NEW YORK — Prostitutes in a sex-trafficking case that's winding down in New York City say they and their pimps were one big happy family, enjoying a comfortable suburban life as "wife-in-laws" in Pennsylvania and commuting by night to work in Manhattan.
But prosecutors say the women were coerced into prostitution by a father-and-son team that threatened them with beatings, withheld money and referred to them as animals.
Closing arguments were underway today in the trial of Vincent George Sr. and Vincent George Jr., a case that drew widespread attention after several prostitutes took the witness stand to defend their pimps. The men, who have admitted promoting prostitution, pleaded not guilty to sex trafficking, money laundering and other charges.
"What I don't understand is why people refuse to understand that some women want to be in this lifestyle. This is what they always wanted to do and they willingly entered that lifestyle," defense attorney Howard Greenberg said in court today, describing one of the women as a "happy hooker."
Prosecutors say the women made as much as $500,000 a year for the Georges but got only a few dollars a night themselves. The women were threatened with beatings when they didn't bring in as much money as expected or were late to check in, according to the district attorney's office.
The men used a music recording company and a livery car service to launder millions of dollars for the prostitution business, prosecutors said.
The women told the packed courtroom about big houses, nice cars, vacations in Florida and lavish physical attention from their men.
"The whole point to our family was just to become better," said a 31-year-old woman who said she met Vincent George Jr. when she was 17. "This wasn't our lifestyle. This wasn't something where we said, 'Hey, I'm going to do this until I'm gray.'"
But recordings of the wiretapped phone calls presented by prosecutors present a darker side of the prostitute-pimp relationships. In one call, George Jr. angrily and profanely demands money from one of the women.
"Yes, sir," the woman replies.
The Associated Press is not naming the women because they are alleged victims of sex crimes.
Legal experts say the notion of prostituted women standing by their pimps is common, but that defending them before a judge is not. While most sex-trafficking cases hinge upon the cooperation of the women involved, prosecutors relied upon wiretaps and follow-the-money techniques that are typically used to prosecute white-collar business crime.
Greenberg denied allegations the women were living in fear.
"None of them were forced to enter the life," he said. "None of them were forced to stay in the life. They were all in the life before they met any pimp named George."
Wearing a striped dress that revealed her pregnant belly, a 26-year-old woman had a tattoo on her neck that said "King Koby," a nickname for George Jr., whom she met when she was 19 and working as a prostitute in upstate New York.
"I would say that I make my own choices," she said. "I am not a dumb person. I know what I'm doing."
The women have been sexually exploited and stripped of their self-worth, said Norma Ramos, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. Ramos said tattoos are commonly seen among sex trafficking victims.
"They're branding their women. They're branding their victims," Ramos said. "They're treating them like cattle."
Two of the women used the word "daddy" when describing their relationship with George Jr. in court.
"I'm not a victim towards anything, and I think the best way to show and prove that is for me to be here," said a 24-year-old woman who began working as a stripper and streetwalker at age 13, according to prosecutors.
One photograph presented by the prosecution shows the woman with a visible black eye in 2007. At the time, she told former prosecutor David Novick that George Jr. caused the injury.
"She said she deserved it, and it wasn't a big deal," Novick told the court during his testimony.
For many sex-trafficking victims, their relationship with their abusers is the only source of love they've ever experienced, and they'll do anything to maintain that attention in their lives, said Bridgette Carr, director of the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School.
"I think one of the questions is: Is this what love looks like?" she said.
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