PITTSBURGH (AP) – A Pennsylvania man will spend 12 years in prison for sex trafficking four teenage runaways from Ohio who were found in his car – along with 8,000 individual dose bags of heroin – when a state trooper pulled him over last year.
Robert Middlebrook pleaded guilty in January to a federal charge of sex trafficking a minor and acknowledged responsibility for several other counts, including a conspiracy charge that carried a mandatory minimum 15-year sentence.
Defense attorney Douglas Sughrue said Middlebrook and prosecutors agreed to the lesser 12-year sentence imposed Wednesday because he wanted to take responsibility for his actions – and because of the mandatory minimum sentences that “allow politicians to get elected for being ‘tough on crime,'” but “are not based on any kind of science or sociology.”
The Clairton man was on probation for heroin possession when state troopers charged him with drug offenses and trafficking in minors – three of the girls were 17, one was 16 – after a traffic stop near Harrisburg in February 2015. The state charges were dropped after federal investigators took over as part of an emphasis on human trafficking by U.S. Attorney David Hickton of Pittsburgh.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Lieber Smolar told the judge at Wednesday’s sentencing that Middlebrook’s crimes are “obviously very serious” and violated the girls’ civil rights.
Middlebrook apologized to the girls and their parents and said, “I also wanted to apologize to my mother. I never meant to disappoint her.” His mother burst into tears and rushed from the courtroom.
U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab said he took Middlebrook’s background into account in approving the agreed-upon prison sentence, to be followed by five years’ probation.
The judge noted Middlebrook’s parents split up because of his father’s heroin addiction, which stemmed from his service in Vietnam. Middlebrook has since fathered nine children by seven women and struggled with drug and alcohol use. When he’s worked legally, it’s usually been as a maintenance man.
But Sughrue said his client was, by and large, “a drug dealer” – not a child-trafficker – who essentially picked up and pimped teenage runaways who had already been engaged in those kinds of activities.
Sughrue noted the girls all had cellphones but opted not to call authorities – or their families – while they were selling sexual services for Middlebrook. “If they had wanted to reach out to their families or law enforcement, they could have,” Sughrue said.
Smolar painted a different picture. Middlebrook drove two girls to the Pittsburgh area in February from the Canton-Akron area, where they were all friends and runaways. Once in Pennsylvania, Middlebrook told the girls they’d work as prostitutes through ads placed on Backpage.com, Smolar said.
Middlebrook had the girls pose in lingerie at his home for cellphone photos used in the ads, and a female co-defendant, Kiari Day, who pleaded guilty in November, helped the girls style their hair and taught them how to act with “johns” – or male sex customers. Day cooperated with authorities and will be sentenced in December.
The girls were also given marijuana and ecstasy and supplied with condoms, Smolar said.