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CA hotel owner charged with allowing sex trafficking


BAKERSFIELD — Over the course of two years, police across California investigated seemingly unrelated crimes and disappearances: teens from the Bay Area who’d allegedly been abused by their pimp and “branded” with tattoos. A woman from the Central Valley whose 3-month-old baby was kidnapped to force her into sex work. A 14-year-old girl who ran away from home in Los Angeles County and told a family member she was making money “tricking.”

These women and girls were from different areas, different backgrounds, and ended up with different men who were eventually identified by police as their exploiters. But they all had one thing in common, according to authorities: when they turned up, it was at the same place, the Desert Star Motel in Bakersfield, whose owner and general manager now stand accused of essentially running a brothel in plain sight.

In court records filed Monday morning, the motel’s owner, Jatinbhai Naresh Bhakta, and a man who allegedly worked as a manger and handyman, Roy Gene Drees, were charged in federal court with facilitating “the promotion, establishment, or carrying on of unlawful activity” — in this case, sex trafficking. The charging documents allege that Bhakta’s phone showed evidence he communicated with hundreds of people who were responsible for placing nearly 30,000 prostitution ads online.

The charges were the result of an investigation that started in March 2019, led by Bakersfield police, and included undercover work, a pole surveillance camera, and dozens of interviews with women and girls who were allegedly trafficked or agreed to prostitute at the motel. According to a sworn statement by an FBI special agent, the hotel appeared to authorities to “primarily cater to prostitutes and their potential clients,” and that it was rare to see someone using the motel for legitimate overnight residency.

Authorities wrote in court records that the motel was well-primed to be a brothel: It is a line of about 25 rooms, with a single entrance and exit to its parking lot off South Union Avenue, which is protected by a large iron gate. Some, if not all, of the room windows are covered with bars, which one alleged victim later remarked scared her because it eliminated an escape route if she was attacked.

“Depending on the time of day, it is not unusual to see most, if not all of the rooms’ doors wide open with suspected prostitutes in lingeries standing outside, waving to drivers and approaching their vehicles,” FBI special agent David Hunter wrote. “Prospective customers will park directly in front of the room of the prostitute they choose, at which time the prostitute will either direct them into the room immediately or meet the customer outside to arrange a deal.”

The investigation came to a head last week when a team of federal and state authorities raided the hotel, rescuing 16 people, making three arrests and recovering three guns, law enforcement officials announced a Jan. 22 news conference.

Stories of some of the missing teens — a woman whose baby was allegedly kidnapped — and other suspected human trafficking victims who turned up at the motel are spelled out in the charging records against Bhakta and Drees.

In May 2019, officers in Merced investigating the disappearance of two teen girls there worked with Bakersfield police to track the girls’ cellphones to the motel. When the girls were detained for a police interview, one of them identified her pimp as “Diamond” or “Big Daddy” and said he also went by “D.” That was evidenced by a tattoo on one of the girl’s faces: the letter D with a crown resting above.

The girls later told authorities that they traveled throughout California, including Los Angeles and the Bay Area, with “Diamond.” They stayed at the motel for about 10 days, and were trafficking every day. He kept the money but gave them, “food, clothes, and ‘weed,’” according to Hunter’s statement. The girls told police he wanted them to make around $500 a day but didn’t seem “overly concerned” if they failed to make the quota. During one three-day span, they brought him $10,000, they told authorities.

“Diamond” was later arrested at a hotel in Antioch and identified as Darnell Edwards, according to court records. He is facing federal sex trafficking charges on a separate docket, court records show.

In another case in January 2019, a woman arrested in a prostitution sting identified her pimp as a Fresno man who “kidnapped her 3-month old son to use as leverage against her in order to compel her to continue prostituting against her will,” Hunter wrote. The man and another alleged prostitute were later arrested on kidnapping charges, according to court records. One month before that, authorities raided a hotel room to rescue a woman who had allegedly been kidnapping from another part of California, according to the complaint.

Last December, a 14-year-old girl ran away from home in Los Angeles County and allegedly ended up at the motel, where she told her sister a man named “Jamal” had been pimping her there. Hunter wrote that the girl told her sister she was making “good money” through “tricking” and that she was uncooperative when police attempted to interview her later that month, according to the complaint.

Also in December 2020, a 17-year-old girl was allegedly assaulted and raped during an argument with her pimp, who dressed her down about “sleeping” instead of facilitating “dates.” Part of that confrontation was reportedly captured on a surveillance camera surreptitiously installed on a light pole near the hotel. Another trafficking victim allegedly asked for Bhakta’s help taking the girl to the hospital, but he responded that he didn’t want to get blood on the seats of his car, the complaint alleges.


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