ELIZABETH, NJ – Three Essex County residents were arrested Friday, May 27 at the Airport Hotel Inn and Suites in Elizabeth, and charged with recruiting underage girls to work as prostitutes at locations across Union County during recent months, acting Union County Prosecutor Grace H. Park announced Tuesday, May 31.

Ibn Shabazz, 26, of East Orange, Sameerah Williams, 19, of Newark, and Antwanajah Barnhill, 19, of Irvington are in custody following a seven-week investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office’s Special Victims Unit. Shabazz and Williams were both charged with two counts of first-degree human trafficking, two counts of first-degree human trafficking by purchasing advertising for a commercial sex act featuring a depiction of a minor, two counts of first-degree promoting prostitution of a child under the age of 18, two counts of second-degree human trafficking, and two counts of third-degree endangering the welfare of a child. Barnhill was charged with single counts of first-degree human trafficking, first-degree promoting prostitution of a child under age of 18, second-degree human trafficking, and third-degree endangering the welfare of a child.

State Superior Court Judge Stuart Peim set bail at $500,000 for Shabazz, $200,000 for Williams, and $150,000 for Barnhill. The defendants are expected to make their first appearances later this week.

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Spearheaded by Special Victims Unit Assistant Prosecutor Michael Sheets and Sgt. Patricia Gusmano, the investigation was launched following a referral from the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency and the Polaris Project, a nonprofit agency whose mission is to combat human trafficking. The Special Victims Unit’s investigation was assisted by the Elizabeth Police Department, the Irvington Police Department, the Union Township Police Department, and the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office.  

The investigation ultimately revealed that the three defendants had recruited several underage girls to perform sex acts with clients at motels in several municipalities across Union County. Numerous registrations at those locations were found to have been booked by the defendants, who would allegedly set up advertisements that sometimes featured photos of their young victims on the “escorts” section of backpage.com, a classified ads website. When clients contacted a listed number in the ads, the defendants then allegedly would arrange a meeting, and send messages to the victims via one of several web applications advising them where to go, when, how long their “date” would be, and how much to charge for their services.

The Union County Prosecutor’s Office is actively attempting to identify and locate additional victims in this matter, and anyone with information is being urged to contact Sgt. Gusmano at 908-965-3877.

“Crimes of this nature are particularly horrific because they involve the manipulation of vulnerable underage victims,” Prosecutor Park said. “We hope these charges send a strong message to any of those who would even think about engaging in such abhorrent criminal conduct.”

Convictions on first-degree criminal charges are commonly punishable by 10 to 20 years in state prison, while second-degree crimes are punishable by 5 to 10 years. 

These criminal charges are mere accusations. Each defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.