SIOUX FALLS, SD (KEOLAND) — A Sioux Falls woman pleaded guilty Friday in federal court to sex trafficking involving a child. Melanie Hollingsworth could face up to life in prison when she’s sentenced in January.
According to court papers, Hollingsworth admitted to arranging sexual encounters between a teenage girl and two men for money. In court, Hollingsworth acknowledged that the victim was just 15-years-old.
This is our first look at Melanie Hollingsworth after she stood before a federal judge and admitted her guilt in arranging sexual encounters involving a teenage girl last year. Hollingsworth could face 10 years on up to life in prison for the sex crimes. Victims’ advocates say sex trafficking is more common in South Dakota than you may think.
“Three-percent of victims are ever identified. Victims don’t come out and self-disclose, typically. Sometimes they do. But more than likely they don’t even know they’re a trafficking victim. So, there’s a young girl, in her teens, who is not emotionally or probably in a family environment that allows her to make good decisions, and so she’s vulnerable,” Call To Freedom Executive Director Becky Rasmussen said.
Rasmussen cannot speak about the specifics of Hollingsworth’s case. But she says, sadly, many victims are drawn into sex trafficking by someone close to them, like a trusted friend, or a relative.
“Perpetrators will actually identify family dynamics and they will say, wow, this mom is using, or this mom doesn’t have a place to live. I’m going to build a relationship with them, I’m going to provide money to them, and in the process, then they say, you owe me,” Rasmussen said.
Hollingsworth’s journey through the legal system won’t end when she’s sentenced in federal court in January. She also faces state charges involving more than 20 counts of promoting prostitution, pimping, and sexually exploiting a minor.
The plea hearing was delayed about 45-minutes after Judge Karen Schreier initially said the mandatory-minimum sentence for Hollingworth would be 15 years, because coercion was involved in the case. But Schreier later apologized to Hollingsworth, saying she was confused by the indictment and that the original paperwork stating the minimum 10-year sentence was correct.
Rasmussen says that could indicate that sex trafficking is such a new crime that those involved in the judicial system are sometimes unfamiliar with the statutes.