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‘Despicable’ sex trafficker gets 33 years in prison

BISMARCK - A California man convicted of sex trafficking was sentenced Wednesday to 33 years in prison, but one victim said she'll deal with the trauma for her entire life.

Keith A. Graves
Keith A. Graves

BISMARCK – A California man convicted of sex trafficking was sentenced Wednesday to 33 years in prison, but one victim said she’ll deal with the trauma for her entire life.

Federal prosecutors asked for a life sentence for Keith A. Graves, found guilty of preying on drug-addicted women and using violence and sexual assaults to force them to engage in prostitution, primarily in the Williston area.

“Mr. Graves’ conduct is despicable, but I don’t think a life sentence is appropriate,” said U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Hovland, ordering a term of 33 years and nine months, which fell under federal sentencing guidelines.

A jury found Graves, 39, guilty last fall of five counts of sex trafficking by force or coercion in addition to distributing methamphetamine.

Eight victims testified during the eight-day trial in Bismarck, telling jurors how Graves forced them to ingest meth and threatened them with weapons including a Taser and a BB gun they thought was real.

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Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandi Sasse Russell said there are dozens of additional victims who were referenced during trial or in communications on Graves’ electronic devices, but prosecutors were unable to locate them for the trial. Some victims were recruited from North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, Russell said.

The victims who testified were adults, but prosecutors did locate one juvenile victim after they had rested their case, she said.

One victim, who said she still has nightmares and takes medication for post-traumatic stress disorder, urged the judge to impose a life sentence.

“I and the other victims are stuck with a life sentence ourselves having to relive what happened to us,” the woman said during the hearing.

Hovland called the evidence in the case “overwhelming” and said the amount of violence and preying on women with drug addiction was “unprecedented” in the cases he’s seen as a judge since 2002.

“Your conduct throughout the trial demonstrated a total disregard and disrespect for women of all ages,” Hovland said.

Graves, who represented himself at trial in spite of Hovland’s advice that he use an attorney, said he plans to appeal the conviction. Graves objected several times Wednesday to information about his criminal history and continued to maintain his innocence.

“The way they do everything up here is unfair,” Graves said. “This is not justice.”

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Four jurors attended the sentencing hearing to get closure on the trial, which they said was emotionally exhausting.

“Watching people relive it (the violence) right in front of you, that was difficult,” said one juror who didn’t want to be identified. “You could almost sense the anxiety, the terror, in some of the victims.”

Graves, already a sex offender for a conviction in California, also was ordered to be on supervised release for life, complete sex offender treatment and have no contact with the victims.

Graves, who was featured in the film “The Overnighters,” worked as a truck driver in the Bakken Oil Patch.

Lt. Detective David Peterson of the Williston Police Department, the first agency that began investigating Graves, said the department was pleased with the sentence and grateful for the work of federal agencies.

The investigation began in July 2014 when a woman fled from a Williston hotel room and sought help at the nearby Walmart.

“We hope that this brings some closure to the victims,” Peterson said. “It is an example of if agencies work together with victim advocates and with the victims, how a trial can come together and a sentence like this can be achieved.”

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