Two people were arrested this week and accused of coercing a teenage girl into prostitution, the Merced Police Department reported.
Stephen L. Montgomery, 23, and Amanda C. Baker, 20, were arrested Tuesday at a home on East 12th Street in Merced on suspicion of human trafficking and distributing child pornography. Both suspects remained in custody Wednesday at the John Latorraca Correctional Facility on $500,000 bail each, booking records show.
Lt. Matthew Williams said the suspects caused a 16-year-old girl to engage in prostitution in Merced for at least several months. The pair operated their sex business at a motel on East Childs Avenue, Williams said. Police said they gave the girl drugs while advertising her as a prostitute online.
“They posted photographs of the girl exposed, and that meets the criteria for posting child pornography,” Williams said.
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Detective Joe Henderson, the lead investigator in case, went undercover in January, posing as a customer. The victim agreed to perform sex acts for $200, police said. Montgomery rented the room and Baker brought the child to the motel, police said.
Both suspects were arrested at the time, but later released while officers completed the investigation. The teenage victim was turned over Child Protective Services, according to police.
“We believe they’ve been doing this at various locations up and down the state,” Williams said, adding that authorities believe Baker collected the money, used it to purchase items and, on several occasions, to bail Montgomery out of jail.
Investigators were alerted to the case in July when members of the girl’s family contacted police, reporting her as a “habitual runaway,” Williams said.
The investigation marks the second significant human trafficking case in the past year in Merced. Two people were convicted last month in a similar case in Merced Superior Court.
Police recently have made a greater effort to investigate such issues, but Williams acknowledged that human trafficking has been a problem for years across the county, including in Merced.
Authorities, over the past decade, have started viewing women involved as victims of exploitation rather than criminals, according to Meghan Kehoe, program director of the Valley Crisis Center in Merced.
“These types of exploitation are sexual assault,” Kehoe said. “This is a real issue up and down the state, and nationwide, that needs to be addressed on a holistic level.”
“No young girl ever wakes up wanting to be a prostitute,” said Ana Pagan, director of the Merced County Human Services Agency. “There’s a trauma that resulted in trapping victims, and we need to do everything possible to help them get out.”
Merced police ask anyone who might have information regarding the suspects arrested this week to call (209) 385-6847. Tips are confidential and callers can remain anonymous.
For more information on helping survivors of sexual exploitation, contact the Valley Crisis Center at (209) 722-4357.