A youth leader, a coach, and a volunteer firefighter are among nearly a dozen men facing felony charges as part of a four-day human trafficking operation in Kingsport.
Special Agents with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation along with the Kingsport Police Department, 2nd Judicial District Drug Task Force, Sullivan County District Attorney's Office, and Homeland Security Investigations conducted the undercover operation to identify potential victims of trafficking and arrest those seeking to purchase illicit sex from a juvenile. The Kingsport anti-trafficking operation, called "Operation Someone Like Me", is the 10th of its kind in the state between the TBI and partner agencies to help identify, investigate, and prosecute trafficking.
"Many still think this is something that just happens in big cities. The results of this operation prove that's not the case," says TBI Director Mark Gwyn. "We want our message to be very clear: Law enforcement officers across the state are watching, and we are working together to stop those trying to buy and sell our children for sex."
The operation took place July 31st - August 3rd with the first three days focusing entirely on targeting those attempting to purchase illicit sex from minors. Over the three-day period, undercover Special Agents posing as juvenile girls posted ads on Backpage.com. As a result, Agents received numerous texts and phone calls from men across Tennessee and in surrounding states. A total of eleven men responded and paid to have sex with an underage female. Those arrested include a local coach, a church youth leader, an emergency medical technician, and an Uber driver.
"We have no tolerance for those who would victimize the most vulnerable in our society," says TBI Deputy Director Jason Locke. "We will continue to conduct these operations across the state and do whatever it takes to bring those trafficking women and children, as well as those supplying the demand, to justice."
"Human trafficking is a growing problem in our nation, and in the State of Tennessee. East Tennessee is no exception," says Kingsport Police Chief David Quillin. "It is our hope that through partnerships with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and other law enforcement entities, the Kingsport Police Department can help bring those individuals who engage in this unspeakable crime to justice."
With the assistance of the nonprofit agency Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, the fourth day of the operation focused on identifying potential victims of trafficking. One woman was cited and offered services, including housing and counseling. She took advantage of those services and has been placed in transitional housing.
Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally visited the operation and was able to witness some of the transactions. "I would like to commend the TBI and its partnering law enforcement agencies for their outstanding work on this operation," says Lt. Governor Randy McNally. "Operations like these make clear that Tennessee is committed to ending human trafficking and sex slavery within our borders. The message to those participating in this scourge is unequivocal: You will be found. You will be caught. And you will be prosecuted."
In 2015, Governor Bill Haslam signed legislation into law giving TBI original jurisdiction over human trafficking investigations. Additionally, the General Assembly approved funding for four Special Agents, who work exclusively to investigate human trafficking cases and train law enforcement statewide on recognizing and combating this type of crime. These four Special Agents, who have now completed their tenth operation across the state, have arrested or cited more than 200 individuals during that time.
ASAC Robert Hammer, who oversees Homeland Security Investigation's operations in Tennessee says, "HSI Tennessee is proud to once again partner with TBI as we jointly combat human trafficking in Tennessee. These operations target those looking to prey on the community's youth, but it also serves to get the victims of human trafficking off the street so they can receive the services and protections which they are entitled to. HSI will continue to apply our immigration authority to maximize the effectiveness of these operations."
Earlier this year, as part of its commitment to address this issue, the TBI began the second phase of the public awareness campaign "ITHasToStop," which includes awareness billboards, online resources, public service announcements, and contact information for nonprofits who work with survivors of human trafficking. Visit www.ITHasToStop.com for additional details.
Since "Operation Someone Like Me" began in May 2015, there have been over 200 arrests/ citations.
The investigation was conducted in Brentwood, Clarksville, Jackson, Chattanooga (twice, once in conjunction with Georgia Bureau of Investigation), Knoxville, Nashville, Morristown, Memphis, Dyersburg, and Kingsport.
As a result of "Operation Someone Like Me" in Kingsport, 12 individuals were charged, including 11 men and 1 woman.
Those charged during the operation are below:
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