Young women held captive and forced to perform sex acts.
Threats to cut out a woman’s unborn baby.
Beatings and attempts at jailhouse intimidation.
It was all part of a sex trafficking ring that operated out of a midtown Omaha home for about three years, from the summer of 2007 through last June. Federal and local authorities say the ring’s operators preyed on women, some of them runaways as young as 13 and 15.
Three of the ring’s main players will be sentenced this week in federal court in Council Bluffs: Merrideth Crane-Horton, 32; her husband, Edwin “Nate” Horton, 35; and Katherine M. Heredia, 23. Heredia’s husband, Ramon D. Heredia, 21, will be sentenced in April.
The four pleaded guilty last fall to conspiring to commit or financially benefit from sex trafficking.
Crane-Horton is described in court records as the “mastermind.” Her husband handled the money, while Ramon Heredia, Horton’s nephew, provided the muscle. Katherine Heredia worked as a prostitute.
The Hortons lived in a 1½-story home near 30th and Poppleton Avenues in Omaha. At some point in 2007, the Heredias moved in, and the four shared 1,300 square feet and living expenses.
Katherine Heredia told authorities she would sometimes work as a prostitute so she and her husband could make rent.
She and two other prostitutes provided authorities with details on the inner workings of the ring and helped prosecutors build their case.
Council Bluffs police and FBI agents learned of the operation in January 2010, when they responded to an ad on Craigslist as part of a prostitution sting.
A then-18-year-old La Vista woman met an undercover police officer in a Council Bluffs apartment.
While she negotiated a $160 sex act inside the apartment, Crane-Horton and Ramon Heredia waited outside in a car — with the young prostitute’s 9-week-old daughter.
When authorities arrested Crane-Horton and Ramon Heredia, they found a GPS device in the vehicle. The device was used to locate the ring’s “johns,” or clients, according to court documents.
Anna Brewer, head of the local Innocence Lost task force, said in court testimony that the sex ring existed because of Crane-Horton.
“People told me over and over again that she was the mastermind ... she was the one that came up with this whole business,” Brewer said.
It was a brutal business.
A 15-year-old Bellevue girl described meeting Ramon Heredia through friends at her high school.
The girl eventually ran away, still wearing a court-ordered monitor on her ankle. She told authorities that Crane-Horton advised her how to use butter to remove the ankle bracelet.
The ring’s leaders gave the teen a place to stay, an FBI special agent testified, but was told that she couldn’t leave the house unaccompanied. If she didn’t obey, she was warned, she would be reported to police.
During a two-day period, the FBI agent testified, the girl was forced to perform two or three sex acts for pay, with all the money going to the ring’s leaders.
She finally escaped with a 13-year-old girl. The two stole a car.
The ring’s operators sometimes kept order by beating women in front of other women, according to court documents. The 15-year-old Bellevue runaway witnessed one of the beatings. She was warned that the same thing would happen to her if she didn’t perform sex acts.
Katherine Heredia told authorities she was berated in front of two prostitutes to “keep them in line.”
A local expert on human trafficking said it’s not uncommon for a victim like Katherine Heredia to become a co-conspirator.
“It is very similar to a domestic violence situation,” said Linda Burkle, director of the Omaha Salvation Army’s social services division. “It is somewhat like Stockholm syndrome. After a period of brainwashing and ‘breaking,’ you co-opt with your abuser ... and bring into the fold younger people. It is a distorted idea of love.”
Burkle, a mental health practitioner, said runaways are particularly susceptible to sex traffickers. They need food and a place to sleep, and they are vulnerable to what some call “survivor sex.”
One woman, now 20, told authorities that Crane-Horton and Ramon Heredia beat her to coerce her into prostitution and to keep her from talking to police. The woman said Crane-Horton would lock her inside a room without heat or lights to compel her to perform sex acts.
Katherine Heredia said in July 2009, when she was seven months pregnant, Crane-Horton pulled out a kitchen knife and threatened to cut out her unborn baby.
Another time, when Katherine Heredia was in jail in Council Bluffs, Edwin Horton called and threatened her. He warned that if she testified against his wife, the “family” would be upset.
Horton was the last to be indicted. According to court documents, neighbors came forward with more information after his wife and the Heredias were arrested. The neighbors told authorities they felt safer and were able to finally talk.
After the indictments, authorities continued to look for some of the ring’s “johns.”
Two men — John Haas, 58, of Papillion and Edward E. Kosiski, 45, of Omaha — have been ordered to stand trial on charges of first-degree sexual assault of a child. Each is accused of having sex with the 15-year-old Bellevue runaway.
Haas’ attorney could not be reached. Kosiski, co-owner and promoter of Nebraska Raceway Park outside Greenwood, has denied the charges.
If convicted, the two could be sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
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