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Defendant Derrick Harper is instantly annoyed and agitated as he enters the holding area during his arraignment on human trafficking charges at the Bray Courthouse in Martinez, Calif., on Thursday, June 5, 2014. Harper is one of three Pittsburg men charged with running what a prosecutor called one of the worst sex trafficking rings in Contra Costa hisotry. Harper also had a vocal outburst that ultimately led to the judge asking for an apology for his use of foul language. His arraignment was continued. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)

PITTSBURG -- Three Pittsburg men were charged Thursday with running what a prosecutor called one of the worst sex trafficking rings in Contra Costa history.

The men are accused of beating and raping their victimsas well as branding one with a clothes iron as part of their prostitution enterprise.

The 22-count complaint centers around events from 2006 to 2013 in Pittsburg and Antioch, said prosecutor Mary Knox, who filed the case minutes before two of the men appeared in an arraignment hearing in a Martinez courtroom.

Roy Gordon, 42, Derrick Harper, 36, and Eric Beman, 46, were charged with conspiracy to commit human trafficking and other charges. Gordon and Harper were already in custody on unrelated charges. Beman, who is in federal custody, did not appear.

Following a years-long investigation by Pittsburg police and the FBI, the trio are accused of "guerrilla pimping" at least three women in their late teens and early 20s, kidnapping at gunpoint those who ran away and forcing them to return to work for them, Knox said.

"I anticipate most likely we'll have many more (victims)," Knox said. "The investigation has been ongoing for several years, but none of the victims would talk while they (the suspects) were out of custody because they were afraid they'd be killed."

The case also revisits an untoward chapter in the Contra Costa District Attorney's Office. Gordon became campaign fodder in the 2010 election for District Attorney over a questionable deal he received from prosecutors that released him from jail in exchange for testimony against sex crimes prosecutor Michael Gressett.

County officials were trying to fire Gressett, who was charged at the time with raping a junior prosecutor in the office. The rape charges have since been dismissed.

Knox called Gordon's recent charges "brutal" while detailing years of physical abuse and intimidation by the trio, including gang rape, sodomy and other forced sex acts, as they passed the women back and forth. Among many punishments, Knox said the men would shave the women's heads with butcher knives and clippers. One woman was reportedly left with a large scar on her leg after being burned with a hot iron.

Gordon was arrested last week on a parole violation, Harper has a homicide case pending and Beman is in federal custody on a weapons charge.

Gordon and Harper first learned of the human trafficking charges against them in court Thursday and Harper's subsequent angry outbursts nearly caused him to be charged with contempt of court.

When asked by Superior Court Judge Clare Maier if he understood his right to waive a speedy trial, Harper shouted that the case against him was a "set up," and he is "not a (expletive) rapist."

After Maier warned Harper he could be held in contempt and ordered him to apologize to the court for swearing, Harper continued to rant."I apologize to the court for telling the truth!" he yelled before finally apologizing to the court for his "obscene language."

Harper's bail was set at nearly $8.5 million.

Gordon's arraignment was quick and he said little. Bail was set at $12 million.

In 2010, Gordon found himself center stage in one of the biggest scandals in the 164-year history of the Contra Costa District Attorney's Office.

A prostitute, described at the time as Gordon's "significant other," told investigators Gressett helped her associate get a lenient deal on a pimping charge and she performed oral sex twice on the prosecutor. She subsequently recanted the oral sex accusations, saying she only said that to help free Gordon, who had spent months in custody on suspicion of beating a man with a sledgehammer in Pittsburg. Although his bail was $130,000, a judge released Gordon on his own recognizance without objections from prosecutors.

Three months after his early release, Gordon was charged with a home invasion robbery.

"It just goes to show, their motivation was more to get (Gressett) than to seek justice," an investigator working for Gressett said at the time. "They're willing to take a risk with a guy mandated to be on a Megan's Law website. He's the worst of the worst."

Prosecutors defended their decision at the time, saying they made the deal to help fire a "corrupt prosecutor."

Gressett's rape case was dismissed in 2011 before going to trial but not before the scandal became a campaign issue when District Attorney Mark Peterson beat Dan O'Malley for the top post. O'Malley, who represented Gordon for a time in the sledgehammer beating case, is a defendant in Gressett's defamation and malicious prosecution lawsuit.

Earlier this week, a trial date was set for that civil case targeting Contra Costa County and several current and former District Attorney's Office staff members. Gressett, who remains on paid administrative leave from the county, had his first civil suit dismissed.

Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.