By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Two dozen gang members accused of running a vast, California-based human trafficking ring that sent women and underage girls across state lines for prostitution have been indicted on federal racketeering charges in a case prosecutors likened to modern-day slavery.
Authorities said they had arrested 17 of the accused gang members in San Diego, Arizona and New Jersey, and that another four people charged in the indictment, unsealed on Wednesday, were already in custody on other charges. Another three remained at large.
The defendants face charges of running a racketeering conspiracy, and 14 of them were arraigned on Thursday in federal court in San Diego, where they pleaded not guilty.
The San Diego-based sex trafficking operation which was run by members of the Black MOB and Skanless gangs, extended into 46 cities across 23 U.S. states, according to the federal grand jury indictment.
"The kind of sex trafficking described in this indictment is nothing less than modern-day slavery," U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy for the Southern District of California told reporters on Wednesday. "Unfortunately, more gangs are expanding from traditional pursuits like drug dealing into this lucrative business."
Last month in Las Vegas, prosecutors said, the gang took part in an event called a "Players Ball" in which one of the suspects, Robert Banks III, posed with a so-called Pimp Cup and a Pimp Stick to signify his high status in the trade.
VICTIMS RECRUITED ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Among the items seized in the investigation by the San Diego Police Department and the FBI were two guns and marijuana plants, and prosecutors filed forfeiture court actions to seize the gold dental "grills" some of the defendants wore on their teeth.
The ring recruited women and girls from the streets in San Diego and used social media websites such as Instagram, Facebook and YouTube to lure others into prostitution with rap videos and promises of glamour, prosecutors said.
Brian Watkins, a lawyer for Banks, said after the court hearing on Thursday, that the allegations against his client were exaggerated.
"A lot of this has to do with associations, and a lot of these people are from the same neighborhood, grew up together and they know people in gangs," Watkins said.
"There are activities that most teenagers do that are being alleged as part of serious gang activity, like things being said in rap songs that are being used as evidence when rap is clearly entertainment," he said.
The men and women accused in the enterprise had roles ranging from transporting prostitutes to handling money, booking hotel rooms and placing advertisements for sex, prosecutors said. Some also worked to force women and girls into prostitution and dispense violence to maintain their loyalty, prosecutors said.
Racketeering, the charge of running a criminal enterprise that was brought against the mostly male gang members named in the indictment, includes the act of sex trafficking, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alessandra Serano said.
Prosecutors said 49 women and 11 teenage girls were victimized by the sex trafficking scheme and have been offered resources to leave prostitution.
(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Gunna Dickson and Lisa Shumaker)