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Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald, Published April 15 2013

Two men charged with pimping plead guilty just before trial

With potential jurors waiting in the next room, two men slated for trial on a human trafficking charge that could have put them in prison for life pleaded guilty at the last minute this morning to a lesser charge in a Grand Forks court.

Travis Johnson and Joshua Harry were charged in August in state district court with trafficking a 17-year-old girl to several men in Grand Forks in early 2011. If convicted of the Class AA felony, they would have faced up to life in prison without parole in what would have been the first trial under the 2009 law.

State District Judge Sonja Clapp, during final pre-trial business this morning, accepted a guilty plea by Harry, 27, to a lesser felony of promoting prostitution. Prosecutors told Clapp they were OK with amending the charge down to a Class C felony with a top penalty of five years if Harry pleaded guilty. Which he did.

Johnson, 30, then huddled with his attorney, David Ogren, for 10 minutes, returning to plead guilty to a similar charge.

Harry’s plea was “the tipping point,” for Johnson, who had maintained he didn’t pimp the girl, Ogren told Judge Clapp. In his plea, Harry had agreed to testify against Johnson.

Meredith Larson, assistant state’s attorney for Grand Forks County, told Clapp she would dismiss the human trafficking charge against Johnson if he pleaded guilty to a second charge of corruption of a minor, a Class C felony. Johnson admitted he had sex himself with the girl in early 2011 as a way of introducing her to prostitution.

The late pleas meant 70 potential jurors who braved the bad weather this morning to assemble in the Grand Forks

County courthouse – which opened at 10 a.m., two hours late - for jury selection were quickly dismissed.

One of them had a minor vehicle accident in the county parking ramp, a court official said.

All looked rather relieved as they trooped out of the court room after Judge Clapp explained what had transpired. The trial had been scheduled to last the week.

Clapp sent sentencing for Harry in about a month and for Johnson on July 15. Each faces up to five years in prison.

Both have previous felony convictions and Johnson also faces a felony charge in Minnesota.

Larson said after the hearing this was the result she had been looking for from the start.

“I wanted to spare the girl from having to testify,” she said. Meanwhile, the two men admitted guilt in the matter and will face serious prison time, Larson said.

A former co-defendant of the men, Amanda Stewart, 22, pleaded guilty to a similar felony – criminal facilitation – in January and will be sentenced April 24.