Life in prison is a sentence usually reserved for those who kill.
But two Charlotte pimps will be spending the rest of their days in prison after U.S. Chief District Judge Bob Conrad threw the book at them during a sentencing hearing last week, giving them maximum sentences. Tracy Howard, 25, will do life in federal prison plus 60 months with no hope of parole. His brother David Howard, 26, a partner in the family's drug and pimping business got life, too. Ila Howard, 43, the men's mother and ringleader of a prostitution and drug business that used girls as young as 14, got 17 years in prison, thanks in part to her efforts to cooperate with police.
By most law enforcement standards, and particularly the lax standards in Mecklenburg County, where serving more than 20 years in prison for murder is unusual because charges are often downgraded or dropped, the sentences were jaw droppers.
But the Howards were tried and sentenced in federal, rather than in state court, where prosecutors are underfunded and overrun with more defendants than prosecutors have time to handle. Tough federal sentencing guidelines and the large number of charges in a case that involved large amounts of drugs meant that even if Conrad had gone with the minimum, the Howard brothers would still probably be serving life in prison.
To those in the courtroom for the sentencing who weren't there for the trial, the charges seemed harsh. But they probably didn't hear the horror stories of pubescent, drug-addicted and mentally ill women who were paraded before the jury for three weeks last spring.
The jury's horror was nearly palpable -- at the beginning of the trial. Things like this go on in America? In Charlotte? Nothing short of a tour of duty in Vietnam could have prepared them for what they heard, and maybe not even that. By the end of the trial, after hearing of girls who'd been beaten until they had miscarriages, whipped with belts and strangled in bathtubs, the jury members all wore the shell-shocked demeanors of war survivors.
Many of the prostitutes who worked for the Howard family looked relatively normal when they took the stand. That is, until some of them opened their mouths and words began to come out. Listening to the most wretched of them, it became obvious within minutes that those sitting before the court were no longer human beings, but merely the mangled psychological remains of humanity -- still talking, still breathing, but obscenely unwhole.
Several struggled with the minimum level of social interaction necessary to answer the questions of the defense attorneys who questioned them.
"We're dealing with complete social retardation," Genny Kleiser, director of operations at the McLeod Addictive Disease Center's prostitution recovery program, told Creative Loafing after the trial.
Many of the women who fell into the Howard's net were runaways who fled physically and sexually abusive homes. Crystal Chumley, 23, was raped and sexually abused by both her grandfather and her adoptive father. At 17, she ran away to Charlotte, where she met the Howards. Chumley, who worked for the family's escort services, explained to the jury how David Howard (whom she said she still loved) once held a fire poker in flames until it turned red hot and then scalded her leg with it. It was because he loved her and didn't want her to smoke crack anymore, she explained, smiling fondly at the memory of a time when David would still say he loved her.
"These [women] have no functional ability in society, so much so that when the new ones come in the lobby we have to go up there and monitor them to keep their shirts down and their legs closed and stop flashing people," said Kleiser.
Of the more than 250 prostitutes who have come through the McLeod program since it started seven years ago, some of women and girls who worked for the Howards were the most victimized that Kleiser has ever seen, she says.
According to witnesses and investigators, Tracy Howard's formula for "turning out" women involved initially forcing them to "do" 10 to 15 Mexicans in an evening for $20 a pop. Girls who worked their way up to the escort service could have sex for $200 a session with just a few higher class men an evening, some of whom lived in Charlotte's ritzier suburbs. But if they misbehaved or upset a client, they could be dropped off at a low-end Hispanic apartment complex, where Tracy Howard would sometimes go door to door looking for customers. Other times, they'd see his car pull in and line up in the parking lot. He let them know it was okay to hit the girls he dropped off if they didn't comply.
One 16-year-old girl testified that she was taken to "do Mexicans" the first time she prostituted herself.
She says Tracy Howard had let the first customer know that he could hit the girl if there were any problems, and when she panicked and tried to back out, Tracy Howard told the man, "No fucky, fucky." The man promptly smashed his fist into the girl's face.
"I felt like I had to do it," she says. "It was either I have sex and feel disgusting or get my ass whooped by two men."
In her testimony, one of the older prostitutes, a heroin addict in her 20s who had attended college, explained that she was allowed to work the escort service because she could "make conversation with men."
But many of the younger girls couldn't, so to make they money the Howards demanded of them, they had to have sex with up to a dozen men in an evening. One 14-year-old was repeatedly sent to do Mexicans, she says.
The Howards also used the girls to cook, bag and deliver drugs for them, according to court testimony.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers say they stumbled upon the ring by accident after one of the girls who was badly beaten filed charges against Tracy Howard and told detectives that he and his family were prostituting underaged girls.
Police say that even they were taken by surprise by the age of the girls and the brutality of the groups' operating practices.
"We had never seen anything like that before," says Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Detective Scott Maxfield.