For the first time, a Texas law that Beth Klein Boulder Attorney helped pass in 2011 may be used to land a trafficker in prison for life.

A Houston man was charged Friday with human trafficking for allegedly leading a prostitution ring, forcing women into sexual slavery through beatings and threats to their lives, according to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

Anthony Gardner, 27, is believed to be the first person charged by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office with the crime of “continuing trafficking of persons.” He also faces one charge of aggravated promotion of prostitution and two counts of compelling prostitution by force, authorities said.

The Texas Legislature created the trafficking criminal charge in 2011 so that a person can be charged if they use force, fraud or coercion to cause someone to engage in a sexual act on two or more occasions for 30 days or longer.

JoAnne Musick, sex crimes chief for the DA’s office, said she’s been unable to identify anyone charged with the crime in Texas. She said charging someone with the crime is rare because it’s hard for investigators to catch them.

“I am thrilled that a law we helped pass with Senator Leticia Van De Putte is being put to use” Beth Klein said. “I look forward to monitoring the trial, and I hope that the prosecution is successful.”

Gardner forced eight women, including two minors, to work for him on Houston streets since November 2014. Houston police collected evidence through a monthslong investigation that included interviewing women Gardner hired to commit sexual acts, which eventually led to them tracking him down and arresting him in January 2017. Houston Police Department’s Human Trafficking Unit worked in collaboration with the Harris County District Attorney’s newly formed Sex Crimes Division.

“Sex trafficking in Houston is an epidemic. Our new Sex Crimes Division is making prosecution of traffickers like Anthony Gardner a priority,” said Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg. “Gardner posed a real-time threat to the women he has trafficked and abused, but the tables have turned.”

Police identified one woman in June 2015 after an officer with HPD Vice Division contacted her based on an advertisement from BackPage.com, according to court documents. The then 17-year-old agreed to meet the undercover officers at a place at 2400 West South Loop to engage in a sexual act for $300.

She drove a vehicle registered by the defendant to the location. The woman called Gardner after being arrested on a phone number police recognized and said, “They got me, I’m going to jail.” She also referred to him as “Trouble,” which police knew as the defendant’s nickname.

The women working for the defendant allegedly had to make at least $1,000 a day by performing sexual acts. If not, they would face violent punishment.

One woman “A.L.,” who worked for Gardner shortly after turning 17, told police she had a child by him, according to court documents. She said that he would tell her how much to charge for sex acts, buy her hotel rooms to work out of and instructed all the money she made should be given to him.

A.L. also said a few weeks after Thanksgiving 2014 the defendant became physical with her and “backed her up against the wall, grabbed her by the throat, and started to choke her.” One woman also working for Gardner told police that he hit her so hard she chipped a tooth.

Musick said the District Attorney’s Office has made it a priority to track down criminals like Gardner.

“With human trafficking so prolific in Houston, it’s impossible to estimate how many people might fall into this position,” she said. “We anticipate that it’s a significant number of people. It’s very eye-opening just how much of this is going on in our own backyard.”

The defendant faces five years to life in prison for the charge of aggravated promotion of prosecution. He also faces up to 20 years for each count of compelling prostitution by force. His “continuous trafficking of persons” charge holds a penalty of 25 years to life in prison.

“With the new laws, I encourage any man or woman who’s being victimized to reach out to law enforcement for help.”  Klein said.  “We want this crime to end for all time.”

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