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Rays’ Wander Franco faces additional charge of human trafficking

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Rays’ Wander Franco faces additional charge of human trafficking


ST. PETERSBURG — Rays shortstop Wander Franco could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of human trafficking, which was among the formal charges filed against him this week by prosecutors in the Dominican Republic.

The new charge was included in a news release from the Public Ministry that said “Franco’s conduct” violated several provisions of Dominican law that define rights and protections for minors and impose severe penalties for human trafficking, including a prison term of 15-20 years.

Franco also has been charged with sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of a minor, stemming from a relationship with a then-14-year-old girl that started in December 2022. He was 21 at the time.

One of Franco’s lawyers, Teodosio Jáquez Encarnación, disputed the charges, saying they seem to be based on unfounded accusations and posts made previously on social media platforms.

“It is the same rumor and social media comments on which the accusation is based,” Encarnación told the Tampa Bay Times via text message. “Everything will fall apart, because Wander is not linked to the charges against him.”

On Wednesday, Franco was taken off administrative leave and shifted to Major League Baseball’s restricted list, meaning he will no longer be paid. His placement on administrative leave, a non-disciplinary status, was to end Sunday but was subject to any significant developments in the case, such as charges being filed.

The Rays requested and MLB approved the change, which was based on Franco being unavailable to play since he would be unlikely to get a visa to travel to the United States. It was not a disciplinary move related to the charges being filed. Franco had been receiving half of his prorated $2 million salary (approximately $560,000) under a negotiated agreement, the Associated Press reported, and service time.

The Rays declined comment on the situation beyond manager Kevin Cash’s brief comments prior to Wednesday’s game against the Yankees at Tropicana Field: “Serious charges, very concerning, probably best I don’t comment much past that and keep our focus here on this team.”

The next step is for a judge to determine whether the charges warrant being brought to trial or dismissed, which could take a couple of months. That essentially would end any chance, however slim, of Franco rejoining the Rays this season. A preliminary hearing to discuss the evidence will take place on Aug. 14, Encarnación said.

“Only the relevance of the evidence will be determined and whether it merits consideration in a trial,” said Dominican criminal lawyer Francisco Manuel Lazala, who is not involved in the Franco case. “Otherwise, the court may dismiss the case if it finds the evidence irrelevant. We understand there’s a high likelihood this case will proceed to a trial, where Wander Franco’s guilt or innocence will be determined.”

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In the Dominican Republic, a conviction for sexual abuse carries a prison sentence of 2-5 years. Sexual exploitation of a minor can result in 5-10 years of imprisonment. However, the legal system does not allow for the accumulation of sentences. If Franco is found guilty of multiple offenses simultaneously, he will be sentenced based on the crime with the longest prison term.

Encarnación, based in Puerto Plata, said late Wednesday afternoon he had not yet received official notification of the charges but expected that to happen later in the day or Thursday. Jay Reisinger, Franco’s U.S.-based attorney, said early Wednesday evening he had just received the official documents, but it was too soon to comment.

The initial allegations first surfaced in social media posts on Aug. 13, leading to Franco being removed from the Rays’ active roster and placed on the restricted list before being moved to administrative leave.

“It seems to be the same as initially presented by the Public Ministry, namely Olga Diná Llaverías, who has taken charge of this case,” Encarnación said. “In due course, you will understand why.” Prosecutor Diná Llaverías heads the department of Children, Adolescents and Family in the Dominican Republic.

According to Encarnación, Franco never had sexual relations with the minor involved in the case. He said this was reiterated weeks ago in a private session before a judge.

“It does not implicate him at all, and that evidence is there because those statements were made before a judge,” said Encarnación.

In January, prosecutors presented a nearly 600-page report to a judge outlining the evidence they had gathered. It included not only details of the alleged sexual relationship but also allegations that Franco paid the girl’s mother for consent to allow it to continue.

The mother was included in this week’s formal filing, charged with trafficking, sexual exploitation and money laundering.

Following the preliminary hearing, a judge will review the evidence from both sides and decide if there’s enough to proceed. If it is determined that there is and Franco is found guilty during the subsequent trial, he will be sentenced. After that, either party can appeal to another court to review the decision.

Once Franco’s legal status in the Dominican is resolved, Major League Baseball is expected to complete its own investigation, including an interview with Franco, and could impose disciplinary action, such as a suspension.

MLB released a statement Wednesday: “We are aware of the charges against Mr. Franco. Our investigation remains open, and we will continue to closely monitor the case as it moves forward.”

Franco signed a team-record 11-year, $182 million contract after his 2021 rookie season and after this season will still be owed $172 million. The outcome of the legal case and MLB discipline could impact how much of that money the Rays will remain obligated to pay.

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