Kidnapping of Bakersfield girl called case of human trafficking

Kidnapping of Bakersfield girl called case of human trafficking

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) - Officers say the case of a Bakersfield girl allegedly kidnapped and forced into acts of prostitution amounts to "human trafficking." It's a crime that some local groups say they've been battling against. They say women are trapped in the sex industry, and sometimes by serious physical violence and threats.

Bakersfield police say this case started on January 8 when an unnamed girl was lured to a market on Brundage Lane by 19-year-old Shannel Smith. That's where Vernon McCullum, 19, was allegedly waiting. Officers say McCullum drove the girl to a local motel where she had sex with him.

Police say the next day, the girl wanted a ride, and begged to be let go. But, McCullum allegedly refused, and drove the girl north to Tulare County where investigators say he "detained her by physically assaulting her, and Smith brandished a knife and pepper spray."

Officers say the girl tried to escape, but couldn't.

The Magdalene Hope project reaches out to women in the sex industry in Kern County, founder Doug Bennett says girls are forced or lured into prostitution.

"There's loverboy and gorilla pimping," Bennett told Eyewitness News.

"They'll tell them what they want to hear," Bennett says of the loverboy type. "You're beautiful, why don't you come with me and we can make some money." Sometimes he says the girls are offered fancy gifts.

The other type is violent. "The gorilla pimping is by force," Bennett says. "And that's done out of fear."

In the recent case, officers say the Bakersfield girl was next driven to Reno, Nev.  Officers say she was forced to engage in prostitution and to pose nude in several photographs. Again, investigators say the girl tried escape, but was physically assaulted by McCullum and forced back into the motel room.

Bennett's group tries to help women escape the sex trade. "A lot of these girls that are out there are actually being forced to be out there on the street," he said.

Magdalene Hope has teams that go to the areas where women are working in the commercial sex trade. They bring gift bags with toiletries, and try to connect with the women. "We're just proactive," Bennett said. "We get out there and we meet the girls, we get to know them, we get to know their families." He said the teams go out twice a month.

Bennett says the group tries to help the women any way they can, the organization is working with several local agencies, and also trying to establish a safe house where women could go to leave the street.

It's not clear how McCullum was discovered and picked up by Reno Police. Bakersfield Police say McCullum faces charges in Reno including human trafficking, kidnapping, false imprisonment, criminal threats, unlawful sexual intercourse, conspiracy and publishing child pornography.

Reno officers are still looking for Shanell Smith for questioning on charges of human trafficking, kidnap, false imprisonment, criminal threats, conspiracy and publishing child pornography, according to Bakersfield police.

The case actually doesn't surprise Doug Bennett. "It is happening more often, and a lot more than people actually realize," he said.

His group hopes to help get women out of the sex industry, and he said there are ways to prevent girls from getting lured or forced into it.

"Talk to your kids," Bennett said. "Have that relationship with them, ongoing relationship. And know where your kids are at all times."