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Press Release

Des Moines Man Sentenced to Life in Prison for Sex Trafficking

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of Iowa

Marlin Santana Thomas sex trafficked six adult victims and one minor victim

DES MOINES, Iowa – On November 15, 2021, Marlin Santana Thomas, age 46, of Des Moines was sentenced by United States District Court Chief Judge John A. Jarvey to life in prison for sex trafficking six victims by force, fraud, and coercion announced United States Attorney Richard D. Westphal. Thomas was ordered to pay $600 to the Crime Victims’ Fund and a restitution hearing was set for February 7, 2022.

Thomas pleaded guilty to sex trafficking six adult victims and admitted to trafficking a 14- year-old victim on May 12, 2021. Thomas admitted in his plea agreement to trafficking victims beginning in 2009, and as recently as February 28, 2018, when he was arrested as part of a separate federal drug investigation, for which he is currently serving a term of federal imprisonment. At sentencing, Des Moines Police Department Sergeant Brady Carney testified that he had interviewed an additional 11 women who Thomas had raped, attempted to sex traffic, and/or physical assaulted.

In the plea agreement, Thomas admitted using physical violence against all six adult victims to coerce them to engage in commercial sex acts, including punching one victim in the face and assaulting another in her home after she told Thomas she was done working for him. Thomas admitted to knowing one victim was a heroin addict and using her addiction to coerce her into engaging in commercial sex acts. Thomas also admitted to arranging for a 14-year-old to engage in commercial sex acts, knowing that she was not yet 18 years old. Thomas admitted to posting online escort advertisements of victims transporting them to hotels and motels in Iowa as well as Illinois, Missouri, and North Dakota, and keeping the proceeds from the commercial sex acts.

At sentencing, Sergeant Carney testified about tactics Thomas used to target vulnerable women, including approaching women living at residential treatment centers, providing drugs to women struggling with addiction, and feigning romantic interest. Sergeant Carney testified that Thomas assaulted, raped, and stalked victims who did not comply. Sergeant Carney located hotel receipts, police reports, phone records, online escort ads, medical records, photographs, and witnesses who verified the victim’s accounts. The United States presented victim impact statements on behalf of six women, recounting the harm inflicted by Thomas and its lasting effects.

When imposing sentence, Chief Judge Jarvey characterized Thomas’s crimes as depraved, stating that Thomas had treated humans like currency. He also found Thomas had engaged in serial rape and was a highly dangerous individual. He further noted that Thomas had not expressed any remorse for his crimes or the victims.

This case was investigated by the Des Moines Police Department. Assistant United States Attorney Amy Jennings and Former Assistant United States Attorney Virginia Bruner prosecuted the case with the assistance of Victim Witness Specialist Charlotte Kovacs. Additional support for victims was provided by Sara McMillan with Polk County Crisis and Advocacy Services.

Human trafficking is a crime involving the exploitation of youth under the age of 18 for commercial sex; the exploitation of adults for commercial sex through the use of force, fraud, or coercion; and the exploitation of any individual for compelled labor. Human trafficking does not require the transportation of individuals across state lines, or that someone is physically restrained. Signs that a person is being trafficked can include working excessively long hours, unexplained gifts, physical injury, substance abuse issues, running away from home, isolation from others, or having a person in their life controlling them or monitoring them closely. Victims particularly susceptible to being trafficked include those with criminal histories, a history of physical or sexual abuse, uncertain legal status, and dependency on controlled substances. Individuals who purchase sex from minors or from those who are otherwise exploited for commercial sex are also subject to prosecution for sex trafficking under federal law, if they knew or were in reckless disregard of the fact that they were under the age of 18, or that force, fraud, or coercion was used.

Anyone who suspects human trafficking is occurring, be it a minor engaging in paid sex acts, or anyone being coerced into prostitution or labor, is urged to call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.


Rachel J. Scherle

Updated November 17, 2021

Human Trafficking