BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) A Reno, Nev., man faces federal charges of luring a Bakersfield teenage girl into prostitution. Investigation reports in the case show the teen agreed to go with him and work as a prostitute, but she thought that would be locally. Officers charge the man took the girl to Reno against her will.
On Thursday, 20-year-old Vernon McCullum appeared in federal court in Reno for arraignment. He's charged with one count of illegal transportation of a minor for prostitution or other illegal sexual activity. Investigators say the victim is 15 years old.
The complaint filed in the case says the girl encountered Shanell Smith on Jan. 8, and "agreed to go with Smith and McCullum in order to engage in prostitution, however, she believed she would be engaging in this activity in the Bakersfield area," the report reads.
Bakersfield police have reported the teenager came into contact with Smith on Brundage Lane. It's not clear how the girl knows Smith, but the case report says the teen knew Smith worked as a prostitute.
Investigators say that night Smith and McCullum took the girl to the Super 8 Motel on Real Road, where the teenager had sex with McCullum. Bakersfield officers say the next morning, the girl wanted a ride to school, but McCullum took her first to Tulare County and then on to Reno. They say the victim tried to escape, but she was physically assaulted by McCullum.
When the teenager was reported missing, officers started to check for her cell phone number on internet sites. The number turned up an "escort ad" on a website "that is known to be used for posting the availability of prostitutes for prostitution services," the case report says.
The ad had a description that matched the missing teenager, the report says, and said "Babyfaith" was available for prostitution services in the Bakersfield area. That was Jan. 8.
Officers kept searching the website, and on Jan. 15 found another ad showing "Babyfaith" was available for sex acts in Reno. That ad included photos which matched the Bakersfield teenager's description. Reno police called the phone number with that listing, arranged a "date," and found the victim at the Showboat Motel.
That's where officers say the girl had been taken, and they say Smith had taken nude photos of the teenager, and McCollum is the one who "directed" that the pictures be added to the second website ad.
Investigators say McCullum was linked to a sex trafficking case in Reno in May 2012. "At that time, it was alleged that McCullum was working as a pimp in the Reno area and that he had two female prostitutes working for him at that time," the case report says. "One of the victims identified in that investigation was Smith." It adds that case is still being investigated by Reno police.
In Bakersfield, Doug Bennett's organization reaches out to women in the commercial sex industry. "If they want to get out of the business, we try to help them any way we can," he explains. The group, Magdalene Hope, takes gift bags to women on the street twice a month.
Bennett says women get forced into prostitution by violence, or lured in by promises. "They'll tell them what they want to hear," he says. "Why don't you come with me? We can make some money. And they lure them that way."
In this case, investigators say McCullum told the teenager she could make $1,000 working in Reno. The girl told investigators after the second ad was posted on the website, she "engaged in approximately 15 acts of prostitution at McCullum's direction. She received approximately $1,000, which she was required to give to Smith, and Smith then gave that money to McCullum." Smith was also found in the Reno motel room.
Investigators say members of the Innocence Task Force were with the officers when the girl was found at the Reno motel. And the U.S. Attorney's office in the Nevada District says the case was brought as part of Project Safe Childhood, a nationwide effort to fight child sexual exploitation.
Officers say McCullum was interviewed by Innocence Lost Task Force members, and he admitted bringing the girl from Bakersfield to Nevada, and "admitted that he knew (the girl) and Smith worked as prostitutes. However, he claimed he was not a pimp."
The case report also says, McCullum is also known as "Fifth," and the teenager told officers McCullum said he would have a tattoo done on her lower back stating "Fifth Loc."
"McCullum stated that this was his moniker and all his 'girls' have this tattooed on them, including Smith," the report says.
The U.S. Attorney's office says if convicted, McCullum faces a minimum prison sentence of 10 years to life in prison and up to a $250,000 fine.
Bennett said his group is working to bring awareness of the problem of human trafficking. "This just isn't happening overseas," he said. "This is happening right here in our city."