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An Oakland woman is set to appear in court this week to face charges in a teen sex trafficking investigation that began at Berkeley High School.

Trinice Suwanabart, 23, was arrested in November after police linked her to the case earlier this year.

According to court papers, Berkeley High School Resource Officer Ethell Wilson began looking into the case in January after a 15-year-old girl was reported missing after running away.

In September, Berkeley Police Capt. Dave Frankel described the case to City Council members during the mid-year crime report presentation. Frankel said Wilson had received a tip from a school safety officer that the teenager might have been a victim of human trafficking.

Wilson contacted the victim’s family, which led to a closer look at her cellphone activity, Frankel said. That led police to a Motel 6 near the Oakland airport where officers, with the help of the department’s Special Enforcement Unit, set up a surveillance operation in February to try to find the girl.

Frankel said an undercover officer set up a “date” to try to find the victim. Officers identified two motel rooms being used by people Frankel described as traffickers, and ultimately contacted four people in connection with the investigation.

Police searched the motel rooms, made arrests and recovered narcotics, “however the victim was nowhere to be found,” Frankel told city officials in September.

Detectives, including acting Special Victims Unit Sgt. Melissa Kelly, continued to work the case, and learned one of the people who had been arrested knew the victim. That suspect cooperated with police in texting the victim back and forth over a period of seven hours.

Officers were ultimately able to meet up with the victim, on Feb. 4, and took her to the Alameda County Assessment Center — a youth program run by the Social Services Agency — for help, Frankel said.

After additional interviews and forensic searches of phones taken from those who were arrested, said Frankel, police identified Suwanabart as a “ringleader” in the sex trafficking operation.

According to court papers, the teenager told police Suwanabart had “prostituted her to men for money” in exchange for sexual services.

Berkeley Police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer Coats said last week that a judge later issued an arrest warrant for Suwanabart. Contra Costa County officers picked her up Nov. 10.

On Nov. 17, Suwanabart entered a not guilty plea in Alameda County Superior Court. She has been charged by the district attorney’s office with two felonies: human trafficking of a minor for commercial sex, and use of a minor to violate controlled substance laws, because she is alleged to have given the girl cocaine.

Suwanabart remains in custody at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin with a bail of $300,000. She is scheduled for further pretrial Wednesday, Dec. 9, at the Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse in downtown Oakland.

A preliminary hearing in the case — where a judge will determine whether enough evidence has been presented for the case to move forward to trial — is set for Jan. 5, 2016, according to Teresa Drenick, Alameda County district attorney’s office spokeswoman.

“Our personnel takes such cases extremely seriously with the goal of locating young girls who are being victimized,” Frankel told council in September. “In this case, the close relationship between our school resource officer, Berkeley High staff and the team-up between our detectives and the Special Enforcement Unit resulted in a successful outcome with a victim of sexual trafficking being brought to safety and provided services.”

Berkeleyside blotter: Crime in Berkeley, Nov. 12-18 (11.30.15)
Serious Berkeley crime skyrockets in first half of 2015 (09.10.15)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...