The Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as a form of “modern-day slavery (which) involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.”
In mid-May, during the heart of the district attorney’s race, the DA sent out a press release that Jeff Reisig, along with Winters Police Chief John Miller, would be holding a press conference the next day “to discuss the recent arrest of 21-year-old Contra Costa County resident Jeremiah Bessolo-Marsh.”
The charges were quite serious, as he was arrested on a no bail arrest warrant for felony charges that include: pimping and pandering; false imprisonment with sex trafficking; production of child pornography; possession of child pornography; knowingly allow a minor to sell nude and/or explicit material; unlawful sex with a minor; oral copulation with a minor; forcible penetration with a foreign object; furnishing illegal narcotics to a minor; and dissuading a victim or witness.
The press release added: “Human trafficking is the world’s fastest growing criminal enterprise and is an estimated $32 billion-a-year global industry. It is very similar to modern day slavery and it exploits our most vulnerable populations. It is a form of organized crime in which human beings are treated as possessions.”
At the press conference, DA Reisig added: “Human trafficking, which is really just a modern-day form of slavery, is happening everywhere. This is happening where you least expect it, and you need to be aware.”
The facts at the time were the defendant and the minor girl met at a party in Contra Costa County in September 2017 and she began running away from home in order to be with him.
They engaged in sexual behavior and, according to Detective David Gonzalez, “[i]n order for them to bring in some kind of funds, he persuaded her to sell videos, to commit sexual acts, and bring in money that way.” He also allegedly supplied drugs to the girl, who stopped attending school.
“We believe Jeremiah has used our daughter to sell drugs, guns and pornographic images, according to social media messages discovered on her cell phone,” the mother wrote in a declaration in support of the protective order. “He has stated he will not stay away from her or out of her life.”
At the time the arrest was made, these charges seemed overly sensational and the decision to hold a press conference to discuss what this case appears to actually be is almost farcical. Indeed, it makes light of a very serious international problem by overplaying the DA’s hand and overcharging the case.
After watching a portion of the preliminary hearing, that point was driven home this week.
There was enough evidence to hold the defendant to answer for the charges, but having watched the girl’s testimony a different picture emerged.
What happened was that they met a party and she fell in love with him. She was 16. He was a 21-year-old who had been in the military.
She ended up dropping out of school and spent nearly all her time with the defendant. This occurred even after he became homeless and lost his job.
The couple used drugs together – cocaine, acid, and meth. In order to support this drug habit and cover other expenses, they begged for money, sold drugs, and sold nude photos of her and videos on Snapchat.
Here’s the thing – the photo sales were her idea. They were something that she had actually contemplated prior to meeting him.
But she ended up not liking doing it. She also said that she fell in love with him and no longer wanted to sell the photos and focused on selling drugs as a way of making ends meet. The one thing that did happen, however, was that he continued to sell the photos without her knowing about it.
Things would go downhill at this point. Her family attempted to take out a restraining order against him. In several interviews with law enforcement, she took the blame for the drug sales and withheld details of their sexual activity – apparently at his urging – which has resulted in the dissuading a witness charge.
She was placed in foster care in February, he was arrested, and she stopped using drugs and alcohol and began cooperating with authorities.
Deputy Public Defender Lisa Lance noted that the girl admitted to having abused drugs and dating older men prior to meeting the defendant in this case.
“Ms. C came to the relationship trying to get away from her parents and her home life. … She was looking for a sugar daddy,” Ms. Lance argued in the preliminary hearing. “While her physical age was 16, the evidence presented at this hearing showed she was far more sophisticated in these matters than Mr. Bessolo.”
The point of this is not to defend the actions of the defendant here. He clearly committed a variety of different crimes and used incredibly poor judgment. But this is not a human trafficking case.
This is a guy who had sex with a 16-year-old (when he was 21), he used and sold drugs, and they sold nude photos of a minor.
This was not an effort to turn this girl into a prostitute. There were a total of seven sales of photos in three days that totaled $250. There needs to be perspective here.
He has no criminal history and is an army vet, but he now faces 22 years or more in prison for his actions. No need to defend him, but this type of situation is not what human trafficking laws were designed to prevent or prosecute.
He made mistakes no doubt, and he needs to face consequences for those mistakes, but 22 years?
—David M. Greenwald reporting