The two 17-year-old Sacramento best friends – who’d known each other since age 8 and had grown as close as sisters – were out of school for the summer and looking to have some fun together. One of the girls had friends and family in Seaside and Monterey, so they planned a trip to the coast, for a chance to hang out at the beach and soak up some sun.
They had very little money between them, but they weren’t worried since they had a free place to stay. What they didn’t have was a way to get there, so a friend of one of the girls in Seaside said she knew someone who would pick them up and drive them over.
On June 9, 2015, the ride appeared, and inside the black Infiniti were two men and a 13-year-old girl. The men seemed nice enough, so the pair got in.
Their three-hour trip turned into a three-day nightmare, they said.
Instead of taking them to Seaside, the driver took them to the corner of East Market and Kern streets in Salinas late at night. The man – who they only knew as “J” – handed the 17-year-olds condoms and told them to “make money.”
The girls, frightened and lost, spent their first night walking around the neighborhood. They tried reaching a friend who didn’t answer the phone, and were afraid to call the police.
That’s according to testimony the women gave in a trial in Monterey County Superior Court that started June 5 and ran more than four days, wrapping up June 12. Defendant Jerry N. Stringer, Jr., 28, of Seaside, was charged with human trafficking of minors, pandering, sexual exploitation of a child, possession of child pornography, and using a minor to perform commercial sex acts.
A jury deliberated for about four hours and found Stringer guilty on all charges, seven felonies and two misdemeanors. They did not reach a verdict on one charge of sex with a minor.
He faces up to 41 years in prison, in part because of a previous strike for a 2009 robbery conviction.
District Attorney Dean Flippo believes this is the first conviction in a case of sex trafficking minors in Monterey County. He says it’s hard to quantify how much sex trafficking is going on locally, but law enforcement is aware that it is happening, and plans are in the works to better combat it. His office is active in the Coalition to End Human Trafficking in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties.
Deborah Pembrook, who chairs the coalition, says the Monterey County Department of Social Services, in partnership with Santa Cruz and San Benito counties, is currently conducting a study of the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Both Pembrook and Flippo say the FBI considers the San Francisco Bay Area (which includes Monterey County) and Los Angeles as major trafficking hubs.
Deputy District Attorney Elaine McCleaf, who prosecuted the Stringer case, says it’s hard to prove sex trafficking in court.
“Often jurors don’t want to believe this culture exists and can’t understand why anyone would allow themselves to be in that situation,” she says.
Stringer’s attorney, Katera Rutledge, tried to leverage that sense of disbelief by accusing the women of lying, and that one of them had reached out to Stringer for a ride. “It was unfortunate that witnesses that contradicted each other – and one witness contradicted herself several times – were given so much credibility,” Rutledge said after the trial.
McCleaf told jurors that two years had passed, and while the victims’ memories might have faded on where they ate dinner one night or other details, the women never wavered on the main points of what happened from June 9-11, 2015.
The two women, now 19 and identified in court as Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2, spoke at length about the days they spent with Stringer. He had them pose for online sex ads inside his mother’s Seaside home, they said, and put them up in The Economy Inn on Fremont Boulevard in Seaside for “dates” with clients – in which they each exchanged sex for money with one client.
The first night in Salinas, the two girls said they walked around stunned. “I was comforting [Jane Doe 1] and trying to wrap my head around what was going on,” Jane Doe 2 said in court.
They still had no money after that night, and knew they would need money to get home. Jane Doe 2 met her first client in a parked car, and as Jane Doe 1 sat outside, she thought, “Why did I leave Sac?”
Their emotional testimony was at times punctuated by tears. Under questioning from Rutledge about sex she had with a man at the motel, Jane Doe 1 at one point turned to Superior Court Judge Julie Culver and said, “I can’t do it.” (Culver immediately ended testimony for the day and the woman left the courtroom in tears.)
Rutledge repeatedly pointed out that the girls never tried to call family or ask anyone for help, despite numerous opportunities to do so. She also said Stringer never threatened them with violence. Both witnesses testified to being scared, and Jane Doe 1 expressed a fear of being arrested by police.
That’s common in cases like this, according to testimony from Det. John Sydow of the Sacramento Police Department, who has focused exclusively on similar cases for the last seven years.
Traffickers often isolate victims in cities they don’t know, Sydow said. It does not take the threat of violence to keep them tied to the trafficker. It’s common for victims to not report what happened, out of fear that they themselves could be in trouble, he added. Even more common is “feeling dumb,” or tricked and embarrassed.
After two days of Stringer taking them between Seaside and Salinas, the friends were ready to escape, they said.
“That day we had enough. We stood up to ourselves and walked to [Hartnell] College,” Jane Doe 1 said.
One of the men they encountered at the Economy Inn had said he wanted to help. They called him from Salinas on June 11 asking for a ride, and he suggested they walk from East Market Street to Hartnell.
The two girls said they were afraid to report what happened to police, but when Jane Doe 1 went to Planned Parenthood about a week later, she disclosed it during her appointment, and police were contacted.
Stringer was arrested two months later by Seaside police on Aug. 16, 2015. Detectives found pornographic photos of both girls on his cell phone.
He was held without bail for nearly two years until the trial began.
He is scheduled to be back in court on Aug. 3 for sentencing. Rutledge says Stringer will appeal the conviction.