The U-S Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Iowa reports 29-year old Johnelle Lewis Bell, of Hammonton, New Jersey, was sentenced Friday in United States District Court in Des Moines on charges of sex trafficking and associated charges. Bell was sentenced to a total of 30-years in prison, to be followed by 5-years of supervised release. He must also pay a $1,200 special assessment for the Crime Victim Fund. Bell remained in the custody of the United States Marshal’s Service pending designation of the Federal Bureau of Prisons facility at which he will serve his sentence.
U-S Attorney Nicholas Klinefeldt said “Bell essentially enslaved these women, and forced them to commit sex acts for his financial gain. Bell’s sentence, which he must serve 85% of, reflects the seriousness of his crime.” In all, Bell was sentenced on 12 charges, including conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, sex trafficking, coercion or enticement to travel in interstate commerce for prostitution, conspiracy to transport in interstate commerce for prostitution and transportation in interstate commerce for prostitution.
Bell was originally indicted in a twelve-count indictment on April 26, 2012, and a twelve-count superseding indictment was returned by the Federal Grand Jury on November 6, 2012. On November 20, 2012, following an almost week-long trial, a federal jury in Council Bluffs found Bell guilty of all twelve counts with which he was charged. The charges arose from a prostitution sting operation on June 18, 2011, by the Child Exploitation Task Force (formerly the Great Plains Innocence Lost Task Force) operating in the Omaha-Council Bluffs area.
While the case dealt primarily with young adult females roughly 19-23 years of age, at least two of the young adults involved in this case reported becoming engaged in prostitution as minors, by at least about ages 16 or 17. FBI Special Agent in Charge Thomas R. Metz says “This sentencing removes an evil predator from the streets and prevents him from exploiting others.” On June 18, 2011, answering ads for prostitution on Backpage.com, for Omaha and Council Bluffs, an undercover FBI agent posing as a customer arranged a “date” for prostitution. At the ensuing raid, agents and officers encountered Johnelle Lewis Bell and three adult females engaged in prostitution. The resulting federal investigation uncovered a sex trafficking venture involving Bell and as yet to be formally identified “pimp partners,” centering around Little Rock, Arkansas.
Young adult women formerly working as prostitutes for Bell testified at trial regarding their histories of very troubled childhoods, mental and emotional problems, homelessness and lack of material support, and substance abuse. The victims testified that Bell lured them to work for Bell on promises of love and long-lasting personal relationships, and help with problems in their lives. However, once they engaged in prostitution for Bell, the promises evaporated, and all of the money from the sex acts they performed at Bell’s direction, went to Bell. One of the victims testified she was repeatedly physically assaulted by Bell. She said Bell also threatened the victim’s family, and her very young child with serious harm or death if she did not do as Bell told her.
23-year old Brittany Lawson, of Hot Springs, Arkansas, a co-defendant of Bell’s, pled guilty on October 12, 2012, to Count 1 of the original Indictment, conspiracy to commit sex trafficking. Lawson was sentenced on February 25, 2013, in Council Bluffs, to 50 months in prison, to be followed by 5 years of supervised release.