Trial puts spotlight on human trafficking in Vermont

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BURLINGTON — A federal court jury in Burlington began hearing testimony this week about the underbelly of Vermont — tales of prostitution, drugs, human trafficking, guns, and sexually explicit videos and pictures all rolled into one criminal trial.

The government maintains Brian Folks, 44, came to Vermont from New York City to set up an illegal drug and sex business that operated between 2012 and 2016, mostly in Chittenden County.

Folks, who has a manslaughter conviction in New York City in 1993, lined up at least five women — including one minor — and forced them to perform commercial sex or he would withhold heroin and crack cocaine from them, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Vermont. He also took compromising pictures and videos of the women to blackmail them, the prosecution maintains.

Defense lawyer Natasha Sen of Brandon, co-counsel for Folks, said the credibility of witnesses will be critical and some had told multiple stories. Some women also have been paid by the government, including one getting more than $10,000, Sen said in her 20-minute opening statement.

"There is another side to the story," Sen said in her rebuttal to government claims. She said some victim witnesses were only "hustling" to cover their rent or drug fix. She said several women will testify Folks did nothing illegal and took them under his wing to give them a place to stay when they had nothing.

For many years Vermont federal and state prosecutors and law enforcement officials have often spoken at news conferences and meetings about young women that got hooked on drugs and being forced into sex as a way to survive in Vermont.

The Folks trial will be one of the first public unvarnished airings by the women themselves. The jury is expected to hear from the women, drug investigators and more during a trial that is projected to last up to 15 days.

The other people involved in the Folks case — and in other sex-for-drugs cases — have avoided the public spotlight by reaching plea agreements or avoiding prosecution.

Sixteen jurors — nine men and seven women— won't be hearing about Vermont with beautiful sunsets over Lake Champlain, houses with white picket fences, maple syrup and Ben and Jerry's ice cream.

Instead there will be some pretty graphic stories and pictures. Folks, in order to have control over the women, forced them to line up and see who could hide the most walnuts in their private parts while a video camera captured the event, prosecutor Emily M. Savner told the jury in the government's opening statements.

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That video was just one of several ways Folks controlled the women, the government maintains. Savner said Folks coerced or forced the women to follow his orders. Judge William K. Sessions III also has ruled two videos showing Folks urinating on women also can be used as evidence.

Savner said the women came from broken homes and some came from foster homes. In one case a young woman had been shot up with heroin by her father and turned over to Folks, Savner said. In another case a woman finally got away from Folks and reclaimed her child, only to be found by him and dragged back into the business, Savner said.

The sex and drug business operated out of a few homes, including on Spring Street and North Union Street in Burlington. Folks also had the women operate as prostitutes out of area motels, the prosecution said. They also did their work in cars.

When arrested, investigators seized Folks computer which contained 1,000s of pictures and videos, all organized and catalogued, Savner said. Some showed the most intimate parts of their bodies.

Folks, also known as "Moe" or "Moet Hart" has pleaded not guilty to 14 felony counts, including being the organizer or leader of a conspiracy involved in the distribution of heroin and crack cocaine between May 2015 and March 2016. The indictment said the conspiracy "used various drug addicts and other vulnerable people as low level workers in and facilitators of the group."

Savner said Folks would take videos and naked pictures of the women and use them to promote them as prostitutes on social media, including Backpage.com. Folks also threatened to show them to family and friends of the women if they failed to be part of the commercial sex enterprise, Savner said.

Folks also has denied four criminal counts of distribution of heroin, one count of possession of crack cocaine and heroin with intent to distribute, one count of possession of a loaded 9-mm handgun by a convicted felon, five counts of using force, threats and fraud to get adult women to perform commercial sex, one count of using a minor in commercial sex acts and one count of using the internet and cellphones to facilitate his unlawful business between June 2012 and February 2016.

Following opening statements Wednesday afternoon, the lone witness was Special Agent Adam Chetwynd of the Drug Enforcement Administration. He, along with Essex Police Detective Sgt. Rob Estes, were the two primary case investigators from the DEA Task Force.

Chetwynd completed testimony on three of the four drug buys at the North Union Street apartment. He was due to resume testimony on Thursday. About two dozen witnesses could testify.

It took a day-and-a-half to select the jurors, which came from a large pool of residents from throughout the eight northern counties.


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