Leader of Philly prostitution ring gets 37 to 74 years in prison

The head of a crime ring found guilty of coercing drug-addicted women to live and work as prostitutes at several motels in Northeast Philadelphia was sentenced Thursday to 37 to 74 years in prison.

John C. Guerra, 41, shook his head from side to side as Common Pleas Court Judge Sean F. Kennedy announced his sentence on 13 charges including human trafficking, sexual exploitation of a minor, and corruption of minors, conspiracy, assault, and drug dealing.

Among the women Guerra was convicted of pimping was “A.H.,” a 17-year-old drug-addicted runaway from Bucks County whom he picked up on the streets of Kensington. The Inquirer’s policy is to withhold the identities of victims of sexual crimes unless they consent.

According to Heather Castellino, the state senior deputy attorney general, who handled the case with state prosecutor Michelle Laucella, Guerra and three other members of his ring fed A.H.’s drug habit while forcing her to have sex with men 10 to 15 times a day, seven days a week.

Castellino said Guerra also raped and beat A.H. and other women whom he pimped.

“This was one of the most heinous crimes that I have sat through in six years sitting on the bench,” Kennedy told Guerra. “The abuse you inflicted on these women. They will never be the same.”

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro said the case was about "sexual exploitation of vulnerable young women, and this defendant got what he justly deserves -- a lengthy prison sentence."

Shapiro said he was committed to "making human trafficking a top priority and going after those, like Guerra, who exploit others."

Over the last decade, law enforcement has recast prostitution from “victimless crime” to “human trafficking” as the reality of the lives of many sex workers has become better known.

In March, the Philadelphia law firm Kline & Specter filed the first-of-its-kind lawsuit against the owners and operators of the Roosevelt Inn in Northeast Philadelphia on behalf of a teenage girl who was pimped in one of its rooms for two years.

The lawsuit, filed under a 2014 Pennsylvania law that allows victims of sex traffickers to sue hotels and motels where abuse occurs, contends that the runaway girl, 14, was “sold into sexual slavery.”

The lawsuit, which did not involve the Guerra operation, is pending in Common Pleas Court.

Before he was sentenced, Guerra apologized for what he did, and said that in prison he was trying to “better my life and become educated and try to be an upright member of society. I’m sorry for what happened in this whole mess.”

Defense attorney Stephen T. O’Hanlon told Kennedy that Guerra had made efforts at self-reform, and argued that Guerra deserved credit for agreeing to a nonjury trial, which saved the court system money and did not force the victims to testify before a jury.

O’Hanlon argued that another member of the ring, Elton Cromwell, was responsible for abusing A.H., and that Cromwell was sentenced to only six to 20 months in prison after pleading guilty in 2012.

Cromwell, 40, of Brooklyn, N.Y., is scheduled to go to trial next Thursday in Bucks County Court on charges that he tried to intimidate witnesses in the prosecution of the Guerra ring.

Two other members of the ring also pleaded guilty. Duane Roger Thomas, 31, of Brooklyn, was sentenced to two to four years in prison. Edinelson Mendez Jr., 26, of Philadelphia, was sentenced to two years’ probation.

According to Castellino, Guerra’s operation was active from 2008 through 2010, booking his prostitutes for days at motels including the Roosevelt Inn and the Days Inn, both on Roosevelt Boulevard in the Northeast.

For Guerra, who was a fugitive for four years after his ring was busted following an investigation by the State Police Organized Crime Task Force in Philadelphia,  prostitution was a family business. Last June, his brother Jason, now 38, was sentenced to 48 to 96 years in prison by a Philadelphia judge for operating his own prostitution ring that preyed on drug-addicted runaway girls and women.

Castellino argued that John Guerra should be sentenced to 72 to 144 years in prison because “he’s the one that taught his younger brother Jason the trafficking business.”