- Schmidt expands task force to push for stronger human trafficking laws
- KDOC moves Rhodes back to prison where he was mistreated
- Public petition to support clemency for Ronnie Rhodes goes online
- Washburn law clinic asks Brownback to grant Rhodes clemency
- Jury finds man not guilty of food stamp fraud
- Community group, church events work against sex trafficking in Wichita
- Betancourt brother accused of threatening dead teen’s mom
- Sentencing reset as convicted pimp remains in southeast Kansas jail
- Kansas joins investigation of Backpage sex ads
- Missouri murder case dismissed after 18 years
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said today he hopes an expanded task force on human trafficking can work with legislators and the governor to strengthen state laws. This state has among the weaker laws in the nation dealing with human trafficking, according to a recent analysis by Shared Hope International, a Washington state-based nonprofit group. Still, Kansas sits on one of the major routes favored by pimps and others who would exploit children in the sex trade and forced labor. Schmidt said he will ask the advisory board to review that and other reports and to identify ways the state can improve its efforts. Schmidt announced the expanded task force on National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. “The buying and selling of human beings, whether for sex or for labor, is a reprehensible form of modern-day slavery that is unacceptable in the 21st Century,” Schmidt said in a statement from this office. “On this day aimed at raising global awareness of the problem, it is my pleasure to broaden our ongoing Kansas commitment to being part of the solution.” Schmidt established the Human Trafficking Advisory Board in 2010 to include variety of professionals from police and prosecutors to social workers and victims. Schmidt said his new appointments provide more points of view, including members of the Legislature. Its job is to recommend improvements to Kansas laws and policies, Schmidt said. New members include Kathy Gill-Hopple, director of forensic nursing for Via Christi Hospitals; Mark Masterson, director of the Sedgwick County Department of Corrections, and Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita. See what Wichita has been doing.
After 19 years in the same prison, Ronnie Rhodes is having to get used to a new facility with new rules, after being moved from Lansing to Hutchinson this week. The move came as a surprise to Rhodes, his attorney and a pastor who led a non-violent group, where Rhodes had become a mentor to other prisoners. Jan Lunsford, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said officials would offer no explanation for the move, which came a month after the Washburn University Law Clinic filed a petition for clemency to Gov. Sam Brownback. For 30 years, Rhodes has maintained his innocence in the 1981 killing of Cleother Burrell. Washburn has investigated Rhodes' case and called his conviction into question, based on spotty evidence and conflicting testimony. DNA evidence that once existed, which could prove Rhodes' claims or seal his guilt, has apparently been lost by the Wichita Police Department. In a phone conversation the week before Thanksgiving, Rhodes said he had obtained a job working at the kitchen in the unit at Lansing, where he had been incarcerated since Aug. 26, 1992. Before that, a Reno County District Court judge ruled that Rhodes had been illegally punished by guards in Hutchinson and held in violation of his rights to due process of law. Representing himself without legal counsel, Rhodes also prevailed in the 10th Circuit of the U.S. District Court of Appeals, which said he could challenge civil rights violations by Hutchinson officials. Now, Rhodes, 57, finds himself back in Hutchinson. He said he doesn't fully understand the reason for the move. "I must admit thisis a very saddening situation for me and I am a bit depressed but I shall make the best of it," Rhodes said in an email from prison. On the positive side, Hutchinson offers more opportunities to work in private prison industries than Lansing. Hutchinson also has reentry programs to aid inmates once they are released. Rhodes has been turned down for parole eight times. At Lansing, however, Rhodes had built a support network and become a leader in the "Reaching Out from Within" a program, which teaches inmates how to deal with non-violence. It's run by Kansas City-area pastor Janet Weiblen, who said she believed Rhodes did not commit murder. Hutchinson, meanwhile, is about twice the distance as Lansing from Topeka, where Rhodes was being represented in his petition for clemency by adjunct law professor Rebecca Woodman and and legal intern Michael Hinkin. Rhodes also had received 20 letters of support from staff at Lansing, who supported his release. Rhodes had gone 20 months with no disciplinary reports at Lansing. "It's like they took away all of his support," Weiblen said. "It's like they're pulling the rug out from under him." Weiblen added that "Reaching Out from Within" founder SuEllen Fried is based in Hutchinson and is trying to get Rhodes in that program. After serving years in a maximum custody, Rhodes had recently been upgraded to low-medium custody -- the second-lowest management level. When he arrived in Hutchinson, he said he was put in a cell with five other inmates, all of whom were under maximum-level custody, with the highest restrictions. Said Rhodes in an email: "I will attempt to make this new experience as positive as possible and keep myself focused." Washburn has started an online petition in support of clemency for Rhodes. See all posts in this series.
The Washburn University Law Clinic today set up an online petition to Gov. Sam Brownback as part of a clemency request for a Wichita man convicted of murder. The online public petition seeks public support for Ronnie Rhodes, who has served 30 years in prison for a crime he says he didn't commit. Two years ago, Washburn law students studying with professor Rebecca Woodman began looking into Rhodes' case. They reported finding serious flaws in the investigation and evidence, which resulted in Rhodes' conviction and a life prison sentence. The clinic also has pointed to legal concerns in the way his appeal was handled and carelessness in the handling of evidence that might prove Rhodes' claims of innocence. “The Washburn law students’ investigation convincingly shows that Ronnie’s conviction was the result of a miscarriage of justice, and the fact that crucial evidence that could exonerate him has been lost or destroyed only adds to it," Woodman said. Executive clemency allows Brownback to either pardon Rhodes or commute his sentence to time served. "Ronnie has paid for this with over 30 years of his life, and that’s more than enough," Woodman said. After receiving support from more than 20 people -- mostly prison officials who deal with Rhodes daily at the Lansing Correction Facility -- the state's Prisoner Review Board last summer denied the 57-year-old inmate parole for the eighth time. The review board will examine the request for clemency, then send it onto Brownback's office with a report. The Prisoner Review Board was appointed by Brownback to replace the Kansas Parole Board. In denying parole, the board imposed conditions, including finding a job that conflicted with Department of Corrections policies. Rhodes said he has been repeatedly told he won't receive parole until he "takes responsibility" for the crime. "I will not admit to something I have not done," Rhodes said in an e-mail from prison. "I am not a murderer, I can not kill anyone for any reason and that is just the way it is." A letter to Brownback accompanying the online petition stated: "Despite his unjust incarceration, Mr. Rhodes has engaged in educational and occupational pursuits to aid his reintegration to society, and is well-equipped to lead a productive life outside of prison." Rhodes has studied, and received, a paralegal degree through a correspondence course. He has also become a mentor to other inmates through the “Reaching Out from Within” support group, which encourages non-violent behavior. "I have watched this place turn men into killers and heartless people full of hate and bitterness," Rhodes said. "I refuse to allow this place, its people or the conditions to dictate the conditions of my heart, no matter how long I am here." Janet Weiblen, a Kansas City area pastor who works with "Reaching Out From Within," said she has been frustrated with a lack of response by state officials to Washburn's findings. She said she hopes the petition will show Brownback and prison officials that others support clemency for Rhodes. "I am beginning to think we have a system that is immovable," Weiblen said. "I hope that's not so. There comes a point in time where justice is justice." The petition is available at Change.org Read the next post in this series. See all posts in this series.
The law clinic at the Washburn University filed a petition today asking Gov. Sam Brownback to grant clemency for Ronnie Rhodes in his 1981 murder conviction. Washburn is asking Brownback to review the case, after a Prison Review Board denied Rhodes parole last summer. The law clinic points to evidence that "strongly suggests that Mr. Rhodes was wrongfully convicted of the murder of Cleother Burrell," the petition says. Rhodes has maintained his innocence for 30 years, and his case caught the attention of students studying wrongful convictions at Washburn, after DNA evidence that once existed in his case couldn't be located. "Consequently, the failsafe of executive clemency is the only remedy available for the miscarriage of justice in this case," adjunct professor Rebecca Woodman and legal intern Michael Hinkin wrote in the petition. The petition asks Brownback either to grant full clemency for Rhodes' conviction, or to commute his sentence to the time he's already served. The pleading first goes to the Prison Review Board, which will then send a report to Brownback. Read the next post in this series. See all posts in this series.
The first defendant to stand trial in a federal food stamp fraud case has been found not guilty. Mpeka Magari was one of 13 people charged last March with selling his government-issued food assistance card to grocers, who illegally converted them to cash. All but two defendants in two cases have pleaded guilty, or have plans to accept plea bargains, giving up their rights to jury trials. Last week, after five hours of deliberations, a jury found Magari not guilty on two counts of food stamp fraud and two counts of wire fraud in a trial before U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten. No witness testifying at the trial could positively identify Magari as having sold his card, said defense lawyer Michael Shultz. Wally Gaggo has pleaded guilty to buying cards from several people receiving federal food assistance and turning them into cash. Owners of two Wichita grocery stories also have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing. At least four others have been sentenced to time served, two years' probation and ordered to pay restitution between $700 and $1,700. The government claims Kansas Food Market and the Alnoor Grocery and Biryani House defrauded the government out of more than $580,000 by handing out half of the benefits in cash and pocketing the rest during some 2,600 transactions. Another defendant, Sobhi O. Dana, is scheduled for trial next month. Verdict in food stamp fraud trial
UPDATED: On Saturday's panelists. As Wichita residents learn about the prevalence of sex trafficking in the community, they are working to find ways to help authorities rid the city of this hidden crime. A community group of volunteers is getting ready to help fix up a drop-in center for homeless youths near midtown in Wichita, and a local church is holding a three-day event this weekend to help educate residents about what happens on the streets of their town. ICT SOS, an organization that grew out of concern about local sex trafficking, meets from 6 to 8 p.m. tonight at the Midtown Baptist Good Neighbor Center, 11th and Emporia. That could soon become a place where homeless young people can find respite from the streets. Jennifer White, the group's coordinator, hopes to build an army of volunteers to renovate the space, Extreme Makeover-style. Studies show homeless and runaway youths are among the most vulnerable to be coerced into being victimized by the commercial sex trade. Wichita residents can learn more about the scope of sex trafficking in a three-day event beginning Friday at College Hill United Methodist Church. Nita Belles, author of "In Our Backyard: A Christian Perspective on Human Trafficking in the United States" is among the speakers. Belles, a theologian who specializes in ministering to women, speaks at 7 p.m. Friday at the church, 1st Street at Erie. College Hill is my church, and the United Methodist Women's group began planning to have Belles visit about the same time as we ran a story last March detailing trafficking in Wichita. At 9 a.m. Saturday, I'll moderate a panel on the impact here in Wichita, which will include Belles and local experts Karen Countryman-Roswurm, a social worker and founder of the Anti-Sexual Exploitation Roundtable for Community Action; prosecutor Marc Bennett and ICT SOS's White. (UPDATE) Lt. Jeff Weible of the Wichita-Sedgwick County Exploited and Missing Children's Unit will also be a panelist. Belles will speak again at church's 10 a.m. Sunday service. Because of the efforts of Countryman-Roswurm, law enforcement and community volunteers, Wichita has become a leader in battling sex trafficking. Police are increasing the officers assigned to investigate such cases, which have tripled the past four years. "There is some good news here," Belles wrote recently in the Huffington Post. "One in three human trafficking victims is rescued because someone saw something that didn't look just right and reported it. If you are reading this article, you could be one to notice that incongruous detail and spare a young girl or boy or an adult a life of torture and pain." The events this week aim to continue to build support, which authorities need to fight what one Wichita police officer has called a crime that remains "beneath the surface."
Daniel Betancourt is back in jail, charged with threatening the mother of a 13-year-old boy who was shot to death more than a year ago. The reported threat occurred after Betancourt's brothers Eli and Alejandro and a third defendant were all convicted of murder this summer in the shooting death of Miguel Angel Andrade Martinez on June 20, 2010. Miguel was shot 10 times when he went to answer the door at 6 a.m. that Father's Day Sunday. Witnesses said Eli and Alejandro Betancourt and Eddie Laurel were trying to avenge a fight involving Daniel Betancourt. But the men, all of whom had gang ties, went to the wrong house. Daniel Betancourt was set for preliminary hearing this week on a charge of criminal threat. He also faces a probation violation hearing, stemming from pleading guilty to aggravated batteryin the fight that led to Miguel's killing. In a move to revoke in probation in the battery case, prosecutors say that Betancourt posted profanity-laced posts on his Facebook page during the three trials. He posted threats to one of the witnesses and a prosecutor in the case. Then prosecutors say, on July 29, after the trials, Daniel Betancourt drove by the house where Miguel was killed, stopped and pointed at Sylvia Martinez. "Ms. Martinez was in fear of her family's safety," prosecutor C.J. Rieg wrote in a court filing. Daniel Betancourt drove by the Martinez house less than two weeks after police say he'd visited the Ellsworth Correctional Facility, where his oldest brother is serving a life sentence for the murder. The 25-year-old could face two years in prison if his probation is revoked, as well as an additional sentence if he's convicted on the new case of criminal threat. READ THE MOTION TO REVOKE DANIEL BETANCOURT'S PROBATION (WITH PROFANITY REDACTED)
sentenced this afternoon to two years' probation. Brian Guse may have not expected his current situation, when he tried selling women for sex to an undercover police officer. Guse's sentencing on a felony conviction of promoting prostitution had to be rescheduled today, because he is in the Cherokee County Jail. After being sent to jail for violating his probation on prostitution-related convictions with the City of Wichita, Sedgwick County transferred Guse to serve his time in rural southeastern Kansas. To relive overcrowding, the jail here sometimes farms out inmates to counties around the state. Because of transportation delays, Guse will have to spend another week in jail. His sentencing now has been continued to Sept. 8.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt joined top prosecutors in 45 other states today in looking into sexually explicit advertising practices on the online classified site Backpage.com The AGs sent a letter to the Internet site, owned by Village Voice Media, LLC, requesting its procedures for removing ads connected to the sex trafficking of minors. Despite Backpage's claims that its policies restrict illegal activities, Schmidt said prosecutors across the country have found hundreds of ads offering illegal sexual activity. The attorneys general pointed to 50 cases prosecuted in 22 states over three years where minors were advertised for sex on Backpage. “It does not require forensic training to understand that these advertisements are for prostitution,” the attorneys general wrote. “These are only the stories that made it into the news; many more instances likely exist.” One such case surfaced this summer in Wichita. Mike Neloms faces trial on charges that he advertised a 15-year-old girl for sex on Backpage. Michael Gress is charged in the same case with paying to have sex with the girl this past May. The girl's ad, however, remained on Backpage for weeks after the site had been contacted by the teen's attorney and a social worker. Backpage removed the ad after the Eagle published a story about the case, and the site received complaints from members of ICT SOS, a community volunteer group concerned with sex trafficking in Wichita. “The evidence shows that traffickers use these websites to promote their illegal activity,” Schmidt said in a statement from his office. “We ask that all online advertising services join our efforts to reduce sex trafficking by enforcing strict but reasonable screening and monitoring policies.” The move by the AGs is similar to actions, which resulted in Craiglist shutting down its "erotic services" listings. Attorneys general say they've have been asking Backpage to stopping accepting such ads two years The attorneys general say Backpage is currently the nation's top provider of "adult services" advertisements, which draw some $22.7 million in annual revenues for Village Voice Media.
Little more than a week after Kansas denied parole to Ronnie Rhodes, a prosecutor in Missouri dismissed murder charges against a man who has maintained his innocence for 18 years. Dale Helmig, 55, learned Sunday morning he would not be retried for the 1993 murder of his mother, when a prosecutor dismissed the charges against him. The house painter had served 14 years for a crime he said he didn't commit. Then, based on evidence gathered by law students and the Midwest Innocence Project, a judge last November overturned the conviction. DeKalb County Senior Judge Warren McElwain ruled Helmig was "actually innocent of the crime." Late last week, Osage County prosecutor Amanda Grellner — who didn't handle his original case — decided to dismiss charges. Evidence showed the original prosecutor and a sheriff had misled the jury. Helmig, sentenced to serve life in prison without parole, is the 20th inmate to be released from a Missouri prison over the past three decades on an overturned conviction. Only seven were freed based on DNA evidence. Nine were convicted of murder, and four of those were sentenced to death, Helmig's lawyer said. Sean O'Brien, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor who led the investigation of Helmig's case, told the Associated Press:
"There is something wrong with the criminal justice system. When an airplane crashes, we have the National Transportation Safety Board collect every nut and bolt and piece of the airplane to see what's wrong. There's nothing like that in the criminal justice system."Kansas has no innocence project to investigate cases, nor does it have an innocence commission empowered by the courts to look into claims of wrongful convictions. The Eagle began covering Rhodes' case, after students from the Washburn Law School said they found multiple problems with his 1981 conviction for murder in Wichita. Rhodes has maintained his innocence for the past three decades. Read the next post in this series. See all posts in this series.