NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- A police affidavit used to obtain a search warrant identifies two Bennington women who may be involved in an alleged prostitution ring, which investigators believe was run by someone using an online alias.
The document includes the text of a Facebook chat between Jason Balsh, whom police believe does not exist, and Jennifer Onorato, 31, a Bennington resident whom police served the search warrant against on Jan. 23.
The documents suggest Balsh -- who is supposedly a young black man according to the photo on his Facebook profile -- solicited multiple young women through Facebook about performing sexual acts for money or drugs. He would also encourage them to suggest friends who may be interested in that. Referrals could earn the women a percentage of what their friends earned, according to the affidavit.
Balsh's Facebook account has 279 friends, all of whom appear to be young women.
Bennington Police Detective Anthony Sylvestro wrote in the affidavit that he obtained a search warrant for the Facebook account of Balsh. Facebook provided Sylvestro with access to the account on Dec. 27.
Balsh frequently uses street slang in the conversation. A person with knowledge of the investigation said Friday that police believe Balsh "is a fictitious character and does not exist."
The search warrant and affidavit used to obtain it were both released Friday by Bennington Superior Court Criminal Division Judge Cortland T. Corsones after it was sought last week by the Banner.
The search warrant targeting Onorato was one of three executed last week by the Bennington Police Department. The other two warrants were served on Jan. 21 at the home and business of Bennington resident Thomas Lyons, owner of Bennington Subaru.
Lyons has been under investigation as part of an alleged prostitution ring for more than a month, according to several sources with knowledge of the investigation.
Police seized a mobile phone from Onorato, according to the warrant. Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette said property was also seized from both Lyons' home and car dealership as evidence of possible criminal activity on Jan. 21.
Onorato, reached by phone late Friday afternoon, said she did not know Lyons.
The search warrants targeting Lyons were ordered sealed on Wednesday by Corsones. Lyons' attorney David Silver, with the Bennington law firm Barr, Sternberg, Moss, Lawrence & Silver, filed a motion to seal last week to prevent the documents from becoming public, and declined comment when reached Friday. Corsones' order is also under seal, meaning his decision and rationale for sealing the warrants will not be made public.
The Banner is pursuing legal options to obtain the additional warrants and related documents.
The affidavit released on Friday as part of the search warrant targeting Onorato makes no mention or reference to Lyons.
The Facebook conversation between Balsh and Onorato, provided by Facebook and included in the released affidavit, began on July 21 when Onorato wrote "looking for a party with my friend" to Balsh. The friend is identified as 23-year-old Kayla Foucher of Bennington.
Balsh asked Onorato to provide pictures of Foucher and asked if Foucher wanted to make money. Onorato indicated that Foucher is willing to "work" but "she want rocks" in return. Rock is often used as slang for crack cocaine.
After Onorato told Balsh that Foucher would work, he wrote: "we can be partners lol you get the girls we split the $$$$" He also wrote "im trying to pimp her."
Balsh also asked Onorato if she would "work." Later in their online conversation Onorato said she would "if the price is right" because "I need $$$ bad."
Onorato denied working as a prostitute during the brief telephone interview on Friday. "I've never had sex for money or made money off anybody else having sex," she said.
According to the online conversation, Foucher found at least one client on her own. Balsh wrote that she found "the dude she met" on the street. He then told Onorato "you are teaching her well."
On July 24, Balsh asked Onorato how much Foucher had made. After Onorato indicated "150," Balsh wrote "shes gonna be one of the best."
Sylvestro wrote in the affidavit that Foucher's husband, Michael, was the first to tell him that Foucher was involved with Balsh. The husband allowed Sylvestro to see a Facebook conversation between Balsh and Foucher.
Foucher then met with Sylvestro on Sept. 24. She said Onorato had connected her with Balsh three or four months earlier. Foucher and Balsh communicated by Facebook and text message, according to the affidavit.
Balsh asked Foucher "if she ever thought about hooking or doing anything like that," according to the affidavit. Foucher provided photos, both clothed and unclothed, and Balsh told her he would show the photos to men who would choose if they wanted to hook up or not.
Balsh also told Foucher to walk on School, Pleasant and Park streets and he would make arrangements for men to meet her. She was to tell him what she was wearing, and if a man drove by more than three times that would be who she was supposed to "hook up with." She would then wave the car over and make arrangements about where to meet and what type of sex the man wanted.
According to the affidavit, Foucher and her clients used the Autumn Inn on Main Street. A room would be rented "for a few hours." The men were usually responsible for booking the room. On three occasions Foucher said she worked with another female identified only as G.B.
Sylvestro wrote that room registration information provided by the motel listed Foucher just once, in August, as having rented a room there.
Foucher was asked if she had a list of clients, but she said Balsh told her not to keep one. Foucher "stated Balsh explained to her it was a trust thing, if he could not trust her he said that would be trouble," the affidavit reads.
Foucher told Sylvestro that men paid $50 for oral sex or $200 for intercourse. She said she also accepted crack cocaine instead of cash for sex.
Foucher indicated it was unclear how Balsh was paid. She told Sylvestro that she inquired about what percentage she needed to send him, but Balsh said nothing. Balsh told Foucher he "made money off of me," but did not know what he meant.
Contact Neal P. Goswami at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @nealgoswami