When people hear tales of young women and underage girls forced into prostitution, they think of places like Malaysia and South Africa, not Amherst and Cheektowaga.
But it was in Buffalo’s suburbs where two women and a girl claim they were coerced and enticed into a world of sex for money, sometimes meeting seven or eight men a day.
Their story is unfolding in a downtown Buffalo courtroom, as federal prosecutors bring their case against Kenneth Graham of Amherst.
Graham is accused of running a sex-trafficking operation out of several suburban hotels and motels from late 2010 to August of last year.
To hear the victims talk, Graham recruited them, and then used threats, intimidation and violence to keep them working long after they wanted out of the business.
“He put his hands on me,” one of the victims testified last week. “He put me up against the wall, put his hands around my neck and said, ‘I’ll kill you.’ ”
The government’s case against Graham – prosecutors claim he knew two of his three victims were underage – revolves around the testimony of the woman and two girls who allegedly worked for him. One of the two girls is now 18.
Two of the three testified last week, and the third is expected to take the stand Monday.
One, a Batavia girl who says she was only 15 when she went to work for Graham, testified that Graham recruited her, posted her online sex ads and took her from client to client.
The girl said Graham learned of her age shortly after they met but never stopped taking her to appointments with men.
“He said, ‘You’ll have to work for it,’ ” she said of one occasion when she asked to borrow some money.
If convicted, Graham faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison and a maximum sentence of life.
The allegations against Graham provide a glimpse into the world of human trafficking and what experts say is a trend toward more and more domestic instances of women and children exploited for sex.
No longer is child prostitution unheard of in towns such as Tonawanda, Orchard Park and Hamburg.
“They’ve been through a lot,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert C. Moscati said of the victims. “They didn’t have the ability to consent. And you’re going to hear riveting testimony that they wanted it stopped.”
Moscati is being assisted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen A. Lynch.
Graham has yet to provide a formal defense, but his lawyer has made every attempt to poke holes in the victims’ stories in an effort to raise questions about their honesty and motivation.
He claims, for instance, that the victims were involved in prostitution long before they met Graham, a fact two of the victims acknowledged last week.
“You’re going to hear enough evidence to come away with reasonable, solid questions about their credibility and why they may be lying,” defense lawyer Michael S. Deal told the jury hearing the case.
During his cross examination of the two victims who testified last week, Deal also pointed out what he called discrepancies in the victims’ allegations against his client.
They range from differing reports of what hotel they were at to inconsistencies in how and when they met Graham.
“He never coerced or forced anyone to do anything,” Deal said of his client at one point.
Now entering its fifth day, most of Graham’s trial before U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara has been devoted to testimony by law enforcement officials and other witnesses familiar with the three incidents that led to the charges against him.
Several Cheektowaga police officers testified about finding one of the underage girls in a hotel room near Buffalo Niagara International Airport as part of an undercover sting operation last August.
They also reported seeing Graham leaving the hotel just as police arrived.
Amherst police also crossed paths with Graham and his alleged victims.
The first time was in May of last year, when undercover police arrested the second underage girl as part of a separate sting operation, and then again in June when they arrested the third woman, who was in her 20s.
“I loved the money, but I hated the work,” the older woman told the jury. “In the beginning, it was OK. But after a while, I got tired and exhausted. It was like living two lives.”
She acknowledged meeting Graham after he called one of her online sex ads looking for an appointment, and she said the two quickly fell into a romantic relationship.
Their relationship turned sour when Graham suggested she come work for him, and he quickly ramped up the number of men he expected her to see each day, she testified.
“It went up,” she said. “It went from about three or four to seven or eight a day.”
When Moscati asked why she stayed with Graham, the woman said she had feelings for him and still does.
“Did there come a time when you had had enough?” Moscati asked her.
The woman said that time came when she was in the hospital after a miscarriage – she said it was Graham’s baby – and Graham left her to be with one of the two girls.
“He just left me in the hospital,” she told the jury. “It seemed like there was no way out.”
Law enforcement officials also testified about an incident involving Graham and one of the underage girls at one of her friend’s home in Buffalo in March of last year.
Carleen Barbuto, the friend’s mother, testified that the girl was afraid of Graham and refused to leave with him when he came to pick her up at Barbuto’s house.
When she told him as much, he ran into the house and searched unsuccessfully for the girl, she said.
“She was in the basement,” Barbuto said. “She was hiding because she was frightened.”
Deal has tried to find inconsistencies in the victims’ stories and at times has suggested they may be protecting others, including an adult boyfriend who was with one of the underage girls when she was arrested in Amherst.
“You know the difference between the truth and a lie, don’t you?” he asked one of the victims.