A Ventnor man used drugs, money and friendship to lure vulnerable young men into prostitution, according to charges that he ran a human-trafficking ring out of his Newport Avenue apartment.
Marc Branch, 39, was arrested at his home late Friday night and is charged with first-degree human trafficking, along with sexual assault, running a house of prostitution, prostituting a minor and promoting prostitution. He is being held in the Atlantic County Justice Facility on $250,000 bail.
Branch is accused of charging as much as $200 to allow clients to engage in sexual acts with the males, including at least one minor, whose age is given only as 16 to 18. According to two additional charges of aggravated sexual assault, Branch drugged the minor on at least two occasions and then allowed a client to sexually assault him.
Those charges will be officially heard before Superior Court Judge Michael Donio at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Branch used things such as money and, in some cases, shelter, to lure the victims, most of whom were estranged from their families, state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa said in news release that announced the charges Monday. He allegedly gave them drugs and alcohol, fueling their dependency, so that he could control them and prostitute them to male clients. In some cases, the victims received a portion of the money from the clients.
"The allegations in this case fit a classic pattern for human sexual trafficking in which a predator enslaves vulnerable victims in prostitution by weakening them with drugs and isolating them from any protective support," Chiesa said.
"When we talk about the highest risk of being lured into this type of crime, that is the higher-risk population," said Dawne Lomangino-DiMauro, who spent Monday educating about 30 professionals as part of a seminar on human trafficking.
Out of that group — whom she wouldn't identify — only two "had a grasp that human trafficking happens in New Jersey," said Lomangino-DiMauro, vice president of Helping to Educate and Advocate Against Trafficking. "That's what we're up against, people either not understanding (human trafficking) or looking at sex trafficking as a victimless crime."
There is a stigma attached to human trafficking, "because society doesn't see them as victims," Lomangino-DiMauro said. "A big portion of our job is to educate our society."
Sometimes, it's difficult to even get those groups to talk.
Calls to a half-dozen gay and lesbian youth and support organizations as well as human rights groups that work with human trafficking either were not returned Monday or workers responded saying they had no information or comment on domestic trafficking cases involving teenage or young adult males.
Numbers of males being trafficked are hard to pin down, especially since they're less likely to come forward, Lomangino-DiMauro said.
"We absolutely know it's out there," she said. "Everywhere that you'll see sex trafficking, you'll see the trafficking of boys."
Branch allegedly solicited clients via the Internet by posting nude photos of the young men on Craigslist. He also allegedly used Twitter, Facebook and other websites.
His tweets include mentioning "watching the rent boy we picked up in ac sleep on the (couch)" on June 16, along with several drug references.
Branch's Facebook page has a photo of two shirtless young-looking men from Doggy Boys, a paid pornographic website that boasts "over 120 beautifully smooth models" who are all "cute and boyish."
That is the same type of young men whose services he was allegedly selling, according to the charges, which say the men ranged from late teens to early 20s.
Branch's page also says he works as an "independent paralegal," although that could not be verified. He also calls himself a personal manager for male models, while listing a phone number, and "independent crack dealer."
Investigators also seized items from his apartment, including two cell phones, a computer, drug paraphernalia, numerous pornographic videos and magazines, and four imitation firearms.
A photo on Branch's Facebook page includes money and what appears to be a gun: "I got some money put away ..." the caption begins.
There is also a photo posted in August 2010, of someone who appears to be Branch's boyfriend with another man whose mouth is duct taped and what appears to be a knife held at his throat.
"We're continuing our investigation into the defendant's alleged human trafficking, his alleged prostitution of one or more minors, and his alleged online solicitation of clients for his commercial sex trade enterprise," said Stephen J. Taylor, director of the Division of Criminal Justice.
"When we developed information about Branch's alleged crimes, we moved quickly to arrest him and rescue his alleged victims," Chiesa said. "The new Human Trafficking Unit we formed earlier this year in the Division of Criminal Justice will continue to cooperate with partners like the FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to aggressively investigate any cases of human trafficking in New Jersey."
The first-degree human trafficking charge carries a sentence of 20 years to life in state prison and a criminal fine of as much as $200,000. Second-degree crimes carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of as much as $150,000, and third-degree crimes carry a sentence of three to five years in state prison and a fine of as much as $15,000.
Branch previously served prison time for a 2002 robbery, according to state Department of Corrections records. He was released on parole, but brought back on a violation and released Feb. 2, 2010.
His criminal history dates to at least 1994, when he was charged with burglary. That case, when he was 20, was transferred back to family court, records show.
Branch was due in court Nov. 5 for a status conference in a drug case. He was convicted of third-degree drug possession in December, but was given no jail time.
Court records list him being born in Philadelphia, and standing 5-foot-9 tall, weighing 170 pounds. His Facebook page lists his hometown as Cherry Hill and says he went to Cumberland County College.
Staff writer Sarah Watson contributed to this report.
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