Yarbrough said, Weyker never gave up her fight to rescue young girls investigators say were coerced into prostitution and passed around like playthings. Vincent, he said, is a bulldog who plowed through obstacles to build a conspiracy case that could result in life sentences for people who allegedly sold girls for as little as a bottle of brandy.

Stop in Nashville

Neither Vincent nor Weyker would comment in detail about a case that is sure to take months to resolve.

The defendants have pleaded not guilty. Attorneys for brothers Abdifatah (British) Omar and Mohamed (Moe D) Omar declined to comment.

But other interviews, police reports and court documents reveal how investigators with the Gerald Vick Human Trafficking Task Force in St. Paul tracked the case for years.

According to the grand jury indictment made public last month, investigators allege that members of the Somali Outlaws, Somali Mafia and Lady Outlaws gangs pushed girls as young as 12 into prostitution for a decade. One victim, Jane Doe One, was first taken from Minneapolis to Nashville in December 2005 to sell for sex. She was 13 at the time.

There, investigators say, she and other girls were set up in a brothel-like apartment. Jane Doe One told an FBI agent that some of the men she was forced to have sex with were so repulsive, the only way she could endure it was to inhale gasoline fumes or use drugs.

But it was an April 2009 traffic stop that proved pivotal to the case.

Using information from the parents of another girl who had run away -- Jane Doe Two -- members of the Vick Task Force, including Weyker, Special Agent Tom Boyle of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and others, tracked the girl and several men from Minneapolis.

The men picked the girl up from school on Friday, allegedly passed her around several times for sex over the weekend at locations across the Twin Cities, then drove to Nashville to sell her there. Investigators say the men in the car -- Haji Salad, Adbullah Afyare, Abdikarim Ali, Andrew Kayachith and Yassin Yusuf -- made a cell phone video of the girl engaging in sex with them during the drive.

They checked into the Rodeway Inn on Murfreesboro Pike. Many of the city's 6,000 or so Somalis live near the busy commercial strip.

On Tuesday, April 28, the Somalis from Minnesota stopped at a Somali restaurant at the corner of Murfreesboro and Nance. Nashville police stopped the 1999 Lincoln as it left the parking lot. Police were acting at the request of ICE agents working the case. Jane Doe Two was in the car.

An affidavit filed in Davidson County, Tenn., against Abdullahi (Forehead) Afyare, said the girl "said she had sex with her boyfriend and his friends while they were in Minnesota. She said they left Minnesota and drove to Nashville on Monday, 4/27/09. The defendant [Afyare] said he knew they were in trouble because the victim is 14 years old."

The men were arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Until this case, Nashville's Somali community had a relatively low profile. Abdulkadir Gure, a community activist and member of the Nashville mayor's advisory panel on immigrants, fears the case could hurt local Somalis' reputation for working hard and causing little trouble. He said he hopes people remember "there are two sides to every story."

Abdullahi Farah, director at the Center for Refugees and Immigrants in Tennessee, said "it's really bad, a really tragic thing to be charged with this type of crime. But we really don't have the information yet."

Building a case

Two years ago, the U.S. attorney's office in Minnesota declined to prosecutethe case.

B. Todd Jones, the current U.S. attorney for Minnesota, said that happened before he took over. Frank Magill, U.S. attorney at the time, is now a Hennepin County judge. He said he does not remember the case "bubbling up to me." Jones said the case was declined because evidence at that point supported a state prosecution, but not a federal case. The Nashville traffic stop changed that.

"The investigation continued, and as a result of excellent work by law enforcement in Minnesota, Tennessee, and elsewhere, additional evidence was obtained, and the case evolved into the one recently indicted by the U.S. attorney's office in Nashville, with our full support and continued assistance," Jones said.

Yarbrough, who was U.S. attorney in Nashville at the time, agreed the case was not strong at first. "Nashville ended up with the ball, almost by default," he said. "There were large blind spots in the case."

But they worked to make it stronger, he said.

"There was some reluctance on the part of Minnesota authorities to pursue it as a broad conspiracy case," he said. "We did that, due to the work of local law enforcement here with the help of Heather and other local authorities, and the fact that you had a prosecutor who was willing to put in the hours and the sweat equity to connect all the dots."

Building trust

Vincent, 48, is a natural to prosecute this one because of his experience in complex cases, Yarbrough said.

Vincent had worked a massive investigation of the Rolling 60s Crips out of Los Angeles in which nine people were killed in three states. The case, tried in Nashville, lasted nine months and involved 350 witnesses. He was on the task force that prosecuted the Enron case. He spent six months in Iraq advising a war crimes tribunal.

"I know how to do these kinds of cases," Vincent said. "I know how to look at it."

Vincent said he's surprised that people ask why his office -- and not Minnesota -- is prosecuting the case. "If you commit a crime here, we're going to charge you."

Federal, state and local investigators, with Vincent orchestrating, combined the trafficking case with evidence of other alleged crimes, including burglary and credit card fraud. Authorities built a broad conspiracy case, an approach used in Minnesota and other states to take down large gangs.

Weyker, a mother of two young girls, earned the victims' trust with hundreds of hours of visits and phone calls. Each additional contact brought a little breakthrough and a step closer to the truth of what was going on in their lives. Eventually, she persuaded them to cooperate with investigators.

"I had to be sincere, and I am sincere," she said. "I have to tell them I understand, even though I haven't been through their horror. I tell them I'm here to help."

Weyker got calls at midnight from the girls and she gave a lot hugs. She cried with them "because I'm human," she said.

"You can't erase what's happened in the past, but you can guide their future. Getting them to talk is self-healing," she said.

Over the past 18 months, Weyker said, she's gone to Nashville every other week. She spent all of this past July and part of August there, working closely with Vincent, ICE, the FBI and others.

As a result, the case grew from five suspects to 29. Weyker knows the histories and nicknames of every one of them. They have a nickname for her, too, she said: "They call me the tall blond bitch."

James Walsh • 612-673-7428 David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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