Just before closing arguments in his human-trafficking trial, an Akron man pleaded guilty Wednesday afternoon to all of the charges against him.
Summit County Common Pleas Judge Amy Corrigall Jones immediately sentenced Darren Townsend to 14 years in prison, the penalty agreed upon by attorneys.
“He decided the risk of a jury verdict was too much,” said Noah Munyer, Townsend’s attorney.
Townsend, 38, faced up to 38 years in prison if the jury convicted him on all of the charges he faced. This included two human-trafficking charges that each carried potential sentences of up to 15 years in prison.
Townsend was the first person in Summit County tried under a “trafficking in persons” law that began in 2011. Since then, the majority of human trafficking cases have been handled at the federal level.
His trial began Monday and included testimony from the two young women he was accused of trafficking. Prosecutors say he preyed on vulnerable women and forced them to sell themselves in exchange for money, shelter, drugs and other items.
Pearl Coffey, 35, Townsend’s girlfriend, pleaded guilty in January under an agreement with prosecutors to attempted trafficking in persons, compelling prostitution, and one count of corrupting another with drugs. She hasn’t yet been sentenced.
Prosecutors said Townsend was the ringleader, while Coffey handled the business side.
Coffey had agreed to testify against Townsend, but refused when called Wednesday. She took the Fifth Amendment, which protects people from being compelled to testify when they could incriminate themselves.
The younger of the two victims, who was 17 when she was involved with Townsend, testified Wednesday that Coffey or Townsend would pick her up from her high school and take her to various locations where she would have sex for money. She also said Townsend forced her to have sex with him multiple times and didn’t use a condom.
“It was kind of scary,” she said. “I just let it all happen. I let myself go away.”
Assistant Prosecutor Tom Kroll asked if the situation became less scary at some point.
“I kind of grew into it,” she said. “I started to not really care.”
After Townsend was arrested, the girl said she continued to have sex for money, working for Coffey instead of Townsend.
Townsend pleaded guilty Wednesday to two counts of trafficking in persons, six counts of promoting prostitution, three counts of compelling prostitution, and one count of corrupting another with drugs.
When Jones asked Townsend if he wanted to speak before she sentenced him, he said, “Uh, no.”
Jones sentenced Townsend to 14 years on each of the two human-trafficking charges and a lesser amount of prison time on the other charges, but ran the penalties concurrently, for a total of 14 years in prison. She designated him a Tier 2 sex offender, which means he will be required to register his residency with the county sheriff for 25 years.
Townsend must serve 13 years before he is eligible for an early release, prosecutors say.
Munyer said in his opening statement that Townsend was guilty of compelling prostitution, but not of human trafficking.
After Townsend was sentenced, Munyer said he has a problem with the state’s human-trafficking law, which closely mirrors the compelling prostitution law but carries with it a penalty five times more severe.
“It’s already illegal,” Munyer said. “It’s called ‘compelling prostitution.’ ”
Ultimately, though, Munyer said he was satisfied with the outcome, considering the potential lengthy prison sentence his client faced.
“I think justice was served,” he said.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.