TRENTON, N.J. — A New Jersey woman was sentenced to 50 years in a state prison Thursday after she was convicted of forcing a 17-year-old girl to engage in prostitution at hotels throughout Mercer County, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said.
Ashley Gardener, a 32-year-old from Trenton, was convicted of first-degree human trafficking, as well as charges of facilitating human trafficking, promoting prostitution of a minor, promoting organized street crime and child endangerment. Gardner will be required to register under Megan’s Law and be subject to parole supervision for life.
An investigation began when the 17-year-old victim escaped from a hotel where Gardener and her co-defendant, 28-year-old Breon Mickens, were forcing her to engage in sex work.
On Jan. 11, 2018 at 11 p.m., state troopers were dispatched to investigate after the woman was seen walking along I-295 in Lawrence Township. When they found her, she told them she was escaping from a hotel where she was forced to perform sex acts.
Investigators found out that Gardener and Mickens took the victim to hotels against her will to engage in sexual intercourse with anywhere from four to 15 men each day between Dec. 27 and Jan. 11, all the while being deprived of food, given marijuana to smoke, and prohibited from contacting family. They also placed sexually suggestive ads featuring photos of the underage girl on Backpage.com that listed Gardener’s phone number.
Mickens served as the “muscle” for the operation, according to the state, as well as a driver who was paid by Gardener to take her and the victim to hotels. The victim never received any of the money.
Shortly after the victim was found, Gardener was arrested, with Mickens arrested on Jan. 14. Gardener and Mickens were charged following an investigation by state police, Mercer County prosecutors, local police, department of children and families for the state and U.S. Marshals. Mickens pleaded guilty to second-degree conspiracy and got five years in prison in November of 2019.
“This prosecution reflects our commitment to ensure that human traffickers like Gardener face justice,” said 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.”