JUST IN: Boynton human-trafficking case has St. Lucie man on trial

Updated Nov 15, 2017
Christopher Thomas enters court for his trial on human trafficking charges Wednesday morning, November 15, 2017. He is the first person to go on trial on human trafficking charges in Palm Beach County this year. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

One of the first men to charged with human trafficking in Palm Beach County this year appeared in court Wednesday afternoon — but as a key witness for the state.

Jackson Poinvil, one of three men charged in the kidnapping of a 19-year-old Boynton Beach woman in February, told the court that he provided a weapon just prior to the kidnapping to co-defendant Christopher Thomas, the first person to be tried on human trafficking charges in Palm Beach County this year. Poinvil, who took a plea deal last month in exchange for his testimony, spoke of Thomas’ anger as the men removed the woman from a sober home.

The woman, Poinvil said, had been working as a prostitute for his half-brother, Jimmy Edmond, who will face his own trial on human-trafficking charges next month. Edmond believed she had run away from him and stolen some of his possessions.

“He said, ‘I should throw you in the lake,’ ” Poinvil, who pleaded guilty to a weapons charge, recalled Thomas telling the woman, now 20.

Read The Post’s coverage of human trafficking in Palm Beach County

Called by some modern-day slavery, 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.

Thus far, no one in Palm Beach County has 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 opening-day testimony in Thomas’ trial included statements from Boynton Beach police investigators and a former resident of the sober home who testified that two men entered his garage and held him at gunpoint.

Defense attorney Johnny Weekes argued that Thomas was not involved in the kidnapping, never entered the house or pulled a gun. During questioning of an undercover detective Wednesday, he argued that the state had presented advertisements as evidence that had nothing to do with Thomas.

“My client is innocent,” Weekes said outside of the courtroom. “At best, the only thing he did was drive individuals to and from certain areas.”

Weekes questioned Poinvil about an injury prior to the alleged kidnapping that required Thomas to wear a sling over his shoulder. Poinvil testified that Thomas took the sling off just prior to going into the house.

Ross Gutwein, a former Boynton Beach resident who now lives in Indiana, took the stand for the state. Gutwein, 35, testified that he and another man were in the garage when two men entered the home with guns.

“We just want the girl,” Gutwein said.

Gutwein said his father owns the property and he had come to Florida for rehabilitation for substance abuse.

Gutwein said one of the gunmen had a .22-caliber semiautomatic and the other .22-caliber revolver. When asked by the defense which gun Thomas was carrying, Gutwein took a “educated guess” that it was the semiautomatic.

“Both people entered my garage with guns. They both had firearms,” Gutwein said when questioned about his certainty.

Testimony is expected to resume Thursday morning before Judge Laura Johnson.