NEW ORLEANS — Responding to community outrage over what critics slammed as low bail amounts set for two sex-trafficking suspects, a judge Thursday dramatically increased the bail amounts after hearing graphic testimony from a State Police investigator.
Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell raised the bail for Jovan Martin from $20,000 to $350,000, and for Elbert Riascos from $90,000 to $900,000, declaring the suspects a “danger to the community.”
Cantrell also cited the strong reaction from New Orleans City Council members and other critics over the bail amounts he set two weeks ago. The two men were arrested Dec. 19.
The suspects are accused of holding a 16-year-old girl against her will, forcing her to ingest drugs, selling her to others for sex, and in the case of Riascos, rape.
Some of the sex acts took place in the bathroom of a fast-food restaurant, according to testimony from a State Police investigator in charge of the case. The footage was retrieved from Riascos’ cell phone, which was recovered after the 16-year-old girl was rescued.
The investigator testified that the girl, a runaway who suffers from mental illness, reached out to her high school classmates during her abduction.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, who was among the officials who blasted the original bail amounts as too low, issued a statement following the bail increase.
“I am pleased with the judge’s decision today to impose a higher bond that is more commensurate with the very serious crimes of which these defendants stand accused," Cannizzaro said. "We have expressed our concern for months over the very low bond amounts recently being set in Criminal District Court, and it is heartening to at last see some city leaders sharing our astonishment and dismay. Those who insist that meaningful bail does not make our community safer have not walked in the shoes of the abused teen victim in this case, who would have been terrified and imperiled should these suspects easily slip from custody. But she is not unique among the many other crime victims made to fear reprisals when bonds are insufficient to protect public safety.”
WWL-TV also got reaction from anti-sex trafficking advocates at Covenant House New Orleans, a shelter for at-risk youth.
“I’m glad the judge heard us,” said Director Jim Kelly. “People who rape, sexually assault and pimp a 16-year-old should be put away. And at the very least, they should have a bond that keeps them off the street.”
Sheri Lochridge, a Covenant House caseworker, has rescued and counseled dozens of sex trafficking victims. She was a vocal critic of the original bail amounts set for Martin and Riascos.
“The court can send the biggest message,” Lochridge said. “And the message they sent the first time was, 'What you did was OK and the victim doesn’t matter.' Victims need to feel safe to be able to speak out, to be able to get help, to be able to be rescued.”
Lochridge said sex-trafficking, especially of minors, is among the most serious crimes plaguing New Orleans, yet among the most underreported and difficult to solve.
“Traffickers need consequences,” she said. “The commit horrible crimes. These girls are raped, beaten, tortured, starved. Their lives are ruined, their childhoods taken away from them.”
Attorneys for Martin and Riascos said their clients were never able to come up with their original bail amounts and contested the increases as unnecessary.
The suspects are scheduled to return to court on Jan. 18 for a preliminary hearing in which they can contest the charges against them, which in addition to sex trafficking includes drug and gun allegations.