Jury deliberating child sex charges in case of woman who ran escort service

Christopher Haxel, Lansing State Journal , WZZM
1:34 PM. EST January 05, 2018

LANSING – Jurors on Friday began deliberating the fate of Amber Speed, a former Lansing resident accused of trafficking girls for sex over a span of several years.

In the latest in a series of loosely-connected sex trafficking and prostitution investigations that have ensnared former Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III and a once-popular band teacher, Speed was initially charged with nine counts related to online prostitution ads involving three girls.

Only one of the victims testified at this week’s trial, and another witness refused to testify, so prosecutors on Thursday dropped four of the charges.

The remaining charges include two counts each of sex trafficking a minor and prostitution/pandering, and one count of running a criminal enterprise.

In a recorded interview with police that was played on video during the trial, Speed admitted running an escort service for several years in the Lansing area but denied the women who worked for her sold sex.

The women stripped at bachelor parties and provided massages, she said.

Speed also denied the alleged victims ever worked for her.

Patrick O’Keefe, Speed’s attorney, told jurors he can’t pretend Speed “is or ever was a saint.”

Speed ran an escort service and at times prostituted herself through online sex ads, O’Keefe acknowledged.

“But she’s not on trial for that,” he said. “She’s on trial for pimping out (the victims).”

The State Journal is not identifying the victims, who are now adults, because of the nature of the allegations.

O’Keefe also argued that prosecutors were relying on “flimsy, incredible evidence from witnesses who are extremely troubled, with something to gain.”

“This is a band of prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers and drug addicts,” he said.

Speed, 41, used to live in Lansing but now resides in Munith, in northeast Jackson County.

Contempt charges

On Thursday, Judge Joyce Draganchuk held Markus Vay in contempt of court after he refused to testify in Speed’s trial.

Draganchuk ordered him to spend 93 days in jail, although Vary is already in custody,  awaiting his own trial related to charges filed in 2016. In that case, Vary is charged with one count each of transporting a woman for prostitution, accepting prostitution earnings and third-degree criminal sexual conduct.

Vary’s co-defendant, Nicole Wright, faced similar charges and ultimately pleaded guilty to transporting a woman for prostitution and prostitution.

Also on Thursday, former Lansing band teacher Jeffrey Howenstine testified that Speed blackmailed him after he paid one of the victims for sex in 2014.

“If I did not pay money she was going to inform my family,” Howenstine said. “She knew that I was married and that I didn’t want people to know.”

He estimated he paid Speed “at least $20,000” over two years.

Howenstine, 60, of Haslett, said he did not know at the time that the victim was younger than 18.

A once-popular teacher who led the Otto Middle School band to national prominence, Howenstine currently awaits trial on one felony charge of soliciting a minor for prostitution and one charge of engaging the services of a prostitute.

The victims in Howenstine’s case are separate from the victims in Speed’s case.

Jeffrey Howenstine testifies as a witness during Amber Speed’s trial on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2018 in Ingham County Circuit Court. (Photo: Christopher Haxel | Lansing State Journal)

Officials have said Howenstine and Dunnings, the former Ingham County prosecutor, were both clients of Tyrone Smith, a Lansing man serving a 25-year prison sentence for sex trafficking.

Dunnings was charged with 15 prostitution-related crimes and ultimately pleaded guilty to one count each of misconduct in office, a felony, and engaging in the services of a prostitute, a misdemeanor.

He was released in September after serving 10 months in Clinton County jail.

Howenstine left the Lansing school district after he was acquitted in 2003 on charges of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl. He eventually landed another teaching job in Melvindale, and returned to the Lansing area after retiring in 2013.

Related: Former Lansing band teacher faces sex charges again

Sam North, a Michigan State Police Trooper, testified that he identified Speed as a suspect after he determined one of the victims in a separate 2016 prostitution investigation may have been sexually exploited as a minor.

“I was concerned for the welfare of a young girl, which led to this,” he said.

Prosecutors have said Speed’s crimes occurred between 2009 and 2014, when the woman was as young as 14.

If convicted, Speed faces up to 20 years in prison.

© 2018 Lansing State Journal

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