Vermont's First Sex-Trafficking Trial Ends in Conviction | Crime | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont's First Sex-Trafficking Trial Ends in Conviction

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Brian Folks - COURTESY OF BURLINGTON POLICE DEPARTMENT
  • Courtesy Of Burlington Police Department
  • Brian Folks

Woman after woman took the stand to describe how Brian Folks pulled them into his Burlington drug- and sex-trafficking ring. Some said he used charm. One, his primary drug runner, got a tattoo of his name.

The more common narrative, however, was that he used heroin and crack, upon which they were dependent, to coerce them into having sex with strangers.

Yet when it was his turn to testify in U.S. District Court in Burlington on May 8, Folks maintained that he was no pimp. "I don't like that phrase," he told the jury in a gravelly voice. He wore a clean white dress shirt.

"What word do you like?" one of the three federal prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Darrow, asked.

"You can call it whatever you want. I'm not one of them," Folks answered.

The trial would turn on how the jury viewed the man before them. He was either a predator who manipulated drug-addicted women or, as Folks suggested, a fixer who kept his prostitutes safe for a fair fee.

The women who alleged coercion were lying, Folks testified. The sex acts they performed — with clients at local motels and with him on video — were always consensual. They may have been addicted to heroin, which he supplied, but the relationship was transactional. Asked if he believed the women "benefitted equally" from the arrangement, Folks answered: yes.

Folks' experienced lawyers, Mark Kaplan and Natasha Sen, showed the jury how the women's stories had changed over time, how some of them had also prostituted on their own and how Folks hadn't prevented them from leaving what he called "the hustle."

But coercion is a mind game, and Darrow wanted the jury to see that Folks was an experienced player. He read Folks' own words from the time of his arrest, when he'd told police that he wasn't "a stupid person" and that he "studied people."

"I'm a chess player," Folks elaborated on the stand. "I anticipate what's going to happen."

With that, Darrow saw an opening, and his questioning, which had been mired in semantic quibbles, gained momentum. Surely Folks, as a self-proclaimed student of people, knew the women he worked with were vulnerable for exploitation?

"I wouldn't say any of them were desperate," Folks said.

"You knew that [Maria] was addicted and living out of a truck?" Darrow followed. Then he peppered Folks with similar questions about his coercive tactics with each of the eight women who'd testified against him, plus two others who didn't appear in court because they died of drug overdoses before trial. (Seven Days does not identify victims of sex crimes without their consent and is using pseudonyms for the female witnesses in this story.)

The government then played video footage Folks had recorded. A self-described "video freak," he had placed cameras around his drug houses and kept a journal to track footage of sexual encounters — material that became crucial evidence for the prosecution.

Assisted by more than 20 monitors around the courtroom, jurors watched one in which Folks filmed himself urinating onto the backs of two women who were bending over in front of him.

"You're urinating on her, and you think she benefited equally from that?" Darrow asked rhetorically.

The federal prosecutor's strategy worked. One day after Folks' testimony, the jury found him guilty of six human-trafficking charges, including one count of trafficking a minor, in addition to a half dozen felony drug charges and another for operating a prostitution business.

Folks, 44, faces at least 15 years and up to life in prison. His sentencing date has not been set.

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Federal prosecutors described the verdict as a landmark in their effort to crack down on a depraved by-product of the opioid epidemic. While it was not the first human-trafficking prosecution in Vermont, Folks' case was the first to go to trial. Kate O'Neill laid out the details of his crimes in an April cover story as part of Seven Days' ongoing "Hooked" series.

Last Thursday's verdict showed that a Vermont jury would believe women who testify about how their addiction was exploited to coerce them to prostitute, U.S. Attorney Christina Nolan said.

"I'm hoping this paves the way for other victims to come forward and have their voices heard," she said.

Nolan described Folks' case as one of the most "egregious" she's seen as a prosecutor in Vermont. She compared his treatment of the women to torture.

The three prosecutors worked full time to prepare the complex case against Folks, with resources from the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C., and investigative help from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and local police. A victim-witness coordinator helped prepare the women to testify, Nolan said.

"We really poured a lot into it," she said of a case that revealed an alarming local problem.

Folks was accused of running intertwining drug and sex operations based in Burlington's Old North End from 2012 to 2016. The sex workers, some of whom lived in drug houses, split their prostitution earnings with Folks. They also served as baggers and drug runners for Folks' heroin business. The women were addicted to drugs, and their portions of the earnings usually went to buying drugs from Folks. He used their addictions to control them, withholding drugs if they didn't perform certain sex acts either with clients or with him.

The "portfolio" of video recordings, photos and handwritten records he amassed was part of a pornography startup business, Folks testified, but prosecutors said the images corroborated the women's accounts.

Most of them were already addicted to heroin or crack when they met Folks, according to testimony. Alisha, the first victim to be sworn in, said her father taught her how to inject heroin. By 17, she was a heavy user, and she and her dad began breaking into cars to get money for drugs.

Folks said he was running an erotic photography business at the time, selling pornography to prisoners in New York. Alisha's father proposed his daughter as a potential model. He introduced her to Folks in July 2013, just before she turned 18.

During their first meeting, Alisha said, prostitution came up. Soon, Folks had photographed and advertised her on Backpage, a website used by escorts before federal law enforcement shut it down in 2018.

Alisha wore hoop earrings and a half-up ponytail as she tried to recount turning tricks in four Burlington-area motels to pay for her addiction. Folks had sex with her, which she understood to be part of the job. He also asked her to perform unusual sex acts on camera, promising heroin in return. On one of those occasions, he withheld a portion of the heroin he'd promised because Alisha looked, she said, "like I was being raped."

"He had a hold on me, I guess, because he had what I wanted. I was blinded by the drugs," she said.

Alisha's testimony underscored the difficulty of prosecuting a human-trafficking case. She had trouble recalling when key events occurred and struggled to answer some basic questions, including where conversations took place. She gave contradictory answers about working as a prostitute, to the visible frustration of the government's attorneys.

Poor memory is common among trauma victims, but her recall was so weak that Judge William K. Sessions sent the jury out of the courtroom so he could ask Alisha if she had taken drugs before testifying. She had been clean for three years, she explained, but had a 1-year-old child and was losing sleep over the trial.

"I'm wicked upset, nervous," she said. "It's been rough."

Alisha wasn't alone in her reluctance. Court records show that another victim had previously asked a victim assistance specialist "if she really had to testify and how much jail time she would face for failing to appear." She then stopped answering the government's calls, so prosecutors asked the judge to detain her as a material witness. She was jailed briefly before an original 2018 trial date to ensure that she would appear in court.

In the end, she took the stand to testify against Folks, along with seven other women.

Collectively, they painted a picture of a man who used humiliation, guns and physical blows, in addition to drugs, to control them. Folks had a manslaughter conviction in New York, which at least some of them knew about, court records show.

Nolan, who listened in on parts of the testimony, told Seven Days her office was "blown away" by the women who spoke up.

"I couldn't believe how well they were able to testify — how strong they were, how clear they were," she said. "It was very powerful."

She described the verdict as vindication for them and said she hoped it would be a "healing moment."

The victims were not present when the jury announced its decision last Thursday at 9:30 p.m. — after just six hours of deliberation. Folks, who had taken notes and whispered to his attorneys throughout the trial, jotted down each jury finding on a notepad. He showed no emotion.

But the trial's emotional significance had come up during Alisha's testimony. Folks' attorney, Kaplan, asked her if she had been able to make choices freely while working for Folks.

"No, because the drug has a hold over you. It takes over," she said.

"Are you finding it easier every day to put that behind you?" Kaplan asked.

"Yeah," she replied. "This is closure."