A Long Island man was indicted on sex trafficking charges and faces up to 50 years in prison for allegedly forcing two women to engage in prostitution and assaulting and robbing them while weaponizing personalized tattoos as a twisted form of branding his victims, Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz announced on March 29.
Cleveland Sterling, 34, of Arcadia Avenue in Uniondale, was arraigned on March 28 before Queens Supreme Court Justice Peter Vallone on a 21-count indictment charging him with sex trafficking, promoting prostitution, robbery, grand larceny, petit larceny and criminal mischief.
Sterling met his first victim, a then-19-year-old woman in 2016, and on multiple occasions through November 2022 forced her to engage in sex for money at various locations across Queens, according to the charges. Sterling took photographs of his victim and used them to create online ads for sex. He communicated with customers, arranged prostitution dates and collected and required the victim to turn over to him all payments for the sexual encounters.
Sterling struck the victim if she withheld cash from him, the charges state. On one occasion, when the victim told Sterling that she did not want to have sex with customers for money, he punched her in the face and body, bruising her face and with such force that he allegedly broke some of her teeth, according to the charges.
On April 9, 2022, at the Van Wyck Hotel on Liberty Avenue in Jamaica, Sterling allegedly pushed the victim down a flight of stairs, causing injury to her ankle and breaking her cell phone. In another violent episode, on Nov. 25, 2022, Sterling entered the victim’s room at the Hotel JFK, located at 139-09 Archer Ave. in downtown Jamaica, and allegedly struck her multiple times in the body and ripped a chain from her neck.
In August 2021, Sterling met his second victim who was also 19 years old at the time. According to the charges, Sterling compelled her to engage in sexual activities with men at various locations around Queens for money. Sterling took photographs of the victim that he used in online ads for sex acts and arranged prostitution dates for which he took all the proceeds. On multiple occasions, when the victim refused to engage in sex acts, Sterling struck and bit her. To further intimidate her, he sent her photos and video of him physically abusing his first victim to show her what the consequences would be if she failed to comply with his demands to engage in acts of prostitution.
On Oct. 15, 2021, at an Archer Avenue motel, Sterling punched his second victim in her face causing substantial pain to her jaw, according to the charges. During another incident four days later, at the LeTap Hotel at 139-01 Archer Ave., Sterling stuck the second victim in her body and took the cash she had made for performing acts of prostitution from her.
Prosecutors allege that during the course of the victims being trafficked, they each received tattoos bearing a form of Sterling’s name that was then used to threaten them. The first victim was told that if she wanted to leave Sterling, she would first have to cut off her own foot because his name was tattooed on it and therefore belonged to him. The second victim, who believed she was getting a different tattoo, received one with Sterling’s street name, after which he informed her that she was now his property.
Sterling was eventually taken into custody following investigations by officers of the 103rd Precinct in Jamaica and the NYPD’s Queens Vice enforcement team.
“Traffickers use violence, intimidation and claims of financial debt to force victims into sex work,” Katz said. “We are determined to prosecute these predators and get victims the resources they need to get their lives back.”
Justice Vallone ordered Sterling to return to court on March 31. If convicted, he faces up to 50 years in prison.