Source: United States Department of Justice News
FLORENCE, SOUTH CAROLINA — Johnny Ricardo Thomas, a/k/a Rico, a/k/a Lulu, 34, of Durham, N.C., has been sentenced to more than 2o years in federal prison after pleading guilty to coercing minors to engage in prostitution in the Myrtle Beach area of South Carolina and elsewhere.
Evidence presented to the Court showed that the case began when officers with the Myrtle Beach Police Department interviewed a 15-year-old runaway who reported she was the victim of human trafficking. Subsequent investigation by the Myrtle Beach Police Department and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) revealed that sometime in March 2019, Thomas, the 15-year-old minor victim, a second 16-year-old minor victim, and others, travelled from North Carolina to the Myrtle Beach area of South Carolina and other places for the purpose of engaging in prostitution.
Although Thomas knew the two victims were minors, he would take pictures of them, create online advertisements making the minors available for sex, and coerce or force the victims to engage in sexual acts for money. According to one of the minor victims, Thomas told her he would sell her to someone worse – who would do things like slice off her toes – if she did not perform commercial sex acts. In a statement from that minor victim provided to the Court at Thomas’s sentencing, the victim said she still had night terrors, looks over her shoulder everywhere she goes, and felt “disgusting, used, worthless, [and] empty.”
“Crimes against children are vile, indefensible, and can create lifelong victims,” said U.S. Attorney Corey F. Ellis. “We are fortunate that our federal, state, and local partners share our commitment to thoroughly investigate these cases, provide services to the affected victims, and prosecute those who engage in this reprehensible conduct. These efforts are clear in this case, and are the reason that the Defendant – who victimized two minor children – will spend decades in prison and the rest of his life being monitored by the Court.”
“Over the last several years, this office has worked hand-in-hand with our federal counterparts to identify and address criminal activity across Horry and Georgetown Counties, specifically including human trafficking,” said Scott Hixson, Chief Deputy Solicitor for the 15th Judicial Circuit, who also served as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney on this matter. “The efforts in this case showcase the power of combining state and federal resources to make a serious impact in our community, and our hope is this plan of attack will ring successful in future prosecutions.”
“We are all thankful that this case has been resolved and the victims can now begin the healing process knowing that this predator will no longer be able to hurt them,” said Special Agent in Charge Ronnie Martinez, who oversees HSI operations in North Carolina and South Carolina. “HSI and its law enforcement partners prioritize the protection of our most vulnerable population, and this case is a warning to other would-be traffickers that we will find you and hold you accountable for your unconscionable actions.”
“We have no greater responsibility than to protect our children, and law enforcement will always stand up for those that need help,” said Myrtle Beach Police Chief Amy Prock. “This case was a partnership built on that mission, and we couldn’t be more proud of the team that brought Mr. Thomas to justice.”
United States District Judge Sherri A. Lydon sentenced Thomas to 262 months imprisonment, to be followed by a lifetime term of court-ordered supervision. There is no parole in the federal system. Thomas was also ordered to pay restitution to his victims. According to information presented to the Court, the convicti0n was part of Thomas’s lengthy criminal history. Thomas’s record includes convictions for breaking and entering, felon in possession of a firearm, possession with intent to distribute narcotics, assault on a government official, and resisting arrest. A co-defendant in the case, Becca Mills, 25, of Whispering Pines, N.C., has pled guilty to a charge related to concealing Thomas’s crimes from law enforcement authorities. She will be sentenced at a later date.
This case was brought as part of Project Safe Childhood, a nationwide initiative launched in May 2006 by the U.S. Department of Justice to combat the growing epidemic of child sexual exploitation and abuse. Led by the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices and the Criminal Division’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, Project Safe Childhood marshals federal, state and local resources to better locate, apprehend and prosecute individuals, who sexually exploit children, as well as to identify and rescue victims. For more information about Project Safe Childhood, please visit http://www.justice.gov/psc.
This case was investigated by HSI, the Myrtle Beach Police Department, and the Rockingham, N.C. Police Department. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Derek A. Shoemake and Lauren Hummel, along with Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Hixson, prosecuted the case. The case was originally prosecuted by the Solicitor’s Office for the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit, under the leadership of Solicitor Jimmy Richardson, and federally prosecuted as part of a collaborative effort by federal and state partners in the Myrtle Beach area to combat sex trafficking and child exploitation.