A Durham man has been sentenced to more than 20 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to coercing minors to engage in prostitution in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and elsewhere.
The Department of Justice said Thursday that Johnny Ricardo Thomas, a/k/a Rico, a/k/a Lulu, 34, knew the two victims were minors and he would take pictures of them, and create online advertisements making the minors available for sex, and coerce or force them to engage in sexual acts for money.
According to court evidence, the case began when Myrtle Beach police officers interviewed a 15-year-old runaway who said she was the victim of human trafficking.
Further investigation found that sometime in March 2019, Thomas, the 15-year-old, a second 16-year-old minor victim, and others, went to Myrtle Beach and other places "for the purpose of engaging in prostitution."
One of the victims told authorities that Thomas told her he would sell her to someone worse - who would do things like slice off her toes - if she did not perform commercial sex acts.
In a statement from that minor victim provided to the court at Thomas's sentencing, the victim said she still had night terrors, looks over her shoulder everywhere she goes, and felt "disgusting, used, worthless, (and) empty."
"Crimes against children are vile, indefensible, and can create lifelong victims," said U.S. Attorney Corey F. Ellis. "We are fortunate that our federal, state, and local partners share our commitment to thoroughly investigate these cases, provide services to the affected victims, and prosecute those who engage in this reprehensible conduct. These efforts are clear in this case, and are the reason that the Defendant - who victimized two minor children - will spend decades in prison and the rest of his life being monitored by the Court."
United States District Judge Sherri A. Lydon sentenced Thomas to 262 months imprisonment, to be followed by a lifetime term of court-ordered supervision.
There is no parole in the federal system and Thomas was also ordered to pay restitution to his victims.
"Over the last several years, this office has worked hand-in-hand with our federal counterparts to identify and address criminal activity across Horry and Georgetown Counties, specifically including human trafficking," said Scott Hixson, Chief Deputy Solicitor for the 15th Judicial Circuit, who also served as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney on this matter. "The efforts in this case showcase the power of combining state and federal resources to make a serious impact in our community, and our hope is this plan of attack will ring successful in future prosecutions."
A co-defendant in the case, Becca Mills, 25, of Whispering Pines, has pled guilty to a charge related to concealing Thomas's crimes. She will be sentenced at a later date.
"We have no greater responsibility than to protect our children, and law enforcement will always stand up for those that need help," said Myrtle Beach Police Chief Amy Prock. "This case was a partnership built on that mission, and we couldn't be more proud of the team that brought Mr. Thomas to justice."