BISMARCK-A federal judge here sentenced four men to prison this week for crimes related to selling or attempting to buy sex through Backpage.com.
U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Hovland condemned the "nasty website" that was recently shut down by federal authorities, but said he expects the sex-for-sale ads have resurfaced elsewhere.
"There's 100 similar websites that are up and operating," Hovland said during a hearing Tuesday, April 17, in Bismarck. "It never ends."
Hovland sentenced Montay Maurice Knight to six years, seven months in prison Wednesday after he pleaded guilty to transportation for illegal sexual activity and a drug conspiracy offense. A more serious charge of sex trafficking by force or coercion was dismissed under a plea agreement.
Knight, 35, admitted he transported a woman to North Dakota to engage in prostitution in early 2017. But he denies allegations of forceful and coercive sex trafficking.
According to a law enforcement affidavit:
A woman called 911 in March 2017 to report she had been assaulted by her boyfriend at a Bismarck hotel. The woman, 22, told police Knight had hit her, choked her and threatened to kill her.
During an interview in a Bismarck emergency room, the woman told investigators she met Knight in California. She said Knight traveled to North Dakota to sell drugs and posted a sex ad for the woman on Backpage to see what kind of response it would get. Because of the large number of responses, he instructed her to travel to Bismarck.
The woman told police she met about 20 men in Bismarck through Backpage and was expected to earn $500 on weekdays and $1,000 on weekends. She said she gave the money to Knight and she had to ask him for money for food.
The woman later recanted her statements about sex trafficking.
Defense attorney Michelle Monterio said there was no evidence that Knight forced the woman to engage in prostitution and she continued to post ads on Backpage after Knight went to jail.
Knight told Judge Hovland the woman was engaged in prostitution when they met but he wasn't involved.
"I've never been part of that lifestyle at all," said Knight, who doesn't have other criminal history.
Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Dawn Deitz said there are indications the woman recanted out of fear. Deitz said it's not out of the ordinary for trafficking victims to stay in the lifestyle.
"It's years of trauma and years of brainwashing," Deitz said. "You don't just fix that overnight."
On Tuesday, Hovland sentenced three men who attempted to buy sex with someone they believed was a 15-year-old girl but was actually an undercover officer.
The men were arrested in October in Bismarck and rural Mandan during an undercover sting that used ads posted on Backpage. They pleaded guilty to attempted coercion and enticement, a felony.
Hovland said, every time law enforcement officers run one of these stings, it has to be shut down after four to six hours simply because the jails don't have room to hold any more offenders.
"I've sentenced far too many defendants that have chosen to use that website," Hovland said, estimating he'd likely sentenced at least 30 to 40 men with similar crimes.
Hovland sentenced Hoang Hai Nguyen, 43, of Bismarck, and Chad Anthony Teiken, 48, of Mandan, to one year in custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and John Kofi Aworon, 29, of Bismarck, to six months, along with another six months of home confinement.
Hovland said he will recommend the men serve time in a halfway house with the option of work release. They also will be required to serve five years of supervised release and register as a sex offender.
Teiken's lawyer, Bob Bolinske Jr., argued that law enforcement seemed to pursue Teiken even after he said he was looking for someone 18.
The online ad said 18, but on the phone and in text messages the officer posed as a 15-year-old girl.
"You have to be 18," he wrote in a text message exchange.
Law enforcement responded with "your loss" and "thanks for wasting my time."
Hovland told defendants if they felt they were entrapped by law enforcement, they should take the cases to trial.
Hovland said the men's lack of a criminal history is what swayed him to impose a lower sentence but he felt there still needed to be consequences. He said his years as a trial judge have made him more familiar with Backpage.com than he ever wished to be. He said the site is "plagued with women who've been exploited."
"I've seen what happens in those people's lives," Hovland said of the victims and the devastation they've experienced.