The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation announced results of a two-part operation to combat human trafficking in Tennessee. "Operation Someone Like Me" was conducted in Chattanooga during four days in September and October and is the third operation of its kind in the state between the TBI and partner agencies to help identify, investigate and prosecute trafficking and rescue victims.
With the partnership of the Chattanooga Police Department, End Slavery Tennessee, and Second Life Chattanooga, TBI Agents and intelligence analysts embarked on an undercover operation to identify potential victims of trafficking, arrest those seeking to purchase illicit sex, and learn more about the specific nuances of this type of crime. This operation, called "Operation Someone Like Me", is the latest in a series of efforts taking place across the state as the TBI works to better equip law enforcement departments to investigate human trafficking and help victims.
During operations conducted over two days in September, authorities arrested 20 men on prostitution-related offenses. The men included a painter, an engineer, a truck driver, a landscaper, a waiter, a student and a construction worker. Twelve men were from Tennessee, seven from Georgia, and one from Alabama. One pimp was identified when he attempted to recruit the undercover agents to work for him, that investigation is ongoing. Two of the men brought guns in their waistbands. One man arrested had numerous credit cards on his person, along with a skimmer in his car, which was seized. The Secret Service was notified.
"We have evolved from the research and reporting phase and into the operation phase", says TBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Margie Quin. "We're changing the conversation about human trafficking. We are fine-tuning the way to maximize our efforts in identifying and helping these victims of trafficking, and taking the predators off the streets."
"The TBI has made this a priority," said TBI Director Mark Gwyn. "Lives are at stake at this very moment. We will be the agency - and the state - to do everything possible to make a difference."
With the assistance of nonprofit agencies End Slavery Tennessee and Second Life Chattanooga, the undercover operation conducted over two days this week also identified potential victims of trafficking. These women were offered services provided by the nonprofits that include housing, counseling and addiction treatment.
Earlier this year, Governor Bill Haslam signed legislation into law giving TBI original jurisdiction over investigations of human trafficking. Additionally, the state legislature approved funding for four Special Agents, who work exclusively to investigate human trafficking cases and train law enforcement statewide on recognizing and combatting this type of crime.
"As a former sex crimes detective, I know the disturbing effect crimes of this nature have on the victims involved," said Chief of the Chattanooga Police Department Fred Fletcher. "Law-enforcement and service provider partnerships like this are vital to the safety and well-being of our city."
In recent years, the TBI and Vanderbilt University partnered on in-depth studies to better understand the scope of human trafficking in Tennessee. Both studies are available for review on the TBI's website.
Last year, as part of its commitment to address this issue, the TBI unveiled a public awareness campaign, entitled "IT Has To Stop," which includes online resources, public service announcements, and contact information for nonprofits who work with survivors of human trafficking. Visit www.ITHasToStop.com for more information.
Among those arrested and facing charges during "Operation Someone Like Me" were:
- Edward Didona, 55, Benton, TN
- Brian Burton, 34, Chattanooga, TN
- Christopher D. Frazier, 24, Chattanooga, TN
- Michael T. Roper, Sr, 43, Morristown, TN
- Jose Maldonado, 50, Dalton, GA
- Edward Javier Lopez Guardado, 33, Bowdon, GA
- Jorge Astrain, 20, Dalton, TN
- Abel Cervantes Zuniga, 38, Hixson, TN
- Robert Collins, 47, Athens, TN
- Detrick McFarlin, 28, Ailey, GA
- Donald Williams, 37, Old Fort, TN
- Courtney McKinley, 36, unknown
- Curtis Brown, 49, Ringgold, GA
- Jiboey Abraham, 18, Chattanooga
- Cedric Ford, 25, Chattanooga
- Ralph Comer, 50, Blountville, AL
- Mario Morales, 32, Chattanooga
- Kenneth Langford, 42, Soddy Daisy, TN
- Luis Perez Ramos, 19, Dalton, GA