A Trenton woman who cruelly forced an underage girl into prostitution must spend at least 20 years in state prison before she’ll be eligible for parole.
Superior Court Judge Darlene J. Pereksta on Thursday sentenced Ashley Gardener, 32, for a series of jury convictions for human trafficking, promoting prostitution and child endangerment, among other crimes.
Pereksta sentenced Gardener to 50 years altogether, 40% of which she must serve before she can seek a parole hearing.
It marked the final chapter in what authorities said was a prime example of a crime that occurs “in the shadows, outside of public view.”
It began in January 2018 when New Jersey State Police troopers found the 17-year-old victim walking along Route 295 in Lawrence Township.
The teen told them she’d escaped from a hotel where “she was being forced to perform sex acts,” state Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said.
“Trafficking anyone, man or woman, boy or girl, is a violation of basic human rights,” NJSP Supt. Col. Patrick Callahan said. “It is appalling and indecent.”
Callahan’s squad teamed up with the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, Lawrence police and the state Department of Children and Families to investigate.
They found that Gardener and co-defendant Breon Mickens, 28, also of Trenton, took the victim to a series of Mercer County hotels, where she was “deprived of food, given marijuana to smoke and prohibited from calling her family,” Grewal said.
Holding her captive, they forced her into prostitution with four to 15 men per day, he said.
“Sexually suggestive ads featuring photos of Gardener and the victim were placed on Backpage.com,” Grewal said.
The ads offered adult entertainment and listed Gardener’s phone number, he said.
Gardener arranged the sex over the phone, collected cash from clients and told the girl what services to provide, the attorney general said.
Gardener sometimes even stayed in the room, while Mickens acted as driver and “muscle,” Grewal said. The victim never saw any of the money, he added.
State police seized Gardener at a Lawrence Township hotel after rescuing the girl. U.S. Marshals helped them capture Mickens later in Trenton.
Mickens pleaded guilty to second-degree conspiracy and was sentenced to five years in prison in November 2019.
Both he and Gardener -- who chose to go to trial instead -- are required to register under Megan’s Law and are subject to parole supervision for life.
“These offenders prey on vulnerable victims, forcing them into a life of sexual slavery,” Grewal said. “This prosecution reflects our commitment to ensure that [they] face justice.”
The attorney general also reminded the public that “these crimes can happen anywhere, and your vigilance may save a captive victim.”
Grewal urged anyone who suspects human trafficking to call 1-855-END-NJ-HT.
“You are our eyes and ears,” he said.
Deputy Attorneys General Katherine Morris and James Ruberton tried the case for the state Division of Criminal Justice Gangs & Organized Crime Bureau’s Human Trafficking Unit. The lead detective was NJSP Detective Rodrick Jones.
Grewal commended detectives with the State Police Trafficking Central Unit, who led the investigation, as well as the State Police Troop “C” Criminal Investigations Office’s Fugitive Unit and Electronic Surveillance Unit.
He also thanked the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, Lawrence police, the New Jersey Department of Children and Families and U.S. Marshals Service New York/New Jersey Regional Fugitive Task Force for their assistance.
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