PROVIDENCE — Soon after Stephen Ardrey began chatting with the teenage girl online, the conversation turned sexual, authorities say. A month later, the Missouri man told the 17-year-old he had girls who worked for him as escorts, many of them around her age.
As the online relationship between Ardrey and the girl intensified, Ardrey lured the teenager into working for him, telling her they had to make enough money so they could run away together.
“You know I would keep you forever if I could,” Ardrey wrote to the teen.
On Wednesday, the 30-year-old pleaded guilty in federal court to human trafficking charges involving the Medfield teenager, whom he took to a Rhode Island motel last September and sold as a prostitute. He faces at least 10 years in prison, and could be sentenced to life.
The teenager, who has a psychiatric disorder that makes her easily influenced, was reported missing after she left the Medfield Public Library with Ardrey, prompting a massive search. The two were found three days later when a passerby recognized them from news reports and called police.
At a hearing in federal court Wednesday, Assistant US Attorney Adi Goldstein said Ardrey posted provocative photos of the teen on several websites, under the headline “Sweet girl next door – 19.’’
The text of the advertisement read: “Hey everyone! I’m the new girl in town. I am your sweet cute girl next door. So come see me. Older gentlemen only. 45 years of age and older.”
At least one person responded to the ad.
Ardrey had sex with the teenager several times at the motel and gave her instructions “so she could get better at it when she worked as an escort,” Goldstein said in court.
Ardrey showed no emotion as the charges against him were read.
When police arrested Ardrey, the teenager initially identified herself as “Rose,” the name used in the online advertisements. Ardrey told her to give the officer her true name, and identified her as the girl who had been reported missing.
The teenager has a learning disability and has been diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, Goldstein said — a psychiatric disorder that can include inappropriate familiarity and closeness with strangers.
When the teenager went missing in September, the Medfield police chief, Robert Meaney, told the public that the girl had issues that “impact her ability to make safe decisions.” Her parents described her as a trusting girl who had a hard time making friends and found it easier to chat with people online.
The teenager’s parents attended Wednesday’s hearing but declined to comment outside the federal courthouse.
Ardrey pleaded guilty to trafficking a person under 18 and transporting a minor with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct. He is scheduled to be sentenced on May 15.
Before Ardrey pleaded guilty, US District Court Judge John J. McConnell Jr. reminded him that the charges carry a minimum sentence of 10 years, without the possibility of parole.
As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to drop child pornography charges against Ardrey. Ardrey told the judge he was taking medication for depression.