A 23-year-old man was found guilty of human trafficking Thursday, making him the first person convicted this year in Palm Beach County of an offense some have described as modern-day slavery.
A jury found Christopher Thomas guilty on one count each of human trafficking, kidnapping, false imprisonment, deriving support for proceeds of prostitution and aggravated assault. Judge Laura Johnson adjudicated Thomas guilty on the human trafficking and kidnapping charges, saying the remaining counts will be addressed during the sentencing phase. She scheduled the sentencing hearing for Jan. 17.
Thomas was acquitted on counts of aggravated assault with a firearm, carrying a concealed firearm and false imprisonment while in possession of a firearm.
Thomas, one of three men accused in the Feb. 9 kidnapping of a 19-year-old woman from a Boynton Beach sober home, sat silently as the jury’s verdict was read, briefly glancing at family members who seated in back of the courtroom.
Outside the courtroom, his family members — some fighting tears — voiced frustration with the verdict, saying they believe the prosecution distorted the facts.
“There was no evidence to say my son trafficked anybody,” said Sebrena Watkins, his mother. “He had a 40-hour job. Even the state’s witness verified this boy did absolutely nothing.”
Human trafficking is the use of fraud, force or coercion to exploit another person for sex, labor or domestic servitude. At least 10 people have been arrested in Palm Beach County since January on the charge. That month, the county formed a task force, led by State Attorney Dave Aronberg, that has raised awareness of the crime in South Florida and helped bring about several of the arrests.
Until Thursday, no one in the county had been convicted of the offense at the state level this year, although a suburban Boynton Beach man entered a guilty plea in a separate case last month. That man, Joel Bautista Trinidad, is now trying to change his plea and seek a jury trial. In a federal court, Marco Orrego, also of suburban Boynton Beach, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for sex trafficking involving a minor.
The defense argued that Thomas was not involved in the kidnapping and that he had only provided a ride for the other defendants, Jackson Poinvil and Jimmy Edmond, when they went to find the 19-year-old woman on the night of Feb. 9. That month, authorities charged all three men with human trafficking, alleging they tried to force their victim into prostitution.
“He doesn’t do anything like this,” said Calvin Thomas, Christopher’s brother. He and other family members said Thomas resides in West Palm Beach, although jail records give him a Port St. Lucie address.
“He knew them because he was in the neighborhood. We live there. That was it,” Calvin Thomas said. “They asked him for rides, he would do rides. He was just being nice. He is a nice kid and he got taken advantage of.”
Poinvil, testifying for the state as part of a plea deal, said the woman had worked as a prostitute for Edmond and had run away, taking some of Edmond’s possessions with her. Thomas and Edmond removed her from the sober home at gunpoint, the witness said. During the trial, Poinvil testified that he had provided a gun to Thomas moments before the kidnapping.
Prior to their final deliberations, the jury asked Johnson if it was possible to find Thomas guilty without including the gun possession charges. Johnson said they could.
Johnny Weekes, the attorney for Thomas, called the jury’s verdict inconsistent “considering that the witnesses testified that my client had a gun but they found him guilty of the charges without any guns. I think the jury decided for convenience, to split it.”
Edmond, Poinvil’s half-brother, is due for a status hearing in his case in December, according to court records.