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Fight, Flight, and the Federal Court: Examining the Role Traffickers Play in Creating a Victim’s Climate of Fear
United States v. Gardner, 887 F.3d 780 (6th Cir. 2018)

By: JOHN COTTON RICHMONDKYLEIGH FEEHS, and CJ MURPHY

It started her freshman year. B.H. was only 14 when she met a senior named Mike Gardner. At that time, B.H. had no idea her friendship with Mike would lead to beatings, rapes, pornography, and being sold to strangers for sex.

By her senior year, a romantic relationship had developed between B.H. and Gardner. But Gardner had different motives than a typical high school relationship. He later bragged to his prison cellmate that his relationship with B.H. was a ploy to turn her into a money-making prostitute. Gardner admitted that he knew she was only 17 years old at the time.

Recruited by Romance, Controlled by Fear

After he trapped B.H. in a fictitious romance, Gardner directed his cousin to steal B.H.’s cell phone. From there, violence ensued. Gardner hit B.H. during sex and when she disobeyed. This toxic mixture of threats, violence, and promised romance allowed Gardner to force B.H. to prostitute by advertising her on Backpage.com.

Undercover Operation Lead to First Break in the Case

In October 2015, as part of the FBI’s Operation Cross Country, officers with the South East Michigan Crimes Against Children Task Force (SEMCAC) were trolling Backpage.com looking for children whom traffickers, like Gardner, were exploiting. They came across this advertisement:

Hey I’m Jewel. I’m sexy, sweet, and discrete. A true definition of a good girl gone bad. I’m your every fantasy come true. All real photos. Independent. Clean. Drug free. Outcalls only. No tacky hotel or service. Available anytime.
Poster’s age: 18

Officers called the number provided in the posting (Gardner’s phone) and talked to B.H. The price was $140 for 30 minutes and the location was the Red Roof Inn in Warren, Michigan. Once B.H. arrived at the hotel room, law enforcement swept in to interview B.H. Officers detained Gardner, who had been monitoring B.H. from the Knights Inn parking lot across the street.

After initially lying about her age, B.H. admitted she was 17. She consented to a search of the cell phone Gardner gave her to conduct business. There, police found nude photos that Gardner took of B.H. and videos of the two engaging in sex acts. Despite this evidence, the police made the mistake of releasing both Gardner and B.H. later that night.

Trafficking Victim Escapes for Good

Gardner then fled to his mother’s house in Kentucky. B.H., who was pregnant at the time, went with Gardner, hoping to start over and not be forced to do more “dates.” However, within a week, Gardner pressured B.H. back into commercial sex and responded to her objections with increased violence. Exhausted, abused, and traumatized, B.H. fled Gardner’s mom’s house. Although she did not know where she was running to, she had clarity about who she was running from. A good Samaritan found B.H. as she walked alone along the Kentucky road and took her to authorities.

Trafficker Held Accountable by the Criminal Justice System

Within a few months, a federal grand jury indicted Gardner for sex trafficking of a child based on his knowledge of B.H.’s age and his use of force, threats of force, fraud, or coercion to compel her to engage in commercial sex acts. The government also charged Gardner with the production of child pornography.

During the 2016 trial in the Eastern District of Michigan, the jury heard from B.H. and the undercover officer. They also saw a photo of Gardner brandishing weapons while wearing the insignia of his criminal gang, the Vice Lords. Even Gardner himself took the witness stand and testified for hours in an effort to avoid accountability for his actions.

The jury convicted Gardner of both offenses. Judge Gershwin A. Drain sentenced Gardner to 20 years in prison, but he failed to order Gardner to pay B.H. the mandatory victim restitution required by law. Gardner appealed his convictions.

“Climate of Fear” Evidence Admissible in Court

Gardner’s primary argument on appeal asserted that the jury should have never seen the photo of him brandishing a gun while wearing his Vice Lord gang symbols. Gardner felt that the photo was not relevant to the crime of sex trafficking or child pornography and that it was only used to make the jury think he was a violent gang member. Essentially, Gardner argued that the jury may have convicted him because of what the photo represented instead of the crimes charged in the indictment.

The Sixth Circuit quickly disagreed, holding that the photo was relevant because B.H. saw it while Gardner exploited her.1 B.H. testified that the photo of Gardner brandishing a firearm and his connection to a larger gang contributed to her fear of Gardner. The court said the photo was relevant because it could have a “tendency to make it more or less probable that [B.H.] believed Gardner was the kind of person who would harm her.” It did not actually matter whether Gardner was in a violent gang or personally possessed a gun, the photo became part of the “climate of fear” that Gardner used to compel his victim.2

The Sixth Circuit’s decision falls in line with several other circuits that have supported the inclusion of “climate of fear” evidence in sex trafficking cases against challenges under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b).3 The Eleventh Circuit, in United States v. Baston, noted that a defendant’s membership in the Bloods gang was one of the many means used by the defendant to coerce his victims to engage in prostitution. The Seventh Circuit, in United States v. Carson, allowed evidence about a defendant’s rape of one woman in the presence of others, as well as the defendant’s statement to a victim that he had murdered another woman. “[T]hese types of details,” according to the Seventh Circuit, “are directly relevant to the crime [of human trafficking]” because they demonstrate that the defendant created a climate of fear that communicated to the victim what the defendant was capable of if she did not follow his commands.

Whether photos indicating a defendant’s membership in a gang or testimony concerning a defendant’s prior violent acts, climate of fear evidence is relevant at trial to illustrate the methods of coercion used by the trafficker. The Sixth Circuit’s decision in Gardner affirms that items used against the victim to instill fear can later be used as evidence against the trafficker at trial.


  • 1 United States v. Michael Taylor Gardner, 887 F.3d 780 (6th Cir. April 16, 2018).
  • 2 United States v. Michael Taylor Gardner, 2016 WL 5110191 (W.D. Mich. September 21, 2016).
  • 3“Evidence of a crime, wrong, or other act is not admissible to prove a person’s character in order to show that on a particular occasion the person acted in accordance with the character.” Federal Rules of Evidence Rule 404(b).

About the author

John Cotton Richmond

John Cotton Richmond

As Co-Founding Director of the Human Trafficking Institute, John leads the Institute's programmatic work, including country projects, thought leadership, administration, and communication. John has led the establishment of our country projects in Belize and Uganda, led the vision of the Federal Human Trafficking Report and TraffickingMatters.com, and provided leadership in the establishment of Institute finance and human resource systems.

John previously served as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit and as an expert on human trafficking for the United Nations and at the European Union. He was named one of the “Prosecutors of the Year” by the Federal Law Enforcement Foundation and twice earned the DOJ’s Special Commendation Award. John co-designed the advanced human trafficking curriculum for federal agents. Before joining the DOJ, John served as the Director of the International Justice Mission’s slavery work in India. He is a graduate of Wake Forest University School of Law and the University of Mary Washington. John lives in Vienna, VA with his wife and three children.