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Two Convicted in Merced Human Trafficking Case

MERCED - A man and woman pleaded guilty on Tuesday in Merced County Superior Court to coercing a teenage runaway into prostitution in Merced.

Samuel L. Packard, 32, pleaded guilty to a single felony count of human trafficking of a minor for a sexual act. His co-defendant, Ashley M. Gonzalez, 21, pleaded guilty to a single count of pandering a minor over the age of 16, the Merced County District Attorney’s Office confirmed.

Both defendants, who are from Fresno, entered their pleas Tuesday before Judge Mark V. Bacciarini in Merced County Superior Court, just minutes before their trial was scheduled to begin.

Packard’s plea agreement with prosecutors requires him to serve 11 years in state prison and register as a sex offender for life, according to Allen Grove, the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case.

Gonzalez faces up to four years in prison and may also have to register as sex offender, Grove said.

Both defendants will be formally sentenced Feb. 27 in Merced.

“I’m relieved we were able to reach a resolution in the case without having to subject the victim to reliving the details in open court in front of strangers,” Grove said Wednesday. “I think the sentence sends the message that traffickers and pimps who are complicit in coercing minors into prostitution will be held accountable for their actions.”

Gonzalez’s attorney, Jeffrey Tenenbaum, said his client, whom he noted is also “very young,” regrets the incident. “She feels very bad for her role in this matter,” Tenenbaum said Wednesday.

Packard’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Stephanie Jamieson, was not available for comment Wednesday.

Both defendants were arrested Aug. 4 by the Merced Police Department.

Authorities said the pair drove the 17-year-old girl from Fresno to the Gateway Motel in the 1400 block of West 16th Street in Merced, where they encouraged her into prostitution. Prosecutors said the girl went with Packard and Gonzalez because she feared she would be harmed if she tried to walk away.

Grove praised the work of the Merced Police Department, particularly the efforts of Officer Kalvin Haygood, the lead investigator in the case. “His work was very important and exposed something we’re not used to seeing here, but is definitely on everybody’s radar,” Grove said.

Capt. Tom Trindad said police over the last several months have focused on reducing crime around the string of motels on West 16th Street. Officers and the district attorney’s office have worked with business owners in the area to add security camera and lighting and other measures in an effort to curb the crime and violence associated with the area.

Trindad said he was pleased with work officers did on the human trafficking case.

“These cases take time and great investigative skill to bring together all the evidence needed to get a conviction. It speaks to (Haygood’s) diligence and the diligence of the (Disruptive Area Response Team) bringing this case together,” Trindad said.

Packard and Gonzalez remain in custody at the John Latorraca Correctional Facility.

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