A Charlotte man was convicted Monday of running a brutal prostitution ring that trafficked women up and down the East Coast and used violence to keep them under his control.
A federal jury in Charlotte deliberated for more than two hours before finding Shahid Hassan “Sharp” Muslim guilty of sex trafficking, kidnapping, producing child pornography and witness tampering.
U.S. District Judge Robert Conrad will sentence Muslim at a later date. The 31-year-old faces a maximum punishment of life in prison.
The verdict followed a weeklong trial with testimony from five of the 12 women who were lured into Muslim’s prostitution ring and then threatened and beaten to stay.
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One woman told the jury that after she fled Muslim’s “family” and reported him to police, he lured her to a hotel under the guise of being a customer. Dressed in black and wearing a mask in the shape of a skull, Muslim beat her, then shoved her into the trunk of his car. Back at his home, the attacks resumed, and the woman said she was dragged handcuffed to a shower, where Muslim turned on the cold water and left her for the night.
Muslim never hit his girls in the face, one witness said, because he didn’t want to damage his merchandise.
Investigators say Muslim’s prostitution ring, which offered girls and women from ages 16 to 25, operated from at least 2010 to Muslim’s arrest in November.
Prosecutors say the pimp found his women on street corners or walking their dogs, offering them a home they no longer had. He kidnapped and had sex with all of them, then coerced them into selling their bodies around Charlotte, throughout North Carolina and in other states.
‘Promise of a better life’
The investigation involved the FBI, Homeland Security and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police.
“Muslim preyed upon young and vulnerable women ... with the promise of a better life,” said U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins of Charlotte. “Once in, Muslim used unspeakable violence to control and exploit these women and girls.”
Defense attorney Roderick Wright of Charlotte said his client was the victim of overzealous investigators and prostitutes working on their own who were trying to shift the blame to avoid prosecution.
“This is not about power and exploitation; this is about self-preservation,” Wright said. These are “young ladies who got caught up in a sting operation, and there was a target placed square on the chest of (Muslim).”
Prosecution witnesses said Muslim used Backpage.com, a classified advertising website, to post salacious ads of his prostitutes.
The ads used pictures lifted from the Internet. One began: “I’m the girl you see in the magazines.”
Clients, or “johns,” would call or email to set up meetings in hotel rooms, often near interstate highways or major roads.
One witness, who said she worked for Muslim and accused him of beating her, told jurors she met him through a mutual friend and worked for him for nearly a year. She made $100 if clients came to her and $150 if she had to travel to them.
In most instances, she said, Muslim or someone else in his organization would drop her off at a hotel. After the sex, she would turn over her money to Muslim, ostensibly for protection. They settled on a 50-50 split.
“I felt like I needed some kind of protection,” she said. “I was afraid of what was going to happen if I did it alone.”
Eventually, she said, she came to fear Muslim. He was violent with her and the other women, especially if they hid money, she said, and they were brutalized for speaking ill of him.
“This defendant is one of the most violent and inhumane human traffickers we have ever encountered in North Carolina,” said Ryan Spradlin, acting special agent for ICE Homeland Security Investigations in Atlanta.
“Thankfully, by working with the FBI, we were able to get this monster off of the streets.” Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed