A man charged with trafficking a woman to North Dakota is arguing in court that she's a prostitute, but he's not her pimp.

South Central District Judge James Hill found probable cause against Montay Knight on Monday afternoon, but anticipated the prosecutor would have "significant problems" proving the trafficking charge. The 22-year-old woman made two statements to law enforcement indicating she was trafficked, and two statements recanting her initial words.

The 34-year-old Mandan man pleaded not guilty to one count of trafficking in court Monday. He is also charged with assaulting the woman and preventing her from calling 911. He pleaded not guilty to those charges, as well.

If convicted he could face up to 30 years in prison.

In court Monday afternoon, Bismarck Police Det. Scott Betz, who investigated this case while a special agent with the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, said he believed Knight trafficked the woman here from California. 

The woman reported in interviews that she was "working" for Knight and that he would take all of the money she earned from prostitution. A search of her phone turned up ads on Backpage.com, a site commonly used to advertise sex for money. In messages with the suspect, she asked him whether she should post in Bismarck, where he had recently moved, and referred to him as "daddy," a commonly used term for pimp, according to Betz. 

Betz said a search of Knight's phone showed that other women also would call him "daddy" in text messages.

The woman told police they were in a dating relationship and he assaulted her on March 4 at an apartment complex and at a hotel room, Betz said. She reported that Knight strangled her, hit her in the head with a belt buckle and pulled away the phone to keep her from calling 911.

She later denied being trafficked by Knight in an interview and in a notarized letter she sent to the defense attorney. She did not testify in court.

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But Betz said recantations in trafficking cases are common and don't necessarily invalidate an initial statement.

"It's hard for a victim to see the control a trafficker has," he said. "The victim become accustomed to the situation they're in."

Knight's attorney, Christopher Redmann, argued that Knight was her boyfriend and not her pimp. She has a long history of prostitution, and he had no criminal history of trafficking, Redmann said.

On his questioning, Betz said there was no evidence of Backpage.com on Knight's phone.

He highlighted the pattern of statements and recantations and noted that the woman appeared drunk in videos obtained from the night of the alleged assault. 

"There's credibility issues here all over the place," Redmann said.

In reference to the assault case, Redmann said his client would claim self-defense.

Knight is being held in jail on $50,000 cash or surety bond. A three-day trial is set for Aug. 1.

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Reach Caroline Grueskin at 701-250-8225 or at caroline.grueskin@bismarcktribune.com