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‘People need to know what these guys have done’

It was one of the biggest child prostitution cases in state history, culminating last year in the conviction of six Boston pimps involved in a violent prostitution ring that enslaved girls from local neighborhoods.

And the case would not have been won without Jessica.

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She was the first young prostitute to share her story with investigators and one of the terrified young witnesses whose court testimony was key to the convictions.

She is still paying the price for her quiet heroism. Five years after escaping the harrowing life of a teenage prostitute in Boston, the 22-year-old college student often wakes up drenched in sweat, her mind crowded with memories of beatings and threats of worse.

Today, she lives hundred of miles from the turf of her tormenters, especially Eddie Jones and Darryl Tavares. The two pimps treated her like their property, Jessica told a federal jury last November, coercing her to have sex with strangers and pocketing the money she made.

She says her mouth still throbs from the time Jones stomped on her with his Timberland boots, breaking several teeth. A scar on her cheek is a permanent reminder of a vicious altercation with Tavares; Jessica says he slashed her with a potato peeler to mark her as his property.

Next month, Jones, 27, is scheduled to be sentenced in US District Court in Boston for his role in her abuse and that of other young prostitution victims. Tavares, 26, is already serving a 25-year prison sentence. They were convicted last November on charges of sex trafficking of minors and conspiracy to take women across state lines for the purpose of prostitution. Jessica and six other young women testified during their trial.

Four other men pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges, avoiding trial and receiving sentences of 48 to 60 months.

“People need to know what these guys have done,” Jessica said in a recent interview with the Globe. “I’m glad they are off the streets and they can’t harm anyone else.”

Fearing retribution from others still active in local prostitution, she spoke on condition that her real name and location remain secret. The Globe does not name sexual assault victims without their consent.

The Boston trial marked the dramatic end of the largest child prostitution case brought by federal prosecutors in Massachusetts since 2003, when the FBI, the US Department of Justice, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children launched a campaign called the Innocence Lost initiative to combat child prostitution.

The case covered incidents that happened between 2001 and 2005, but the sexual exploitation of children for commercial gain remains a pervasive problem. In fact, advocates and authorities say it has grown more insidious in recent years. Street corners and alleys have been largely replaced by smartphones and websites, making it easier for solicitations and payments to take place out of police view.

“It’s a modern form of slavery,” said Susan Goldfarb, executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Suffolk County, a program run in partnership with the district attorney’s office. At least once a week, the center receives a referral about a local child being used sexually to make someone else money. “This is a huge industry,” Goldfarb said.

Court records in the federal case document a booming prostitution business in New England, and its dependence on minors. It is an underworld that often goes unobserved and unremarked in Boston - even the federal trial won remarkably little notice - until its victims summon the courage to speak of it.

Those witnesses, all now adults, offered a rare and vivid portrait of the cruel culture known as “the game,” with its own language and rigid regulations.

Among the rules: girls were forbidden to look directly at their pimps; they could not keep any money they earned. Standard reprisals for even the slightest violations included beatings and rapes.

The case also illustrates the challenges prosecutors face when targeting pimps who specialize in terrorizing and manipulating young victims recruited from foster homes, MBTA stations, and high schools. The girls, often transients or from shattered families, can be hard to track down or reluctant to testify, either out of fear or because they are psychologically attached to their abusers.

It took court orders to compel most witnesses, but not Jessica, to testify in the Boston trial. A Hyde Park woman was brought before the grand jury in handcuffs. Another said Tavares punched her and threatened her after learning she had been subpoenaed. “I don’t want to die over this,” she told jurors. For her safety, Jessica was relocated out of state by federal authorities.

Some advocates question the prosecutors’ decision to force already traumatized witnesses to tell their stories in court.

“They are setting them up for danger,” said Audrey Porter, a former prostitute who works as a mentor for the My Life, My Choice Project, a Boston nonprofit that helps at-risk and exploited youth. The group was launched in 2002 after the murder of a 17-year-old foster youth who was working as a prostitute. “The reason we don’t see more prosecutions is because the girls are afraid,” Porter said.

But local and federal authorities argue that without such testimony the six men involved in the prostitution ring would still be ensnaring teenage girls.

“These guys are waging psychological warfare on the youth of our inner cities,” said Tamara Harty, an FBI agent and lead investigator in the prostitution case. “My main goal is to get these guys off the streets.”

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There are no statistics on the number of sexually exploited youth in the Boston area, but more than 300 girls in Suffolk County have been identified as being at-risk or victims of prostitution, according to the Children’s Advocacy Center. Most are 12 to 14 years old when they are introduced to the trade. While boys are also abused by child predators, girls here are more likely to fall under the control of a pimp, local advocates say. Nationwide, there are at least 100,000 children being exploited for paid sex, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“A lot of Americans don’t think it is a problem here,” said John Shehan, executive director of the exploited child division of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “It is happening in mainstream America. The only way not to find it is simply not to look for it.”

The Boston investigation began in August 2005 when Harty, the FBI agent, met Jessica at a local hospital. She was bruised and scared, recovering from a beating she said she received from a group of girls dispatched by Tavares to punish her after a disagreement.

At first, Jessica did not want to talk. She had been raised to mistrust police and trained by pimps to lie about her age. As a child, she said, she was neglected by her parents and sexually abused by her mother’s drug dealer. She was frequently shuttled between relatives in the Boston area and repeatedly changed schools.

Over weeks of meetings with Harty at the hospital and later at several group homes, Jessica began to trust the FBI agent. Harty brought her fast food and listened. It fostered a relationship that continues today.

“I realized she wasn’t out to get me,” Jessica said of Harty. “She doesn’t characterize us as bad. Some people don’t understand. They think we are all evil and that we chose this life.”

Harty was already versed in the world of prostitution. She helped prosecute Lance Williams of Revere, who was sentenced in 2005 to 11 1/2 years in prison for his involvement in trafficking minors to a brothel in Kittery, Maine. She also worked the case of Evelyn Diaz, a Chelsea woman known as Messiah. In 2007, Diaz was sentenced to nine years in federal prison for prostituting teenagers as young as 13 in Boston and New York.

The agent knew from the start that teenagers like Jessica do not necessarily want to be saved. The streets can be a potent draw, offering vulnerable girls a brush with glamour, a community of colleagues, and the possibility - no matter how remote - of love.

“It’s a lot like a cult mentality,” Harty said. “These girls and women have been brainwashed by these men.”

During their conversations, Jessica described how she met Tavares on a snowy winter night in 2005 on Berkeley Street in Boston. Days earlier, she had made her first attempt to make money through sex.

She was in her third year of high school, sharing an apartment with a group of women already working in the sex trade. She said she left her father’s home because he demanded $900 in rent, a sum she could not possibly earn at a legitimate job.

Tavares was a wiry, tattoo-covered rapper who went by the street name of Young Stallion. He approached the teen, who shivered in skimpy clothing, and persuaded her she needed someone who would not let her work in such frigid weather. Jessica went home with him, they had intercourse, and she turned over what little cash she had in her wallet. That minor transaction has major implications in the sex trade: It meant Jessica was Tavares’s to sell.

The winter encounter began a punishing eight-month journey during which she traveled to Atlantic City, Florida, New Hampshire, and Philadelphia as various pimps traded her as if she were a commodity.

Jessica did not always mind; parts of the lifestyle were attractive, and she became close with other girls in the same predicament. They sometimes met for breakfast and went to hairdressers and nail salons. It began to feel like the family life she had never experienced.

But there was always an underlying sense of dread, reinforced by violent attacks from pimps and, sometimes, customers.

In spring 2005, Jessica had suffered enough and tried to leave the life behind. Weeks later, however, she saw Tavares at a festival in Dorchester and they argued. The next day, she was attacked by the girls she believes he sent.

Bruised, afraid, and alone, Jessica made a decision that would effectively force her into exile. She became the FBI’s first juvenile witness in the case against East Coast pimps who ran girls from Maine to Florida.

“She was afraid, scared, hurt, and willing to tell us her story,” said Sergeant Kelley O’Connell, former head of the Boston Police Department’s Human Trafficking Unit.

- - -

Soon after meeting Harty in 2005, Jessica was moved out of state to a home for troubled youth. Meantime, federal authorities and local police worked to build their case. With each new lead, they found more witnesses, and more pimps who were trading girls from Lynn, Dorchester, and Hyde Park, back and forth like playing cards, according to Leah Foley, an assistant US attorney involved in the prosecution.

If a girl acted up or tired of her pimp, she was handed off to another in an effort to keep them under control, prosecutors said.

The investigators confirmed the girls’ stories by patiently accumulating a trove of evidence, including phone and hotel records, some of which showed multiple-night stays at area hotels, paid in cash.

Gaining witnesses’ trust and keeping track of them during the years it took to get the case to court was a challenge, said O’Connell. She still keeps in contact with Jessica, joining a small cadre of female investigators, prosecutors, and advocates who act as her informal support group.

“With trafficking victims they don’t have a support base; there aren’t a lot of resources,” said O’Connell. “The hardest thing is trying to find a place to keep them safe and try to make sure they stay there.”

One witness told authorities she was a 16-year-old runaway from Lynn in 2003 when Tavares picked her up outside her foster home. He took her to his apartment, holding out to the teen the possibility of a normal life after years spent bouncing between foster homes. Instead, she told the jury, he taught her to sell her body for money, from $50 for oral sex to $100 for intercourse.

“I had nowhere to go,” she said. “He told me that this was it, that it was me and him and if I left that, this was going to haunt me for the rest of my life. He would find me.”

Another witness said she was a student at Madison Park High School in Hyde Park when Jones, known as Young Indian, drew her into the business in 2005 by promising “a house, cars, all the good things people want,” according to her testimony. He once tried to strangle her in Washington, D.C., after she said she had to return to Boston. “Eddie Jones likes to hit females,” she told the jury.

In 2007, about two years after Harty and Jessica’s first meeting, six men were indicted. Tavares and Jones opted to go to trial.

Jones declined to testify in his defense, and his attorney declined to comment for this article. But Tavares told the jury that pimping was a family business he learned from his father and stepfather. He defined it as taking care of women, finding them work, collecting their money, and acting as a “father figure.”

He admitted he hit those who broke his rules. At his sentencing, Tavares apologized to his victims, particularly to Jessica.

“I was a monster willing to sacrifice someone else’s body for my personal gain,” he said. “I never took into consideration that it could have been my own daughters or sisters in the same lifestyle.”

During the hearing, Judge Nancy Gertner said the trial produced some of the most disturbing testimony she had ever heard. It detailed “totally callous violence without justification, solely for the purposes of humiliating and degrading women,” Gertner said.

Afterward, some witnesses kept working as prostitutes. Others have since married, successfully distancing themselves from the trade.

Jessica is taking college classes in hope of becoming a social worker. She is frustrated that her juvenile arrest record for prostitution is impeding her progress. (She was arrested several times by Boston police during the few months she spent with Tavares.)

In recent years, local prosecutors and police have become more inclined to treat exploited youth as victims, and such arrests have become infrequent.

Leading the way, the Suffolk district attorney’s office made a pledge in 2005 to treat child prostitutes as victims despite a state law that allows for their arrest and conviction.

But the policy change came too late for Jessica, who joined the Army National Guard in 2007 and was later discharged because her criminal background was considered a security risk.

Last spring, she said she was forced to switch universities because school officials were uncomfortable with her police record. She is now struggling to get even a menial job, and her attempts to have her record wiped clean have failed.

She is also coming to the realization that imprisonment of the men who exploited her offers only a tentative end to her ordeal. Some are scheduled to be released soon, and Tavares has filed a motion for a new trial, citing biased jurors and false testimony.

Fear is always stalking Jessica. It is enough to make her sometimes regret cooperating with prosecutors.

But then she considers the alternative. “It was taking the lesser of two evils,” she said. “I could have been dead.”

Jenifer B. McKim can be reached at jmckim@globe.com.

AT-RISK YOUTH

Audrey Porter, a former prostitute who now mentors youth, talks about the Boston sex trade, go to www.boston.com/business.

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