Fourteen people accused in a sex-trafficking scheme that authorities said was run by two North Park gangs pleaded not guilty Thursday to participating in a racketeering conspiracy. The defendants — 12 men and two women — appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Barbara Major who appointed attorneys for most of them and scheduled a detention hearing for Tuesday to discuss bail. Until then, all of the defendants remain held on a no-bail status. In all, 24 men and women from San Diego, Arizona and New Jersey were indicted in the case. They were accused in a conspiracy that included sex trafficking of teenage girls or young women across 23 states, and other crimes including robbery, kidnapping and murder. U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said at a Wednesday news conference that the crimes were led by a combination of two gangs that claim territory centered in the North Park neighborhood of San Diego. Duffy said members of those two groups were aligned with other street gangs. On Thursday, the defendants said little during their initial court appearance, except to answer, “Yes” or “Yes, ma’am,” when briefly questioned by the judge. Only defendant Robert Banks III was represented Thursday by retained attorneys. Banks is pictured in a photo posted on Facebook that shows him posing with pimp paraphernalia and two women, one of whom was a known prostitute, prosecutors said. “We believe that some of the overt acts (listed in the indictment) are not as serious as they are alleged,” said Marc Carlos, one of Banks’ lawyers, outside the courtroom. The other attorney, Brian Watkins, said the so-called North Park gangs referenced in the indictment are actually high school cliques. He said many of the defendants are friends. “I don’t know whether that’s going to meet the criteria of a gang,” Watkins said. The indictment makes several references to videos posted on the Internet in which defendants are allegedly seen rapping about pimping and prostitution. “Things said in rap songs are being used as evidence, when clearly rap music is entertainment,” Watkins said. U.S. District Judge John Houston is expected to preside over the case after next week’s detention hearing. A motion hearing has been scheduled for Feb. 10.
Source: U-T San Diego