The worst thing you could say about Eric Lamar Wells, 26, is not that he's a veteran pimp. It's not even that the unsuccessful telemarketer sold his community-college girlfriend, the mother of his infant daughter, in regular prostitution deals for living expenses that included a daily cocaine habit. During nine days in April 2012, the Stockton resident repeatedly sold two girls, ages 13 and 17, for sex in several states, as well as near the Happiest Place On Earth, a.k.a. Disneyland.
Now residing in federal custody inside the Santa Ana Jail, Wells doesn't dispute he has worked as a flesh peddler for at least four years. He doesn't deny he transported minors across Nevada, Arizona and California state lines for prostitution purposes. He admits his business used the Internet, photographs of the scantily clad girls and a lie—both were presented as 18-year-olds—to target anonymous men eager to pay cash for sex with teenagers.
A year ago, an observant Anaheim cop made a pedestrian stop that began the unraveling of Wells' prostitution ring; the pimp entered into a plea deal with Assistant United States Attorney Mark P. Takla in exchange for a reduction in charges. The undisputed crimes called for a maximum punishment of life in prison and, because of the use of underage girls, a mandatory minimum incarceration period of a decade, according to federal sentencing guidelines. By signing the 21-page plea document, both he and Robert Michael Helfend, his Los Angeles-based criminal defense attorney, confirmed the government's solid, factual basis for guilt and their own awareness of the severe sentencing consequences.
But for reasons that are sealed in court, Helfend left the case in January, and Todd W. Burns, a new, taxpayer-funded defense lawyer from San Diego, was appointed to represent Wells. Burns not only brought fresh vigor to the pimp's defense, but he also rattled the foundations of the government's case, his client's guilty plea and the constitutional righteousness of pending punishment.
Burns this month asked U. S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney to declare unconstitutional heightened penalties for transporting minors for prostitution because, in his view, the government should prove a pimp knew of the minors' ages before the commission of the crime. To the defense lawyer, Wells admitted in his guilty plea that he "recruited" and used minors in his interstate sex business, but he didn't specifically acknowledge he knowingly used underage girls. It is the pimp's story that the girls told him they were both 18, so he believed them and didn't discover the truth until just before their arrests.
Takla treated the defense posturing as the legal equivalent of hogwash. The prosecutor believes Wells knew he was using minors and that offenders in such cases deserve heightened punishment. Plus, he found no precedent for the defense's sentencing stance.
"The defendant should have raised [his arguments] prior to his guilty plea," wrote Takla, who pointed out the defendant admitted in the plea deal that he specifically violated the federal statute banning transportation of minors for prostitution.
If Carney—who has a reputation for occasionally making startling decisions—agreed to avoid punishing Wells for using underage girls, the results would be monumental for the pimp. The penalty for transporting an adult across state lines for prostitution carries a mandatory maximum 10-year term. That punishment converts to a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison if the prostitute was a minor.
As the punishment day approached, Burns also unleashed a flurry of accusations to lessen Wells' culpability and increase responsibility for the crimes on Tonisha Alecia Moore, the pimp's 24-year-old ex-girlfriend, mother of his child and co-defendant. According to Wells, he was trying to focus on San Joaquin Delta Community College studies in 2009 when he met Moore, already a convicted prostitute in Oakland, on campus. The two became obsessed with cocaine, had a baby and launched their sex operation.
Wells additionally claims he didn't devise the Internet ads to sell the minors or confiscate the illicit earnings. He insists Moore played those roles while he was some sort of semi-interested bystander. In kind, the 6-foot-3, 170-pound prostitute has gone from defending Wells in the early stages of the case to casting him as the mastermind with a controlling, violent streak.
Whoever is right, we know that Wells and Moore landed in Las Vegas on April 15, 2012. There, they found the two teenage girls. Far from being innocent angels on a path to sainthood, both were already working as relatively savvy, hardened street hookers, according to the pimp.
Burns underscored to Carney that the 13-year-old girl possessed the physical attributes (5-foot-8, 125 pounds) of an adult, regularly smoked marijuana, could count pregnancy as an experience, collected prior assault charges for attacks on adults, won expulsion from middle school for fighting, stole from Johns and was a full member of a Bloods-affiliated criminal street gang.
The 17-year-old? According to the defense, she and the other minor had been robbing customers together on their own for months. The girl was looking for her third consecutive pimp on the Vegas strip, when, while working on the side of Las Vegas' Boulder Highway, she waved down Wells. He stopped his vehicle, eventually bought food for both girls and made his business pitch without the threat of violence.
At the June 26 sentencing hearing inside the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse, Carney "greatly applauded" Burns' constitutional arguments against the mandatory minimum as "very interesting" and said he hopes the Ninth Circuit will eventually address the topic. But the judge rejected the claim, saying Congress "rightfully" placed "heavy penalties" on the sexual exploitation of children. He then asked the defendant if he had any comments.
"What I did was wrong," said a weeping Wells, who was chained and guarded by two U.S. marshals. "I am ashamed. I have a 3-year-old daughter, and God forbid, if my daughter had to walk in those shoes [of a teenage prostitute] . . . I've changed."
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The judge said he was moved by the statement and noted character reference letters had been "glowing," but concluded he could not ignore the "sale of girls' bodies and the destruction of their dignity. . . . No rational person would commit this crime."
Wells' uncle, who attended the hearing, told Carney he'd been a violent robber on cocaine early in his life and had turned his life around after "my father told me I was no good" on his deathbed. Calling for leniency, the relative promised, "[Wells] can change just like I did."
Burns pleaded for Carney to issue a seven-year punishment as an appropriate deviation from the sentencing-range requirement of a 135-to-168-month prison trip. Both the judge and the prosecutor were willing to waive the guidelines, especially because the pimp acknowledged his guilty early. The next time Wells can see freedom will be 120 months from now.
"It's really a sad day," observed Carney.