A federal jury in Billings on Wednesday convicted a Missoula man of trafficking women and minors for sex and other crimes following an investigation into interstate prostitution.
The panel found Terrance Tyrell Edwards, 35, guilty on all 10 counts against him and also convicted his co-defendant, Francine Joann Granados, 32, of Moorhead, Minnesota, of witness tampering, the only count against her.
The jury deliberated about four hours over two days before reaching the verdicts by late morning. The trial lasted eight days, with U.S. District Judge Susan Watters presiding.
Edwards, who has a state felony record for promoting prostitution, smiled as the clerk read the verdicts. He faces a minimum mandatory 15 years to life in prison and a $250,000 fine on the sex trafficking crimes.
Testifying in his own defense for nearly eight hours, Edwards denied he was pimping women and girls for commercial sex. Rather, he said, he was running a legal escort service to provide women for lonely men and that sex was not required.
Granados faces a maximum 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. She did not testify and called no witnesses.
Prosecutors said Edwards used social media, including Facebook, to meet women, develop romantic relationships with them and then force them into commercial sex. He solicited clients by posting ads online, set the rates, supplied the victims with condoms and took all or some of the money they received, they said.
Edwards coerced the women into being prostitutes through threats, rules and beatings if they didn’t comply, the prosecution said.
The activity ran from about March to September 2016, when police arrested Edwards in Billings after he returned from North Dakota with three minor girls, who were 15, 16 and 17, he had picked up in Fargo. Prosecutors also accused Edwards of supplying the minor girls with marijuana.
Edwards recruited as many as five women and began seeking women shortly after getting released from Montana state prison on prostitution related convictions.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Zeno Baucus and Cyndee Peterson called about 24 witnesses, including the victims, and presented numerous recorded jail calls Edwards made after his arrest along with Facebook and text messages he exchanged with the victims and others.
In closing arguments, Baucus said Edwards used threats and abuse to control the victims.
One of the victims, a Polson woman, met Edwards through a social media site and eventually got into a relationship with him, Baucus said.
Edwards bought the victim lingerie and took photographs of her. The victim thought Edwards wanted sexy shots of her, but then the relationship changed, Baucus said. Edwards took her to a hotel room, told her to engage in commercial sex and told her he'd "been pimping his whole life," he said. Edwards also posted online ads seeking clients for the victim, he said.
The victim "felt she did not have a choice" and complied, Baucus said. She cried after her first client, got $200 and gave it all to Edwards, he said.
Edwards ended up taking the victim to Billings but business was slow, so he took her back to Missoula and then to Salt Lake City, where he forced her to walk the streets for customers, Baucus said.
Edwards also hit the victim in the face when she looked at man while sitting in a vehicle, causing her to bleed onto the seatbelt. A blood analysis showed it was the victim's blood, Baucus said.
Looking at other men violated Edwards' rule, which was called "reckless eyeballing," the prosecution and witnesses said.
Edwards ultimately took the victim and another woman he had picked up in Washington back to Billings, where he left them while he traveled to Fargo. While he was gone, the woman from Montana called family and friends, who notified police. Edwards was arrested when he returned to Billings with the minor girls.
Prosecutors said Granados, a longtime friend of Edwards, tampered with witnesses by contacting one of the victims at Edwards' request after his arrest and continuing to communicate with Edwards on recorded jail calls and to pass along messages despite being advised by the FBI to stop.
Montana U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme said in a news release Wednesday the verdicts supported comments last week from the Department of Justice that bringing human traffickers to justice is a top priority.
"We will continue to do whatever we can to protect the vulnerable victims of these crimes, who in this case included three minor girls from North Dakota," Alme said.
"I ask people from across Montana to help us spot these human trafficking crimes and report them to law enforcement," Alme said.
The jury convicted Edwards of three counts of sex trafficking by force, fraud or coercion; three counts of transporting minors with intent to engage in prostitution; obstruction; witness tampering, transportation of a person with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity; and distribution of marijuana to a minor.
Watters set sentencing for Edwards and Granados for June 21. Edwards remains in custody, while the judge continued Granados’ release.