Woman Sentenced to 50 Years in State Prison for Human Trafficking Conviction— Forced Girl, 17, to Work as Prostitute

March 4, 2021

By: Tyler Eckel

TRENTON (MERCER)– Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced that a woman was sentenced to 50 years in state prison today after being convicted at trial of first-degree human trafficking and other charges for forcing a girl, 17, to engage in prostitution at hotels in Mercer County, N.J.

Ashley Gardener, 32, of Trenton, was sentenced to 50 years in state prison, including 20 years of parole ineligibility, by Superior Court Judge Darlene J. Pereksta.  Gardener was convicted by a Mercer County jury on Oct. 24, 2019 of conspiracy (1st degree), human trafficking (1st degree), facilitating human trafficking (2nd degree), promoting prostitution of a minor (1st degree), promoting organized street crime (1st degree), and endangering the welfare of a child (2nd degree).  She was sentenced to 25 years in prison with 20 years of parole ineligibility on the first-degree human trafficking charge, consecutive to 25 years in prison on the first-degree promoting organized street crime charge.  Gardener received concurrent sentences of 15 years, eight years, and eight years, respectively, on the charges of promoting prostitution of a minor, facilitating human trafficking, and endangering the welfare of a child.  She will be required to register under Megan’s Law and will be subject to parole supervision for life.

Deputy Attorneys General Katherine Morris and James Ruberton tried the case for the Division of Criminal Justice Gangs & Organized Crime Bureau, Human Trafficking Unit.  The lead detective was Detective Rodrick Jones of the New Jersey State Police, supervised by Detective Sgt. John Cipot.

Gardener and co-defendant Breon Mickens, 28, of Trenton, were charged in an investigation by the New Jersey State Police and Division of Criminal Justice, assisted by the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, Lawrence Police Department, New Jersey Department of Children and Families, and U.S. Marshals Service New York/New Jersey Regional Fugitive Task Force.  Mickens pleaded guilty to second-degree conspiracy and was sentenced to five years in prison in November 2019.  The investigation began when the victim escaped from a hotel where she was forced by Gardener and Mickens to engage in prostitution.

“This prosecution reflects our commitment to ensure that human traffickers like Gardener face justice,” said Attorney General Grewal. “These offenders prey on vulnerable victims, forcing them into a life of sexual slavery.  We will continue to work tirelessly with our law enforcement partners at all levels, as well as victim advocates, to raise awareness about human trafficking, rescue victims, and apprehend those responsible for these terrible crimes.”

“Through our human trafficking awareness efforts, we’re reminding the public that these crimes can happen anywhere, and your vigilance may save a captive victim,” Attorney General Grewal added. “If you suspect human trafficking, please call 1-855-END-NJ-HT. You are our eyes and ears.”

“I commend our trial team, the State Police, and all of the others who assisted the young victim in this case and helped us to convict Gardener,” said Director Veronica Allende of the Division of Criminal Justice.  “These crimes occur largely in the shadows, outside of public view, but this victim escaped and thanks to a concerned motorist and the swift response of the State Police and partnering agencies, she was rescued and her traffickers were successfully prosecuted.  This case should motivate other members of the public to alert authorities when they suspect human trafficking.”

“Trafficking anyone, man or woman, boy or girl, is a violation of basic human rights—it is appalling and indecent, and it will not be tolerated in New Jersey,” said Colonel Patrick Callahan, Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police.  “I would like to commend all of our partners in this case, from the troopers who found the victim on the side of the road to the attorneys who secured the guilty verdict, for ensuring justice was served.”

On Jan. 11, 2018 at 11:00 p.m., troopers from the New Jersey State Police Hamilton Station were dispatched to investigate a report of a young woman walking along Interstate 295 in Lawrence Township.  Troopers located the 17-year-old victim, who reported that she escaped from a hotel where she was being forced to perform sex acts.  As a result, the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, Lawrence Police Department, and New Jersey Department of Children and Families responded to assist the New Jersey State Police with the investigation.

Investigators determined that Gardener and Mickens transported the victim to hotels against her will to engage in prostitution. For three days before she was rescued, the victim was forced by Gardener to engage in sexual intercourse with approximately four to 15 men per day.  The victim was deprived of food, given marijuana to smoke, and prohibited from calling her family.  The investigation revealed that Gardener and Mickens forced the victim to engage in prostitution on several other occasions between Dec. 27 and Jan. 11 at various hotels in the Mercer County area, refusing to let her leave the hotel for a period of two to three days and forcing her to have sex with multiple men each day.

Sexually suggestive ads featuring photos of Gardener and the victim were placed on Backpage.com.  The ads offered adult entertainment and listed a phone number to call. That number was Gardener’s phone number.  Gardener would arrange by telephone for the sexual services and a price to be paid by the client, or “John.”  When a client arrived, Gardener would collect cash from the client and tell the 17-year-old victim what sex acts she had to perform. Gardener sometimes would stay in the room, but other times she would leave.  Mickens acted as the “muscle” for the operation.  He also served as driver, receiving pay from Gardener to drive her and the victim to hotels.  The victim never received any of the money from the clients.

Shortly after the victim was rescued, members of the New Jersey State Police Trafficking Central Unit and Troop “C” Criminal Investigations Office located and arrested Gardener at a hotel in Lawrence Township, N.J.  On Jan. 14, 2018, the New Jersey State Police Trafficking Central Unit, Fugitive Unit, Electronic Surveillance Unit, and the United States Marshals Service New York/New Jersey Regional Fugitive Task Force-Trenton Division located and arrested Mickens in Trenton.

Former Deputy Attorney General Sarah Mielke presented the case to the state grand jury.  Deputy Attorneys General Morris, Ruberton, and Mielke prosecuted the case for the Division of Criminal Justice Gangs & Organized Crime Bureau, Human Trafficking Unit, under the supervision of Deputy Bureau Chief Erik Daab and Bureau Chief Lauren Scarpa Yfantis.  Attorney General Grewal commended the detectives of the New Jersey State Police Trafficking Central Unit who led the investigation, as well as the State Police Troop “C” Criminal Investigations Office, Fugitive Unit, and Electronic Surveillance Unit.  Attorney General Grewal also thanked the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, Lawrence Police Department, New Jersey Department of Children and Families, and U.S. Marshals Service New York/New Jersey Regional Fugitive Task Force for their valuable assistance.