HANFORD – As Hanford Police Detective Richard Pontecorvo got deeper and deeper into an investigation of several Hanford girls involved in a teen pimping and prostitution ring, he had to confront the big question: Why did they do it?
Pontecorvo, with 20 years under his belt at the Hanford Police Department, had never seen anything like it: A 16-year-old Hanford girl named Jelinajane Bedrijo Almario was pimping out two Hanford girls and one Avenal girl. They were 14 and 15 years old.
Through friends and acquaintances or social media, Almario lured them in and eventually got them to perform sex acts with men in motel rooms in the area.
Almario, who was sentenced last week in Kings County Superior Court to 13 years in state prison just a few days after she turned 18, smiles charmingly in her jail mugshot, looking for all the world like just another innocent, bright-eyed teen.
But Pontecorvo said that when he first encountered Almario a few years ago, she was hardened and unremorseful.
He said that, as the pimp, she was part of a sophisticated operation that was run through a street gang.
Almario was making a lot of money off the girls, in one case pocketing 90 percent of the take one girl brought in.
Almario was caught after she made threatening phone calls to one of the girl's parents demanding money she claimed the girl had taken from her.
Turned out the girl had done a job for another pimp, earning the pimp money that would otherwise have gone to Almario. She was angry about the lost revenue.
Pontecorvo said Almario knew exactly what she was doing. He doesn't have much sympathy for her.
"I feel she deserves every bit of [her sentence]," he said.
It's completely different with the girls Almario was taking advantage of.
None of them were charged with crimes.
Pontecorvo said they've been set up with counselors and other resources to help them heal.
At least one girl has returned to high school as she attempts to return to a normal life.
Pontecorvo said that before the investigation, he had black-and-white views of prostitution as a crime, plain and simple, regardless of age.
After interviewing the girls and learning about their fragility and vulnerability, he's changed his mind, at least as it relates to underage prostitution.
He made it clear that he sees the girls as victims.
"They were kids playing an adult's game," he said.
That change in perspective wasn't the only eye-opening aspect of the case for Pontecorvo, who is a father with his own daughter.
Every aspect of the investigation revealed new dimensions to a problem that itself seemed new: super distracted parents, kids without self-esteem, bad peers exerting a bad influence, gangs, a shadowy world of identity-hiding phone apps and a huge societal demand for sex that makes it lucrative for people like Almario to run prostitution rings.
What Almario did to the girls is underage sex trafficking, a whole new category of crime that Pontecorvo had never before encountered as a local police officer.
He'd investigated a few prostitution cases in the past, sure, but they involved older women and were nothing like this.
"We've never seen human trafficking in regards to sex, especially that young," he said.
Pontecorvo said he and Jason Gustin, the other Hanford police detective who worked the case, went to Los Angeles for training on how to investigate human trafficking cases.
Like many people from a similar background, Pontecorvo went into this thinking that the girls must have come from really bad homes.
But interviewing the parents, he found that it wasn't so cut and dry.
These weren't necessarily bad homes.
Some of the parents were divorced single parents who were distracted and under a lot of stress.
Pontecorvo said they came to the police to report that their daughters were missing.
Turns out that was another surprising aspect of the case.
The girls weren't traditional runaways in the sense of a teen who bails out of a bad home situation and disappears for weeks or months, living on the street and forced into prostitution out of a desperate need to make money.
Almario would take the girls for a few days at a time, then send them home.
The girls weren't destitute. They had smartphones and nice clothes.
They'd tell their parents they were staying the weekend at a friend's house, or some other plausible lie.
The distracted parents would often buy it, thinking their daughters would be OK.
But in some cases the girls were gone for a week or two, and upset parents called police.
Pontecorvo said Almario would promise the girls that it was easy money, that they'd be able to buy lots of nice stuff with it.
That was another lie, but the girls didn't realize it until they were already involved.
Pontecorvo said it wasn't about drugs or alcohol.
He said it was more about girls with low self-esteem succumbing to peer pressure coming from Almario, a master manipulator who became an expert at getting teen girls – her peers – to do what she wanted them to do.
"You know that whole saying 'getting caught up with the wrong crowd?'" Pontecorvo said. "Maybe they were getting something from [Almario] they weren't getting at home."
What about the possibility that these girls wanted to have some kind of sexual adventure, that maybe they wanted to experiment?
Pontecorvo said that didn't appear to be much of a factor.
He said the girls reported that they didn't like doing the things that they did, that they found them gross and disgusting.
Pontecorvo said that in some ways, the girls' motivation remains a mystery.
He said they didn't necessarily open up to investigators asking the questions. The questioners were, after all, older men.
"These girls were victims," he said. "As a father with a daughter, that's tough."
Pontecorvo said he's come to realize that human trafficking is "huge," especially in Fresno and Bakersfield, but also in smaller Valley cities like Hanford and Visalia.
Pontecorvo described the victims in this case as being manipulated, forced, brainwashed.
As for the men who paid for the sex acts, Pontecorvo said they were never identified.
He said he and Gustin were focused on getting the girls out of the situation as fast as possible.
He said authorities did surveillance on a Motel 6 in Tulare that Almario was using, but they never caught any men going in or out.
If they had been caught with a 14-year-old, the men would likely have faced child molestation charges.
Pontecorvo said the investigation did reveal many of the smartphone apps that provide people ways to hook up with prostitutes without ever having to reveal their true identities.
Pontecorvo said the demand for sex with prostitutes comes from men from every possible social strata, profession and background.
Some of the men prefer younger girls.
"You're getting [people] from all walks of life who are ordering prostitutes," he said.
Pontecorvo figures Almario is unusual as a teen female pimp, but underage prostitutes aren't uncommon.
"I think [Almario] is one of many," he said.
He had a lot of advice for parents wanting to protect their daughters.
"You really need to watch what your kids are doing, who they're meeting," he said.
Of particular importance is monitoring what kids are doing on social media.
Pontecorvo said that when he interviewed parents, many were ashamed and embarrassed that they could have let this happen.
"They couldn't believe what their children were involved in," he said. "They were caring [parents]."
Pontecorvo also advised parents to "know the parents of your daughter's friends."
Pontecorvo said he feels he and Gustin got the girls out of the lifestyle before they got in too deep.
He feels like there's a chance for them to recover.
He said Almario was preparing to expand her operation into the Bay Area when authorities busted it up.
These days, Pontecorvo said he and other detectives pay a lot more attention to reports of runaways.
"It's a battle, it's an uphill battle," he said. "Parents just need to stay on it. They just need to do the best they can."