“Venning targeted young women and girls, including a minor, to force them into his interstate prostitution network,” U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich said. “He gave those victims drugs and some income, while at the same time he coerced, cajoled and forced them into a life of commercial sex, traveling from town to town and state to state to set up the business for a few days at a time, all to enrich himself. Those victims were emotionally and physically abused, not only by Venning, but also by his customers.”
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Starting in 2011 and through his arrest on federal charges in May 2020, Venning recruited young women and girls to engage in prostitution. His usual tactic involved prowling the internet for sex ads and posing as a potential customer. After meeting with his victims, he coerced them into working for him. Most of his victims had histories with trauma, were on dire financial straits or were addicted to drugs. At two people snared in his sex trafficking ring were children, court documents said.
Venning has been arrested multiple times in the past decade: in Missouri, Georgia, Tennessee and finally Montana. All of the arrests stemmed from prostitution charges. None of these arrests apparently stunted his efforts to search towns and cities for victims. He blackmailed victims by either outing them online as sex workers, or threatening to call Child Protective Services if they didn’t work for him. He also supplied at least 10 of his victims with drugs, feeding addictions to meth, heroin or cocaine. In one instance, according to court documents, he tried to recruit a 17-year-old girl into commercial sex over social media by offering her cocaine. The girl’s mother intervened and stopped the conversations.
He subjected several of his victims to physical violence, court documents said. Women told law enforcement Venning punched, choked and slapped them while he was their trafficker. He showed one woman pictures of her family, telling her he knew where they lived and threatening them.
Assistant U.S. attorneys Zeno B. Baucus and Bryan T. Dake, who prosecuted the case, wrote in their sentencing recommendation that Venning did not relent even after his 2012 conviction in Missouri for promoting. Nor did he relent after his arrest in Georgia during a prostitution sting. The asked Judge Christensen for a 35-year sentence.
“Venning has never cared about his victims, never during the time that he was using them, and he showed no mercy for them as he continued to exploit them … Venning put his victims in danger every day by coercing them into complete, naked vulnerability with strange men who could have injured, raped, or murdered them,” prosecutors wrote.
Defense attorney Samir F. Aarab asked the judge for the mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in prison. He wrote in his sentencing recommendation Venning has spent nearly 70% of his adult life incarcerated, and that he is a product of a rough upbringing in his home state of South Carolina. Sex trafficking was the only way to earn money that Venning knew, and he “facilitated young women to ply the sex trade.”
“Venning preyed on vulnerable women and girls, taking away their voice and their dignity through manipulation and violence,” said Special Agent in Charge Dennis Rice, of the Salt Lake City FBI in a statement released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office on Monday. “The FBI shares in an unwavering commitment to aggressively investigate and help eliminate this form of modern-day slavery and seek assistance and justice for victims.”
Venning pleaded guilty to sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion, sex trafficking of a minor, transportation of a person with intent to engage in prostitution and possession with intent to distribute cocaine in November 2021, just a day before his case was set to go to trial.
In June 2022, addition federal charges were filed against Venning while he was in custody at Cascade County Jail in Great Falls. Prosecutors allege Venning attempted to smuggle cocaine and marijuana into the jail, and tried to tamper with a witness. He has pleaded not guilty to both charges.
Along with the 30-year sentence, Judge Christensen has ordered Venning to pay restitution to his victims. A restitution hearing has been scheduled in Missoula on September 1.