A couple has been convicted and sentenced for operating a large-scale sex trafficking ring centered in the San Ramon Valley, two and a half years after their initial arrests.
James Joseph Jr. and his common-law wife Avisa Lavassani faced charges of human trafficking and conspiring to commit human trafficking from 2001 through 2015, according to deputy district attorney Aron DeFerrari.
Separately, Joseph faced over 15 charges of forcible sex crimes against three different victims, including forcible rape, forcible oral copulation and forcible sodomy, DeFerrari said.
Joseph and Lavassani were each found guilty of all counts by a jury (except for two of kidnapping relating to one victim) and received distinct sentences.
Joseph received a sentence of 174 years to life in prison on Jan. 12.
Meanwhile, on Jan. 24, Lavassani received a 20-year suspended prison sentence, allowing her to perform a period of probation and potentially dismiss the sentence if she meets the set conditions. Sentencing Judge Barry Baskin determined Lavassani was herself a victim of human trafficking and deserved a lesser sentence.
"That James Joseph Jr. and Avisa Lavassani have finally been brought to justice is a testament to the courage and the fortitude of the human trafficking survivors that came forward to testify against them," DeFerrari said. "The indescribable path of destruction left in the wake of these two defendants' 15-year human trafficking operation was only stopped because the survivors had the courage to stand and fight when it mattered most."
Joseph and Lavassani, along with accused co-conspirator Anthony Reynolds, were arrested August 2015, after a collaborative investigation by San Ramon police, the DA's office investigators and the FBI Safe Streets Task Force.
The sex trafficking ring was based primarily in San Ramon and Danville, but extended as far as Miami and New York, according to prosecutors during the trio's indictment in 2016..
"The relentless work ethic of San Ramon Police Department detectives and the support of the FBI Safe Streets Task Force made this case possible; we cannot express enough gratitude for their amazing work on this case," DeFerrari said.
DeFerrari estimated that over 100 women were trafficked over the 15-year span of time. Ultimately, seven victims came forward and testified in the jury trial against the two defendants.
Baskin decided to hand down a suspended sentence to Lavassani because he believed that she was also a human trafficking victim of Joseph and that she should have a chance to turn her life around and be a good parent to her three children, DeFerrari said.
The terms of Lavassani's sentence dictate that she stay away from her victims and co-defendants, perform community service work, remain employed, attend therapy herself and bring her three children to therapy, according to her attorney, Dan Russo.
Russo said he was amazed by Baskin's decision.
"I think it was a very courageous decision by the judge ... He saw her as a victim," Russo said.
Russo said given his longstanding career as s defense attorney, it was hard for him to guarantee that she'll turn her life around. But he believes she will.
"I don't think she'll be back in court," he said.
DeFerrari, though, said that while he respects Baskin as a jurist, he disagrees with the suspended sentencing.
"Ms. Lavassani acted as the chief financial officer, travel planner, marketing agent, money launderer in chief and bill collector for Mr. Joseph," he said. "Even if one believes that Ms. Lavassani was initially a victim of Mr. Joseph's -- which I do not -- she still ended up profiting greatly from the human slavery Mr. Joseph practiced.
"We all have moral agency in this world, whether we are acting under orders from someone else or not," DeFerrari added. "No matter how scared we may be to refuse them, at some point we become morally accountable for the orders we follow."
Reynolds, who was initially arrested along with the couple for assisting in their operation, pleaded guilty to one charge of pimping and was sentenced in August 2016 to six years in state prison, according to DeFerrari.