She was only 14 when her stepfather took her to Erotic City and allegedly prostituted her in the club's "orgy room." Sometimes, 20 men took turns having sex with the girl inside the anything-goes space, an oversized porn video booth where clientele, most of them gay men or swingers, met frequently for anonymous sex. The booth was big enough for 15 people. After the strangers finished with the girl, her stepfather took his turn. The girl would later estimate that over the course of two years, she had sex with her stepfather 80 to 90 times in hotel rooms, parks, houses and cars, and at Erotic City.
It's Tuesday afternoon, February 12, and it's bitterly cold outside the federal courthouse in Kansas City, Kansas. The girl, now 18, waits alone in the back of a sterile courtroom for the sentencing of her stepfather and alleged abuser, Jesse Franklin Herd III. Federal prosecutors accuse Herd of taking the girl across state lines with the intent of prostituting her and engaging in other sex acts. Herd could have faced a maximum life sentence, but he has admitted the allegations and signed a plea agreement guaranteeing him 18 years in federal prison.
The young woman's left leg jackhammers the floor as she fidgets with the nervous energy that comes with dread. Her curly hair is pulled back. She clutches a couple of sheets of notebook paper, on which she has written her first public statement to her stepfather. A woman at the prosecutor's table pulls tissues from a box and hands them to her.
When the courtroom's heavy wooden doors open, a dozen bikers covered with tattoos, leather and denim fill up the benches behind the victim. They're from a local chapter of Bikers Against Child Abuse. To protect her identity, court records refer to her only by her initials. But her biker friends know her as "Shorty" — what she calls her "road name."
Herd enters the courtroom through a side door. U.S. marshals lead the prisoner, who is shackled from his wrists to his waist to his ankles. The 6-foot-3, 390-pound Herd dwarfs his attorney, Paul Dent. He wears an orange, prison-issued jumpsuit with "inmate" stenciled in block letters on the back. His once shaggy hair is flat, white with black patches in the back. His goatee frames the corners of his mouth.
Family members — wife, children, father, mother- and father-in-law — fill the benches behind him. A girl with shoulder-length dark hair, maybe in her mid-teens, blows Herd a kiss from the front row of benches behind the defense table. Herd smiles.
Shorty's knee shakes more with Herd sitting about 20 feet away from her. Tears slide down her cheeks as she darts out of the courtroom. The bikers empty the benches and follow her. Her loud crying is audible through the double doors.
Herd has a smirk on his face as he looks over his left shoulder at his family. For a man who has agreed to serve 18 years in federal prison, and whose victim can be heard sobbing uncontrollably, Herd looks like he's in a good mood.
Jesse Herd lies. The worst lie he told was to Shorty in July 2004. According to court records, Herd told the then-14-year-old that he was taking her to The Shady Lady, a Kansas City, Missouri, strip club, to count money and take inventory.
The girl's mother, Kindra Herd, would later tell investigators that Herd said he had invested in The Shady Lady and Erotic City. Kindra Herd, who didn't return phone calls from The Pitch, told investigators that the girl didn't want to go with her stepfather in the final three months of the alleged abuse. But according to court records, Kindra Herd told her to "quit fussing" and go to work.
Herd didn't own a share of either business. The Shady Lady's general manager, Joe Spinello, tells The Pitch that he had never heard Herd's name until a federal grand jury indicted Herd. The Shady Lady is a family-owned business, Spinello says, and Herd was never involved.
According to court documents, Herd never took Shorty to the strip club that night in July 2004. Herd, who was 32 at the time, drove to a park and asked three homeless-looking men if they wanted to have a good time. They did. Herd checked Shorty into a hotel in Kansas City, Missouri. The men showered, and then Herd laid out the rules: The three could have their way with Shorty while Herd videotaped the gangbang. The men couldn't ejaculate inside her. Court records do not say whether Herd charged the men, who took turns having sex with Shorty. After the men finished, Herd told Shorty that she wasn't done. He was next.
On the drive home, Herd gave Shorty the sex tape and told her to throw it out the window. It was the only sex tape that Herd made of Shorty. Herd told Shorty that she would never have to have sex with him or other men again, according to court documents. A few days later, it happened again. He threatened to kill her if she refused.
The alleged abuse grew worse. Investigators say Herd started taking Shorty regularly to Erotic City in Blue Summit in 2005. Herd and Shorty frequented the upstairs area, a strip club called the Attic Lounge. Until this January, when the Jackson County Legislature responded to the charges against Herd by barring locks and doors on video booths, Erotic City had served as a destination for those seeking anonymous sex.
Owners of Erotic City deny that the 14-year-old was molested in the club's video booths. Ron Boone, one of seven relatives who owns a share in the business, says Erotic City workers couldn't have known that Shorty didn't belong there. "The girl had a fake ID. There was no rape that happened there. There's security guards there always," he says. "I think you can go into a bar with a fake ID and buy a drink, and they don't shut you down." Boone claims that all activity in the club is consensual. "If somebody would have just raised their hand and said, 'Help me,' it would have been done," Boone says. "I'm not saying what they say happened there or didn't happen there. I have no knowledge of any part of it."
At Erotic City, Herd introduced Shorty as his 18-year-old girlfriend. The two looked like a couple, a former Erotic City DJ named Eric Jimmerson would later tell police. Jimmerson told investigators that he had met Herd 15 years before, when both were Erotic City patrons. Herd claimed to be a former Miami Dolphins football player and part owner of The Shady Lady. Herd also claimed to be the owner of a Kansas City trucking company. For once, he wasn't lying: He and Kindra Herd ran Midwest Freight Lines.
Herd and Shorty went to Erotic City an average of three times a month in the course of two years, Jimmerson estimated for investigators. Jimmerson, who didn't respond to interview requests from The Pitch, said he witnessed Shorty having sex with several men inside Erotic City's orgy room. That included Herd, who left the door open so others could watch or join in.
From the beginning, Herd asked patrons of the strip club if they wanted to take "his girlfriend" downstairs into Erotic City's orgy room. Herd had no trouble finding men to take his stepdaughter down the chipped staircase, court records claim. Again, it's not clear if the men paid Herd. Shorty sometimes had sex with up to 20 men at once.
The orgies weren't exclusive to Erotic City. Jimmerson hosted sex parties at his home in Basehor, Kansas, according to court documents. The tiny house on Parallel Road was only a 13-minute drive from Herd's home in Kansas City, Kansas. The parties were more of the same; Shorty would have sex with several men, ending with Herd.
Court records also show that Herd often took Shorty to hotels. He checked into the La Quinta at 2214 Taney at 6:24 p.m. on August 8, 2006; Herd's stay lasted a little more than two hours. On two occasions, Herd stayed at the American Inn at 1211 Armour in North Kansas City. Herd also checked Shorty into the American Motel at 7949 Splitlog in Kansas City, Kansas. The last record for Herd there is dated February 13, 2007.
A week later, Shorty told a neighbor. The neighbor called Kansas City, Kansas, police and reported that his daughter's friend was being "physically and sexually abused by her stepfather."
While Herd was allegedly prostituting Shorty at Erotic City throughout 2005, he was also coaching her fast-pitch softball team. Herd was an assistant coach with the Kansas City Storm, a 16-and-younger summer tournament team that played around the metro and traveled around the country.
Former Storm players tell The Pitch that they were surprised by Herd's arrest on charges of abusing their former teammate. Former players say he was well-liked and a good coach.
"We really, really liked him," says Sydney Vessels, who played for Herd's 2005 team. "He was really fun.... He really taught us a lot, and we ended up being pretty good, at least for our division."
Vessels says Herd would sometimes make sexual jokes to his players. She says she first thought they were innocent. "We always laughed it off," she says. "And now, thinking back, yeah, he was kind of a gross guy."
Players liked Herd, but other coaches weren't fond of him. Kansas City Storm head coach Ben Keech says other coaches warned him to stay away from Herd. "It was a risky move on my part just having him coach with me," Keech says. "Some circles of the softball community just never trusted him."
Keech says his relationship with Herd was cordial. He says Herd was a good coach and knew the game. "And to be honest with you, he was really pretty good with the girls," Keech says. "That's weird to say with what he's being charged with."
Keech's observation of Herd and his stepdaughters was that they seemed to have a loving relationship. They never fought. There was never a sign of abuse. "The daughters are fiercely loyal to him," Keech says. "They're very, very loyal to Jesse. For her to go against Jesse would be a huge transformation of her attitude."
Several people involved with the Storm say Herd lied to parents, coaches and players and said he was part owner of a strip club. "All the players knew," says Maggie Cornish, who played on Herd's 2005 team. "He didn't hide it or anything. If he was asked, he'd admit to it." Vessels recalls hearing one of Herd's stepdaughters talking about taking money at the door.
On a Colorado road trip, Keech says he gave a talk to his players about abstinence. Keech says he gives all of his teams' players, male and female, a speech about setting boundaries and making smart choices. He had never heard a complaint until he spoke to the Storm in 2005. Herd and another parent weren't happy and pulled Keech aside in the hotel. Herd told Keech not to talk about sex with Shorty. Keech agreed and chalked up the confrontation to another negative in what he calls his "most difficult, worst coaching experience." Keech told himself it was just a bad season.
A woman with a brown shawl wrapped around her neck returns to the courtroom with Shorty's sheets of notebook paper. The woman is a victim's advocate with the FBI. The bikers follow and, finally, so does Shorty.
Shorty sits among bikers in the back of the courtroom. Her eyes are wide and filled with fright. A tattooed biker wearing sunglasses drapes one arm around Shorty's shoulders.
Herd's 18-year plea deal was hammered out 30 minutes before his case was to go to trial. Now, he sits with a calm look on his face, his family behind him.
Meanwhile, Shorty has lost her mother, sisters and grandparents. The Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services took custody of her after the allegations against Herd were made.
When the hearing begins, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kim Martin tells U.S. District Judge Kathryn Vratil that Shorty is satisfied with the plea agreement. Shorty was relieved when prosecutors called and told her that they had made a deal, Martin says. She didn't want this to go to trial, and she didn't want to testify.
But the sentence doesn't satisfy Vratil, who says she is "extremely disinclined to accept this plea." She says an 18-year sentence would only reward Herd for what he did to his stepdaughter.
For the first time, Shorty was going to speak. But today, she is too emotional. The FBI advocate reads Shorty's statement. "I came here today to tell how this has impacted my life," the woman reads. Shorty lost her entire family because of Herd. She takes pills for depression. She was in therapy but had to quit because she moved. She hardly sleeps. She has nightmares. She's afraid that Herd will find her and kill her. She can't keep a job. And her social life is wrecked; people look at her differently. "I didn't have a chance to be a kid," the woman reads. "He took my childhood from me."
Meanwhile, Herd's attorney, Dent, tells the judge that his client just wants this to end. Herd wants to be sentenced to a sex-offender treatment center in North Carolina and a drug- and alcohol-abuse treatment program. Herd, Dent says, is "trying to be a better person."
The first time Herd speaks, he says he's sorry. Herd says he rejected interview requests from media outlets. (Dent declined an interview request from The Pitch for him and his client.) Herd says his family is "stronger and a lot more loving" since his arrest, and his family includes Shorty. "She is part of our family," Herd says. "Things happen for a reason no one has any control over."
Kindra Herd wipes away tears as Jesse Herd speaks.
"I really just want to change," he says. His voice is lost in his heavy weeping. Herd says he was an alcoholic during the abuse. He says he has found Jesus and leads an hourlong prayer group in his cell every night.
He makes constant references to how close and loving his family has become since he allegedly molested his stepdaughter and let men gang-rape her. Court records show that Kindra Herd filed for divorce on April 24, 2007, in Wyandotte County District Court, but she withdrew the petition June 27. The Herds were married on December 12, 1992. Kindra Herd brought two girls into the marriage. Through the 1990s, they had two daughters together.
Herd tells the judge that he has a "loving wife of 16 years" and a supportive father and in-laws. He says he has "four beautiful kids," including Shorty. "God has put me and my family through a test. We will pass this test," Herd says. "I don't feel I am a monster." He says this is proved by the fact that he coached girls' softball and took part in Junior Olympics. He claims that more than 20 girls he coached went on to college scholarships.
Herd also hints cryptically at his innocence. Herd refers to a truth other than the one in the plea agreement, "people who know the truth" and the one-sided nature of the story.
"There's another side?" Vratil finally asks.
"No," Herd says, "not that I want to go into." Then Herd becomes a martyr. He says he "took the plea so [Shorty] wouldn't suffer" and accepts the plea "on the blood of Jesus."
Herd keeps telling the court how much he loves his family and Shorty. "There's nothing that means more to me than my family," Herd says. "I love [Shorty]. She's still my daughter. In time, my family will be back together.... Everybody should have a chance to be rehabilitated, a chance to get back with family. You can't throw life away sometimes."
An unmoved Vratil rejects the plea agreement. Herd switches his tone. He proclaims himself ready for trial "as long as all the evidence gets to come out."
"You're telling me you aren't guilty?" Vratil asks again.
"I can't say any more," Herd says.
Vratil suggests that Dent talk to his client because he "apparently claims he is innocent."
Dent talks animatedly to Herd, who nods his head. Dent tells Vratil that Herd wants to withdraw his guilty plea.
When court adjourns, Shorty hurries out of the courtroom with the bikers.
A smiling Herd turns to his rows of supporters. "Love you guys," he says. Two rows of people wave to him as the marshals lead him away.
"There she is," a biker shouts as Shorty walks up the stairs of the federal courthouse in Kansas City, Kansas. With arms open, Shorty dashes toward the members of Bikers Against Child Abuse. Dressed in jeans, a jacket over her T-shirt, Shorty hugs each biker. She is back at the courthouse on the warm morning of March 19 to hear prosecutors' latest plea deal with her stepfather.
She appears happier and more confident than she did a month ago. Shorty and the bikers form a jangling procession of leather and metal as they flood the halls on the way to the prosecutor's office. They march past Kindra Herd, who is sitting on a bench outside the locked courtroom. Minutes later, the bikers fill up two benches when the courtroom doors open. Shorty vanishes into the back row of bikers.
Herd is already waiting at the defense table in the courtroom. He fidgets with a crumpled piece of legal paper while he and Dent, his attorney, read over the new plea agreement.
Herd has agreed to serve a sentence of 21 years and 10 months, nearly four years longer than his original plea.
When the hearing begins, Vratil asks Herd to explain his cryptic comments at the February hearing about his supposed innocence. Herd calls it a "misunderstanding." He says he was scared. "I really wish it would have happened that day," Herd says of his sentencing. "And she could get on with her life and get counseling."
Vratil says she wants to consider the deal and can't guarantee she'll accept it. Herd says he wants Shorty to get the counseling she needs. He also wants to get treatment. "I just want a chance to rehabilitate myself," Herd says.
Martin, the prosecutor, then reads Herd's crimes to the courtroom. Herd lowers his head. Kindra Herd stares, stone-faced, at her husband's back. Vratil asks Herd if he disputes any of the government's facts.
"No, your honor," he says.
"How did you get the victim to go with you?" Vratil asks.
Herd claims that Shorty knew what she was going to do. "She didn't know about the video camera," he says.
Vratil asks Herd if he ever threatened Shorty's life. He looks around the courtroom, confused. Vratil says Shorty mentioned the threats in a letter to the court. "I have no excuse for why it started or why it happened," Herd says.
Finally, Herd picks up a pen and signs the plea petition. Just before court adjourns, Vratil tells prosecutors to come to the yet-unscheduled sentencing hearing ready "to impress the court."
Looking somber, Herd shuffles out of the courtroom in chains. He cocks his head to one side to look at his wife, who stands without expression behind the wooden partition.
With Vratil considering Jesse Herd's fate, Shorty looks relieved that she won't have to testify at trial. "Well, that was somewhat smooth," she says while walking out of the courtroom. One of the bikers, she says, had to restrain her while her stepfather spoke.
They offer to take her to lunch. They walk out, Shorty surrounded by the clan of bikers.