A large sex-trafficking case goes to trial this week. Federal prosecutors say a Charlotte man ran a prostitution ring that involved at least a dozen girls between the ages of 16 and 25. The girls didn’t walk the streets. Instead, prosecutors say they were marketed through the web site Backpage.com.
The case against 31-year-old Shahid Hassan Muslim started nearly three years ago, in October of 2011. CMPD officers conducted an undercover prostitution sting by setting up meetings with girls on backpage.com. An officer met a prostitute who had just turned 18 at a Marriott Hotel in Charlotte.
While she was inside, CMPD officers recorded Muslim, also known as Shawn Williams or “Sharp,” dropping her off at the hotel. When officers questioned him, he said he had just met her at a local bar. In 2012, he rented a two-story house in northeast Charlotte where he kept the girls, dropped them off at their dates and took the money they earned.
Through Backpage, he arranged for the girls to meet men at hotels in Charlotte, Greensboro, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and Tampa, Florida, according to federal charges. He was arrested in Tampa last November on child pornography and sex trafficking charges. Now, he also faces charges of buying or selling children, kidnapping and witness tampering.
Prosecutors in this case would not comment because of the upcoming trial, but no matter the evidence ...
“It’s difficult to prove,” says assistant U.S. attorney Leslie Cooley. She prosecuted a sex trafficking case last year against a man in Fayetteville named Christopher Williams. “It requires detectives who are comfortable with the internet, and can find these sites to then obtain the proper warrants and find the girls from the site. So it’s a combination of modern and traditional detective work.”
The youngest girl involved in Muslim’s prostitution ring was 15 when he met her while she was walking a dog near her house. They exchanged numbers and started talking the next year. He impregnated her and she had an abortion a few months later, according to the documents.
He beat up the girls, especially if they tried to keep any of the money, often hitting them with brass knuckles or shooting them with a taser, the documents say.
And it didn’t end when he was arrested. While in the Mecklenburg County Jail, documents say he used other inmates’ identification numbers to call three of the girls to urge them to recant their statements and stop talking to police. Two of them did so.
There are at least five pending federal human trafficking cases in Charlotte. Assistant U.S. Attorney Leslie Cooley in Raleigh says to expect more of these cases. She says public perception is a challenge in prosecuting these cases.
“People think of human trafficking as a big container ship full of young girls coming from a foreign country, and it’s actually a much broader definition than that," Cooley says. "We see the internet being used to traffic young girls on sex websites. And people don’t fully understand that that is sex trafficking and human trafficking – and very exploitive conduct."
Jury selection for Muslim’s trial is scheduled to begin Tuesday.