WILMINGTON — A transgender woman arrested during a prostitution sting nearly two years ago was sentenced to at least eight years imprisonment for the trafficking of a girl who was 17 at the time of the incident.
Ashanti Welton McLean, 28, was found guilty today in New Hanover County Superior Court for her role in trafficking and promoting the prostitution of a minor . McLean pleaded guilty to trafficking a child victim, promoting prostitution of a child victim, and conspiring to commit these crimes with co-defendant Marvarlus Cortel Snead, 33, of Johnston County.
The vice sting operation in January 2018 was the result of a joint investigation between the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI, one that “revealed that Snead groomed the 17-year-old minor child to trust him and McLean then transported the victim from her uncle’s house in Benson, North Carolina in order to engage in prostitution,” according to a release from District Attorney Ben David’s office.
McLean and Snead both knew the child was 17 years old and “that she was homeless and hungry,” according to the release. McLean posted photographs of the child in advertisements online to attract customers looking for prostitution services.
“The children who are victimized in human trafficking and promotion of prostitution crimes are most often kids who have not been protected or provided for sufficiently for most of their lives,” Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan said. “There are no family members looking for these kids. No one is reporting them missing. There’s no one coming to court in support of these children.”
David said his office helped write and pass the Safe Harbor Act, “one of the harshest laws in the country relating to human trafficking,” which gives immunity to victims and allows them to have their criminal records expunged for prostitution charges.
“It makes pimping a felony and sends traffickers to prison for years,” David said. “Ms. Mclean is a human trafficker, not a victim. Any narrative to the contrary avoids the facts. There is no such thing as a child prostitute, only children who are being prostituted. We will continue to be a strong voice for victims and hold those who would exploit them fully accountable under the law.”
McLean’s attorney, Merritt Wagoner, argued at a bond hearing in August that although he recognized his client was a transgender escort, she was only involved in sexual services with adults and was not involved in promoting the 17-year-old as a prostitute. According to Wagoner, the minor in question previously told court officials that “Ms. McLean had no idea what I was doing.”
But Jordan, the lead prosecutor in the case, said the investigation had clarified that the minor did not post advertisements online herself. Although social media research had indicated Snead was the recruiter of the minor, electronic conversations between Snead and McLean revealed that both were involved in her prostitution, according to Jordan.
“She is the type of child preyed upon by people like Marvarlus Snead and Ashanti McLean,” Jordan said at the August hearing.
McLean will serve between 8 and 14 years in prison. Charges against Snead are still pending.
“When released from prison, these convictions will require Ms. McLean to register as a sexual offender with the NC Sex Offender and Public Protection Registry for a period of 30 years,” according to the release.