A man charged with trafficking two women across the Western United States was arraigned Monday in Yellowstone County District Court. 

Lavondrick Terelle Hogues, 29, appeared before Yellowstone County District Court Judge Russell Fagg and pleaded not guilty to one count of aggravated promotion of prostitution. Hogues is being held at the Yellowstone County Jail in lieu of a $25,000 bond after being arrested in New Mexico.

According to charging documents, Hogues was identified as the man "pimping" two women arrested in December for prostitution. The two women had traveled through New Mexico, Texas and North Dakota before being caught in Billings.

One of the women was a 17-year-old and was extradited to New Mexico for a parole violation. She was immune from charges of prostitution due to a 2015 Montana legislative change that allows for underage victims of human trafficking to not be prosecuted for prostitution or other nonviolent offenses.

The other woman, Phylicia Zubia, 21, was arrested and charged with aggravated promotion of prostitution. From jail, Zubia called Hogues to report her arrest, according to charging documents. A search of Zubia's cellphone also showed conversations between herself and Hogues regarding her location, activities, the men she and the 17-year-old had sex with, how much money they had made and how much they spent. 

In the text messages Hogues "made comments to the effect that (the women) 'better get to making some money,'" and told Zubia to delete their texting conversations, according to documents. 

Since her arrest, Zubia has reported being the victim of human trafficking. Her trial is set for June. Zubia is using an affirmative defense. Senior Deputy County Attorney Robert Spoja said this defense is similar to a plea of justifiable homicide, in that, at trial Zubia would only contest the criminality of her actions.

Sexual exploitation

Hogues' prosecution reflects a shift during the past two legislative sessions regarding the way sexual exploitation cases are being handled in the state.

The same bill that decriminalized the acts of minors subjected to human trafficking also created the affirmative defense, which allows for victims to be identified as such, even if they committed illegal acts while being trafficked. This not only protects them from criminal prosecution, but allows them to receive victim services in the state.

Montana Division of Criminal Investigation Agent Gary Seder said the new laws have also changed how agents handle investigations into sex work crimes. 

"It's a historical change in the agent's intent when they go to these hotel rooms," Seder said. "Agents used to go to the room, get the girl, arrest the girl, maybe push the girl to turn on her pimp, but probably not."

Now agents may sit with women for two to 12 hours, talking to them, learning what their lives are like and trying to get them to see they are victims, Seder said.

Seder, who investigated Zubia, said the victims he speaks with often won't admit they have a pimp. In the search warrant he issued to search Zubia's cellphone, Seder said Zubia and the 17-year-old were investigated as victims of human trafficking first. 

"Women tell us, 'I'm here on my own, I make my own money,'" Seder said. "It's been pumped into their heads by the men who are controlling them."

The Montana Attorney General's office has made a concerted effort to catch human traffickers. In 2015, Montana's sex trafficking laws were given an "A" rating in an analysis of state laws performed by the American Center for Law and Justice and Shared Hope International. This was an upgrade for Montana, which received a "D" rating in 2014 and 2013 and an "F" in 2012 and 2011. 

Assistant Attorney General Ole Olson, who is prosecuting Hogues, said the new laws defining what makes a victim became much more broad in the past legislative session. 

"We look at their circumstances and what would compel them, not you or I, to stay," Olson said. This includes the threat of economic harm that might come to a victim of human trafficking. 

More charges

Since these laws were put into place, the state DCI has brought charges against five people for human trafficking-related crimes, charges are pending against two other people and five cases are under investigation.

Seder said the typical human trafficking cases he deals with involve a man and a woman traveling through multiple states and advertising online. In the cases he sees, the women are being trafficked through Hawaii, California, Nevada, Washington, Utah and Montana.

Seder said he has seen a drop in activity in North Dakota that he attributes to the slowdown in the Bakken oil field. 

The relationship between the man and the woman might imitate a romantic relationship, Seder said. The women will often tell investigators the men with them are either their boyfriends or their husbands. 

Olson said the biggest challenge to prosecution is finding proof the men knew what was going on. 

"They'll tell us 'What she does, she does on her own,'" Olson said. 

Agents use cell phone records and travel receipts to build their case against the pimps. In the Zubia case, agents only began an investigation into Zubia after it was discovered the two women were travelling without a pimp and that she had recruited the 17-year-old girl from New Mexico.

Seder said pimps will sometimes use a "bottom girl" who has been with him for a long time to recruit a second girl to travel with. The older woman will train the younger one while the pimp profits off both women. Seder said it is more typical for a pimp to travel with one woman in order to maintain his control over her.

Chief of the Investigations Bureau John Strandell said the public can help in identifying victims of human trafficking. After Seder conducted a training for gas station and motel clerks in Yellowstone County, the trafficking hotline got one to two calls a week reporting possible trafficking. 

Helping victims

Pat Freeland, along with her husband, runs a Montana shelter for victims of human trafficking in a town they don't want to name. Freeland said the couple began the shelter four years ago after they heard a young girl tell her story about being trapped, chained and starved while she was trafficked. Freeland said all she and her husband had was their home, but they called and asked if they could help the girl. 

That was the first time they took someone in, Freeland said. Since then, they have had multiple girls stay with them and continue to be a resource for victims.

"Keep your eyes open," Freeland said. "The police have to have citizens call them, they can't just stop people. But, if it looks different, if something doesn't look right, call, and the police can stop them and ask for identification. If you're supposed to be travelling with this woman, prove it."

According to Attorney General Tim Fox, the "best weapon against this global $32 billion per year criminal industry is public awareness." 

To learn more, people can visit the Office of the Attorney General's website. There are resources as well as tips on what to look for when trying to identify a human trafficking victim. 

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Justice reporter for The Billings Gazette.