TRENTON – Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced that a Trenton, N.J., woman was convicted at trial today of first-degree charges, including human trafficking, for forcing a girl, 17, to engage in prostitution at area hotels.
Ashley Gardener, 31, was found guilty by a Mercer County jury of the following charges:
- Conspiracy (1st degree),
- Human Trafficking (1st degree),
- Facilitating Human Trafficking (2nd degree),
- Promoting Prostitution of a Minor (1st degree),
- Promoting Organized Street Crime (1st degree),
- Endangering the Welfare of a Child (2nd degree).
The verdict followed a trial before Superior Court Judge Darlene J. Pereksta. The charge of first-degree human trafficking carries a sentence of life in state prison, including 20 years of parole ineligibility.
Deputy Attorneys General Katherine Morris and James Ruberton tried the case for the Division of Criminal Justice (DCJ) Gangs & Organized Crime Bureau, Human Trafficking Unit. The lead detective was Detective Rodrick Jones of the New Jersey State Police, supervised by Detective Sgt. John Cipot. The trial team was assisted by Deputy Attorney General Sarah Brigham of the DCJ Appellate Bureau and Trial Assistants Maureen Hitchens and Kim Benjamin.
Gardener and co-defendant Breon Mickens, 28, of Trenton, were charged in an investigation by the New Jersey State Police and Division of Criminal Justice, conducted with assistance from the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, Lawrence Police Department, New Jersey Department of Children and Families, and U.S. Marshals Service New Jersey/New York Regional Fugitive Task Force. The investigation began when the victim escaped from a hotel where she was forced to engage in prostitution. Mickens pleaded guilty to conspiracy to facilitate human trafficking and faces a recommended sentence of five years in prison. Sentencing for Gardener is scheduled for Dec. 6.
“Human traffickers prey on the vulnerable, depriving victims of their freedom, isolating them from any benevolent support network, and forcing them into a miserable life of slavery – in this case, sexual slavery,” said Attorney General Grewal. “This verdict carries the type of lengthy prison sentence that justice demands. We will continue to work tirelessly with our law enforcement partners at all levels, as well as victim advocates, to raise awareness about human trafficking, rescue victims, and bring those responsible for these terrible crimes to justice.”
“I commend our attorneys and the entire trial team for holding Gardener accountable for exploiting another human being in this abhorrent manner,” said Director Veronica Allende of the Division of Criminal Justice. “These crimes occur largely in the shadows, outside of public view, but this victim escaped and thanks to a concerned motorist and the swift response of the State Police and partnering agencies, she was rescued and her traffickers were successfully prosecuted. This case should motivate other members of the public to alert authorities when they suspect human trafficking.”
“Trafficking anyone, man or woman, boy or girl, is a violation of basic human rights—it is appalling and indecent, and it will not be tolerated in New Jersey,” said Colonel Patrick Callahan of the New Jersey State Police. “I would like to commend all of our partners in this case, from the troopers who found the victim on the side of the road to the attorneys who secured this verdict, for ensuring justice was served.”
On Jan. 11, 2018 at 11:00 p.m., troopers from the New Jersey State Police Hamilton Station were dispatched to investigate a report of a young woman walking along Interstate 295 in Lawrence Township. Troopers located the 17-year-old victim, who reported that she escaped from a hotel where she was being forced to perform sex acts. As a result, the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, Lawrence Police Department, and New Jersey Department of Children and Families responded to assist with the investigation.
Investigators determined that Gardener and Mickens transported the victim to hotels against her will to engage in prostitution. For three days before she was rescued, the victim was forced by Gardener to engage in sexual intercourse with approximately four to 15 men per day. The victim was deprived of food, given marijuana to smoke, and prohibited from calling her family. The investigation revealed that Gardener and Mickens forced the victim to engage in prostitution on several other occasions between Dec. 27 and Jan. 11 at various hotels in the Mercer County area, refusing to let her leave the hotel for a period of two to three days and forcing her to have sex with multiple men each day.
The defendants placed sexually suggestive ads on Backpage.com featuring photos of Gardener and the victim. The ads offered adult entertainment and listed a phone number for clients to call. That number was Gardener’s phone number. Gardener would arrange by telephone for the sexual services and a price to be paid by the client, or “John.” When a client arrived, Gardener would collect cash from the man and tell the 17-year-old victim what sex acts she had to perform. Gardener sometimes would stay in the room, but other times she would leave. Mickens acted as the “muscle” for the operation. He also served as driver, receiving pay from Gardener to drive her and the victim to hotels. The victim never received any of the money from the clients.
Shortly after the victim was rescued, members of the New Jersey State Police Trafficking Central Unit and Troop “C” Criminal Investigations Office located and arrested Gardener at a hotel in Lawrence Township, N.J. On Jan. 14, 2108, the New Jersey State Police Trafficking Central Unit, Fugitive Unit, Electronic Surveillance Unit, and the United States Marshal’s Service New Jersey/New York Regional Fugitive Task Force-Trenton Division located and arrested Mickens in Trenton.
Deputy Attorney General Sarah Mielke presented the case to the state grand jury. Deputy Attorneys General Morris, Ruberton and Mielke prosecuted the case for the Division of Criminal Justice Gangs & Organized Crime Bureau, Human Trafficking Unit, under the supervision of Deputy Bureau Chief Erik Daab and Bureau Chief Lauren Scarpa Yfantis. Attorney General Grewal commended the detectives of the New Jersey State Police Trafficking Central Unit who led the investigation, as well as the State Police Troop “C” Criminal Investigations Office, Fugitive Unit, and Electronic Surveillance Unit. Attorney General Grewal also thanked the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, Lawrence Police Department, New Jersey Department of Children and Families, and U.S. Marshals Service New Jersey/New York Regional Fugitive Task Force for their valuable assistance.
The first-degree human trafficking charge carries a sentence of life in state prison, including 20 years of parole ineligibility, and a fine of up to $200,000. The charge of promoting organized street crime carries a sentence of 15 to 30 years in state prison, consecutive to the sentence for any underlying crime. The other first-degree charges carry a sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $200,000. Second-degree charges carry a sentence of five to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $150,000.
Attorney General Grewal and Director Allende urged anyone who suspects human trafficking to report it by calling the Division of Criminal Justice’s Human Trafficking Hotline 1-855-END-NJ-HT.
Assistant Deputy Public Defender Melissa Karabulut, Mercer County.
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