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Scales of Justice

A Madison man was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison Thursday for what U.S. District Court Judge James Peterson called the “heartless crime” of sex trafficking three women and attempting to traffic another.

Erin Graham, 41, was convicted of several counts of human trafficking after a five-day jury trial in April. Between 2015 and 2017, Graham posted advertisements on Backpage.com and forced the women to engage in sex acts with those who responded to the advertisements.

The scheme was uncovered in April 2017 when one of the victims, Cindi, hid behind the front desk in a Madison hotel after Graham choked her. She was found by police after an employee called 911. Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Pfluger asked that Cindi be identified only by her nickname as she works toward rebuilding her life after being trafficked by Graham for 18 months.

“When I tried to leave, he tried to kill me,” Cindi said in a written statement to the court. She called Graham “a monster.”

Graham’s girlfriend, Patience Moore, who Graham has children with, was sentenced to three years in June for helping him with the trafficking. Pfluger said though Moore helped Graham manipulate the women, she was also a victim.

Graham, who identified himself as “Sonny” to the women he trafficked, would first take the women on dates and make them various promises, such as paying for college, stable housing and money for their families. Instead, he manipulated them into doing sex work and kept all the money for himself.

Graham used different strategies to entrap the three women, including cutting them off from families and friends, emotionally manipulating them, choking them, beating them and encouraging drug addictions, Pfluger said.

Danielle Miller, who spoke at Graham’s sentencing, said he destroyed her pride and self-esteem to the point where she thought she needed him. Miller said she had been convinced by “Sonny” that he was trying to help her.

“Sonny, you were a man who found me at my weakest, most vulnerable moment and in the guise of someone who would draw me out of that darkness, you drew me in further,” Miller told Graham at the sentencing hearing.

Graham would tell his girlfriend, Moore, to act as a sort of mother figure for them, Cindi said in her statement. Then he would beat Moore, and have her call them on the phone to beg them to come back.

“I feel like he’s still out there,” Cindi said in her statement. “I’m scared to go outside.”

In one incident, Graham slammed one of the victim’s heads into a TV, Pfluger said. In another, he choked a woman until she defecated. Graham also forced one of the three women to have sex with five to 10 men every day.

Pfluger called Graham a “violent and dangerous man” who would put the public in danger, and asked for a sentence of 25 years in prison.

Graham’s attorney, Reed Cornia, asked the judge for a 15-year sentence. Cornia said Graham “lost himself,” but that going through the trial and listening to his victims caused him to realize “what he had become” and feel remorse.

“I have a very strong sense that if Mr. Graham was to leave this court today out of shackles, this would never occur again,” Cornia said.

Graham apologized to the victims and their families, saying that the regret he will carry with him is nothing compared to the pain he caused them.

Graham asked for the shorter sentence so that he would not die in prison. He said he did not want these acts to be what he is remembered for by his friends and family, including his daughters. He said he would not return to being a trafficker.

“Please don’t take away the rest of my life,” Graham said.

But Peterson doubted Graham’s sincerity, noting that this is the first time Graham expressed remorse. Peterson called Graham a “charmer” and said he “more or less denied the whole thing” up until the last day of the trial.

“He admits what he has to admit when he has no other alternatives,” Peterson said.

Graham was convicted of three counts of sex trafficking, one count of attempted trafficking, one count of conspiracy and two counts of transportation across state lines. He also was sentenced to 20 years of supervision after his prison sentence is served .

Miller said she hopes Graham learns from this and that his daughters never have to meet “Sonny.”

“You’re getting what you deserve,” Miller said.

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Emily Hamer is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She joined the paper in April 2019 and was formerly an investigative reporting intern at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.