In an unremarkable hotel room, a team of officers watches the footage streaming from a hidden camera next door. A middle-aged man is making arrangements to pay a young woman for sex. Once she agrees, the squad will rush in, shouting instructions, their bulletproof vests bulging with firearms and emblazoned with police or FBI. The woman—or is she a girl?—will have her hands tied behind her back and her phone confiscated. She will sit on the bed, partially undressed, as a team of men search her room, pawing through her underwear drawer and toiletry bags, seizing any cash they find. She will eventually be fingerprinted, interrogated, and taken into police custody.
Welcome to Operation Cross Country, the U.S. government’s huge, intrusive, and utterly ineffective effort to fight child sex trafficking.
Variations on the scene above play out again and again in sensationalized montages of footage from the stings, which the FBI has been proudly posting to YouTube since Operation Cross Country launched in 2008. The vignettes are unsettling. In one scene, someone can be heard crying in the background as the camera pans past her stuff—Skittles, electric toothbrush, makeup—and settles on cops counting stacks of money. Other clips follow officers tailing people in tight dresses and stiletto heels or scouring printouts of escort ads from hotel beds. Shot after shot show authorities handcuffing young people, mostly women and girls, and parading them down dim hallways, thick gloved hands gripping skinny arms on either side, or pushing them up against cop cars, the camera lingering on cuffed wrists clasped tightly over baggy jeans or long, bare legs.
The latest iteration of the initiative—Operation Cross Country X—took place across 103 U.S. cities from October 13 to 16. According to the FBI, it involved the efforts of 74 federally led Human Trafficking Task Forces, comprised of officers from 55 FBI field offices and more than 400 federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies. These included city and suburban police departments, county sheriff’s offices, state police and investigative bureaus, juvenile detention departments, drug enforcement units, and an impressive array of federal entities: Homeland Security Investigations, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. Marshals Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Customs and Border Protection, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Coast Guard Investigative Service, the State Department, myriad U.S. Attorney’s Offices, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. They were aided by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and local nonprofits that had recently received federal grants.
According to an FBI press release, this mighty group conducted “sting operations in hotels, casinos, truck stops, and other areas frequented by pimps, prostitutes, and their customers.” The focus: “recovering underage victims of prostitution,” or, as FBI Director James Comey put it, offering sexually exploited children a “lifeline” from a “virtual prison.”
Overall, the operation identified 82 “children” engaged in prostitution, an average of about 0.88 per city, or one for every five agencies participating. All were teenagers—mostly 16- and 17-year-olds—and a number of cities where they were found made no simultaneous pimping or sex trafficking arrests. To the feds, anyone under 18 who trades sex acts for money is defined as a victim of sex trafficking, regardless of whether they have experienced abduction, violence, restraint, or threats.
In the end, only five men stand accused of federal crimes—with only two accused of crimes against actual minors. None of these suspects was part of anything even remotely resembling an organized criminal enterprise.
In the four months following Operation Cross Country X, U.S. prosecutors announced federal indictments against a Missouri man accused of driving an 18-year-old sex worker across state lines and a pair of cousins whose initially consensual pimping of three adult women (including one of the defendants’ girlfriends) had turned abusive.
Two others were brought up on federal charges for sex trafficking of children, though both were cases of what might be called statutory sex trafficking, with no force, fraud, or coercion alleged by any parties. In one, a Kansas man is accused of earning “at least $100″ for driving a 17-year-old girl to three prostitution appointments, which she arranged. In the other, a Texas man is accused of facilitating the prostitution of a 15-year-old whose fake ID said she was age 19. Police say the girl, a frequent runaway from state protective services, obtained the false identification before meeting her “trafficker,” who claims he didn’t know her real age.
Altogether, these numbers suggest a strikingly lackluster outcome for a federal crusade to save children from “modern slavery” (as so many in the Justice Department routinely call it) and to bring their perpetrators to justice, particularly when you consider the manpower and money mobilized, the breadth of the effort, and the supposed magnitude of the underage sex trafficking problem.
Viewed from another perspective, however, the latest Operation Cross Country was a blockbuster success. As a coordinated nationwide vice sting aimed at rounding up sex workers and their customers, there’s no denying the results.
In Utah and Montana, 17 law enforcement units (including Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals Service) joined together for three days to arrest or cite seven women for prostitution, arrest one man for violating a protective order against one of these women, arrest three women on outstanding warrants, and identify one teenager engaging in prostitution. In Mississippi, the FBI’s Jackson office partnered with five local agencies and the state Bureau of Investigation, Department of Corrections, and Attorney General’s Office to arrest five people for pimping, 22 people for prostitution, and one person for narcotics possession; no juveniles were identified. North Carolina’s efforts involved 18 agencies in three counties, yielding the identification of one minor and the arrest of one person on a gun charge.
“St. Louis has the largest, most robust Task Force in the country,” Daniel Netemeyer, the FBI’s St. Louis crimes-against-children SWAT coordinator, says in an email. But this iteration of Operation Cross Country, he admits, “did not generate any arrests or recoveries.” In Phoenix, the FBI “recovered one minor and arrested 11 adults on unrelated charges,” says bureau spokeswoman Jill McCabe.
Oregon authorities conducted operations in Portland, Eugene, and Salem, where they made a big deal about raiding a strip club under suspicion of harboring underage prostitution. No juveniles were identified and no one was arrested from the raid. Ultimately, one minor was recovered in Portland and 20 adults were arrested for prostitution.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, an effort spanning six counties and 29 agencies yielded just 14 people identified as “pimps/associates,” three people identified as adult trafficking victims, and six minors. Authorities also arrested 135 people for prostitution and 79 for solicitation. In addition, 63 “johns” were texted by a police “cyber patrol” when they responded to an online “escort” ad, and $10,000 in cash and 11 guns were seized.
Virtually everywhere, adult sex worker arrests vastly outpaced all other types of arrests, and far exceeded actual sex trafficking finds. FBI video from this year’s operation includes footage of a command center where federal agents watch real-time updates from police departments around the country, keeping a running tally of minors identified and adults arrested. On the single night in October shown in the highlight reel, 28 juveniles—nearly 90 percent of whom were 16 or 17, plus two 15-year-olds and one 13-year-old—were identified. Seventy-eight people identified as “pimps” or their associates were arrested. And 329 adults were arrested for prostitution.
Federal officials insist child sex trafficking is an American epidemic, with domestic victims numbering in the hundreds of thousands. None of the stings have yielded evidence of anything like a problem on that scale.
Since 2010, the FBI has stopped publicizing the numbers of sex workers arrested or total number of arrests. But communicating with field office representatives and scouring local news stories provided some idea of the magnitude. Tallying these figures reveals around 550 people, mostly women, were arrested or cited on prostitution charges as part of Operation Cross Country X. At least 175 people, mostly men, were arrested for solicitation of prostitution. And dozens of others were arrested for outstanding warrants, drug possession, unlawful possession of a firearm, driving on a suspended license, parole violations, outstanding court fees, or other low-level charges.
The real numbers are likely much larger, as there was no information made available to the public about prostitution arrests for 19 out of the 55 FBI jurisdictions, even in places where FBI reports vaguely noted that “local arrests” had been made. But even as an undercount, the prostitution arrest data shows that more than six times more sex workers were arrested in these stings than juveniles were identified. More than twice as many sex workers were arrested as those accused of being pimps or traffickers.
It’s also misleading to draw a bright line between sex workers and “pimps.” To the FBI, “pimp means anyone performing a managerial role, even if no minors, force, coercion, or fraud are involved and even when the person in the managerial role is herself a sex worker,” as Katherine Koster, communications director for the Sex Workers Outreach Project, explained last year.
There’s little evidence that Operation Cross Country is helping trafficking victims in a significant way, but there is ample indication that it’s making lots of people worse off—not just men and women choosing to engage in consensual commercial sex, but teens who meet the FBI’s definition of “victims” as well.
None of this is new territory for the FBI, which owes its rise to a mandate that it police private sexual activities. By monitoring and prosecuting prostitution in 21st century America, the agency is returning to its Progressive Era roots.
The surveillance of morally suspicious women and the war on commercial sex were what took the FBI—then known as the Bureau of Investigation—from a fledgling East Coast–centric operation to a force with outposts, agents, and authority across America. With the Mann Act of 1910, also known as the White Slave Traffic Act, the bureau became responsible for ensuring no one transported women or girls across state lines for prostitution or “any other immoral purposes.”
“The White Slave Traffic Act fell well within the Progressive Era’s legal reform agenda dedicated to protecting innocent young women from sexual exploitation,” notes Jessica R. Pliley in 2014′s Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI, “but it had the added effect of federalizing this ‘protection.’” Before the Mann Act, the Bureau’s “sphere of activity centered on the mid-Atlantic states on the Eastern Seaboard.” To effectively enforce the new law, the agency “had to establish itself throughout the country, setting up field offices and local representatives in each state.”
This was an era of intense concern about prostitution in America and, more specifically, fear that the U.S. was harboring a vibrant trade in young, white sex slaves. The hysteria over this supposed “white slave trade” sprang less from any evidence of rampant sex trafficking than from anxiety over increasing urbanization and mobility, shifting social mores, women flocking to the industrial workforce, and immigrants allegedly importing their “depraved” or “perverted” ways to U.S. shores. In that atmosphere, Anti-Vice Commissions sprang up in 43 U.S. cities from 1910 through 1917. These commissions—composed of municipal leaders, social reformers, academics, feminists, philanthropists, and others—were tasked with studying the causes and prevalence of prostitution and finding ways to stop it. Around this same time, the Bureau of Investigation established more than 300 “White Slavery Squads” around America. These were in charge of registering the residents of red light districts and monitoring their movements and activities.
“In the course of registering all the prostitutes in a given city, Bureau agents frequently encountered women whom they suspected of being in the country illegally,” writes Gretchen Soderlund in Sex Trafficking, Scandal, and the Transformation of Journalism, 1885–1917. Thus, bureau agents often worked closely with federal immigration officials, who were busy enforcing the Immigration Act of 1910. That law allowed for the deportation of any immigrant involved in prostitution, no matter how long he or she had been in the country (previously, only those prostituting within three years of arrival could be kicked out).
While the feds originally stuck to prostitution cases when enforcing the Mann Act, this enforcement was uneven. A Department of Justice circular from 1917 advises federal agents and district attorneys to pursue Mann Act cases involving “previously chaste, or very young women or girls,” and “married women (with young children.)” Cases where women proved less than 100 percent pure virgin victims were often ignored, or sometimes turned back around on the women. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in 1915 (in the case United States v. Holte) that women could be indicted as conspirators in their own immoral transportation.
“Many African American women and men were accused of trafficking during the white slavery scare and became pawns of the criminal justice system,” notes Soderlund.
The Mann Act also provided a useful pretext for harassing interracial couples and others suspected of transgressing social or political norms. The most well-known case is that of boxer Jack Johnson, whose high-profile relationships with white women didn’t sit well with many. Johnson was arrested in 1912 for driving an alleged sex worker across state lines and, when the charge didn’t stick, arrested again a month later. Although the incidents took place before the Mann Act’s passage, an all-white jury in the post–Mann Act era found Johnson guilty.
Eventually, the feds decided that the act’s “for any other immoral purposes” clause gave them license to target adulterers, criminal seducers, fornicators, homosexuals, and other sexual “deviants.” In a survey of bureau field offices in 1929, respondents all said that Mann Act cases made up the largest portion of their caseloads, and many investigations were initiated by individuals—”namely, wives of subjects who have been deserted or husbands of victims who have left with another individual.” Parents seeking recourse against cads who had seduced their daughters were also common.
Between 1921 and 1936, the FBI investigated 47,500 Mann Act cases, according to J. Edgar Hoover. Yet these investigations resulted in just 6,335 convictions—a success rate of about 13 percent. “The fact that only a small percentage of the tens of thousands of cases investigated by the Bureau ever advanced to U.S. Attorneys offices speaks volumes about how the law was enforced and the growth of the criminal justice state,” writes Pliley. “The Bureau used its investigative powers to informally discipline a wide range of sexual behaviors. The ‘shadow of the law’—threats of potential legal action—became a powerful facet of FBI growth and action.”
Pliley points out that “historians of the FBI typically emphasize the Bureau’s role in domestic political policing of ideological and racial minorities.” But this “overlooks how central policing of sexuality was to the development of the FBI as a national agency with the capacity to conduct such political surveillance.”
The Progressive Era’s efforts to squelch prostitution—the anti-vice commissions, the “white slavery squads,” the cozy relationship between federal detectives, immigration officials, and local police—have now morphed into Department of Justice (DOJ) Human Trafficking Task Forces, wherein agents of the FBI, ICE, and Homeland Security work with local cops, social reformers, charities, and politicians. Since 2004, the DOJ has led and funded hundreds of such task forces, to the tune of $22.7 million (for 16 task forces) in 2015 and $15.8 million (for 11 task forces) in 2016. (Note that these price tags don’t include the costs incurred by the FBI and other cooperating federal agencies; that the DOJ also funds myriad other anti-trafficking efforts; and that a slew of other federal agencies also fund anti-human-trafficking groups.)
These task forces make up the backbone of Operation Cross Country and similarly federalized sex stings. They have been central to prostitution and sex worker arrests around the nation, under the stated theory that this will eventually lead them to victimized girls or criminal sex trafficking rings.
Federal officials routinely insist that child sex trafficking is an American epidemic, with domestic victims numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Yet for all the nationwide intensity and effort, neither the DOJ trafficking task forces nor other federal agencies on the trafficking beat have yielded evidence of anything like a problem on that scale.
To be sure, the crime statistics for any offense do not represent the total instances of that crime. But they should give us a reasonable jumping-off point for estimating the scope of such offenses overall. This is a non-controversial statement in most crime areas—if there were verified reports of two child abductions, 200 homicides, and 2,000 burglaries recorded in a given city each year, you would probably be skeptical if someone tried to tell you the city actually experienced more than 3,000 kidnappings, 300,000 homicides, and three million burglaries annually. The nature of illegal activity is that it is hidden, but discrepancies of that magnitude defy belief. Where are all the victims of those unsolved crimes? Where are their friends and family members demanding justice?
Yet with sex trafficking statistics, people often lose this perspective. A recent report conducted by the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault at the University of Texas and the nonprofit Allies Against Slavery (with funding from Texas’ Office of the Governor) estimated more than 70,000 youths are trafficked annually in Texas. Yet the state had, over a seven-year period, opened just 737 human trafficking investigations, convicted just 85 suspects, and identified just 320 minors involved in prostitution. At the national level, a debunked but still oft-repeated statistic says that 300,000 U.S. kids are “at risk” of human trafficking each year. Yet between late 2009 and late 2015, investigations from DOJ-funded anti-trafficking task forces identified just 1,052 minor victims—about 175 per year—according to the 2017 National Strategy to Combat Trafficking.
The Attorney General’s 2015 Assessment of U.S. Government Activities to Combat Trafficking in Persons, presented in June 2016, states that the FBI’s Violent Crimes Against Children Section (VCACS)—which handles all domestic minor sex trafficking cases—opened 538 investigations in Fiscal Year 2015, leading to 2,253 arrests and 363 convictions on federal, state, or local charges (not necessarily human trafficking charges). From late 2010 to late 2015, VCACS and its partners arrested more than 10,600 people in the course of domestic minor sex trafficking investigations, securing just 1,810 convictions (on any federal, state, or local charges) over this same time period.
As for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, its agents participated in 91 task forces and opened 1,034 human trafficking cases of their own in 2015, leading to the arrest of more than 1,400 people. But just 51 people were convicted on federal sex trafficking charges in 2015 as a result of ICE investigations.
Operation Cross Country is part of the Innocence Lost National Initiative, born in 2003 to—in the DOJ’s words—”address the growing problem” of underage prostitution. Five years later, the Innocence Lost Initiative began branding—and intensifying—its commercial-sex stings under the banner of Operation Cross Country.
Today’s Operation Cross Country borrows its name from a crackdown on a different vice. From 2003 through 2007, that was the name given to a series of federal anti-drug stings conducted by the Drug Enforcement Administration, ICE, the IRS, and state and local police. The new Operation Cross Country worked on a similar model, bringing together federal, state, and local law enforcement in an ostensible effort to target trafficking rings through a series of old-fashioned prostitution stings.
From the beginning, Innocence Lost and Operation Cross Country were pitched as ways to target internet-enabled prostitution, organized criminal networks, and the worst forms of sexual slavery. “We are faced with the increasing use of social network sites and other advances in technology to carry out these crimes and facilitate these criminal enterprises,” then–FBI Director Robert Mueller declared in 2003. At a 2008 press conference about the first Operation Cross Country, NCMEC President and CEO Ernie Allen asserted that “child trafficking for the purpose of prostitution is organized criminal activity using kids as commodities for sale and trade. These kids are victims. They lack the ability to walk away. This is 21st century slavery.”
For the first Operation Cross Country, the FBI spearheaded sex stings in 16 cities from June 18 to June 23, 2008, joined by some 350 law enforcement officials from 50 different agencies. Posing as clients both on the streets and on Craigslist, undercover officers identified 21 teenagers who were engaging in prostitution, arrested 290 people on prostitution charges, and arrested 55 people it described as “pimps” or “traffickers.”
Soon thereafter, 92 agencies conducted stings in 29 cities as part of Operation Cross Country II (OCC II), which took place over three days in October 2008. This time, 47 teenagers were found and 518 people were arrested for prostitution, 41 people were arrested on miscellaneous charges, and 73 people were arrested for crimes such as pimping, promoting prostitution, aiding and abetting prostitution, or human trafficking.
The next several operations were similar, albeit ever-expanding. Thirty-six cities and 1,599 officers were a part of OCC IV in October 2009. Forty cities and 2,100 officers partook in OCC V in November 2010. OCC VI, in June 2012, involved 8,500 law enforcement personnel.
Yet even with these expansions in the operation’s scope, the returns were minimal. Fifty-two minors were found in the fourth operation, 69 in the fifth, and 79 in the sixth. In 2014, 168 minors were identified—the largest number to date—representing about three times more than were found in OCC II. But the 2014 effort also took place in about three times as many cities. Ultimately, each Operation Cross Country has yielded a recovery rate of between 0.88 (in 2016) and 1.73 (in 2010) minors per city.
John Pistole, deputy director of the FBI from October 2004 through May 2010, has testified to Congress that only about 25 percent of the teens encountered in such efforts were forced or threatened into prostitution. When there were “pimps” or “sex traffickers” involved, their networks were small and “finite” and mostly involved a few friends or relatives operating in one or a handful of cities. Nothing that could be honestly described as a “trafficking ring” was found.
On October 17, 2016, the FBI announced the results of the tenth Operation Cross Country. Across the country, they said, 239 “pimps and other individuals” had been apprehended. Officials did not provide more details about what these other individuals had done wrong.
News reports and arrest records fill in more of the story. While a small percentage were arrested on suspicion of state-level trafficking offenses, the bulk of Operation Cross Country arrests that turned up in public records searches involved violations of local statutes against pimping, pandering, aiding and abetting prostitution, promoting prostitution, procuring a person for prostitution, or the like—offenses that target activity involving adults, not minors, and that don’t require the presence of any violence, fraud, or coercion.
Intentionally or not, the FBI makes it seem as if most Operation Cross Country arrests are directly related to child sex trafficking. But this is misleading: At least seven jurisdictions reported recovering at least one “child,” sometimes several, but made no pimping or trafficking arrests. And another seven jurisdictions reported pimping or trafficking arrests but identified no juveniles.
At least 15 “child sex trafficking” arrests made during Operation Cross Country X involved neither any juveniles nor any attempts to traffick them. That’s because anyone who solicits paid sex from someone under age 18 is considered a sex trafficker under U.S. law, and it doesn’t matter if the minor is a real person or a character created by the cops. For such stings, police post ads as if they’re adult escorts and, after arranging appointments with would-be customers, “admit” that they’re only 16 or 17 years old. If the “john” still shows up, he’s arrested, booked on charges such as sex trafficking or traveling in furtherance of having sex with a minor, and added to the FBI’s tally of “pimps.”
The FBI describes teens as “children” being “rescued.” But the “child victims” are often arrested and jailed themselves, either for prostitution or for charges like loitering.
Police argue that these are men who wanted to have sex with children and would’ve found a way to do so—thus, the stings help stop future abuse of minors. But as with similar FBI operations in the realms of terrorism and drug dealing, it’s not at all clear that these crimes would’ve been committed anyway. The ads the “traffickers” first respond to feature photos and descriptions of adult women, and the “children” they ultimately agree to meet are, in their minds, teenagers well past puberty and, in many instances, past the age of sexual consent in their states. These men may be guilty of flawed judgment or questionable morals, but they’re not pedophiles, not pimps, and certainly not traffickers.
A lot of the FBI’s “pimps” this round—including many women—were arrested simply for posting a prostitution ad online or driving someone else to an appointment. Several sex workers in Virginia seem to have been charged as brothel owners (under the sepia-toned charge of “keeping a bawdy place”) merely for using their own apartments to meet with clients. Those arrested for prostitution were often charged for other offenses too, including possession of small amounts of marijuana, driving without a license, and trying to evade arrest.
In a few states, such as Arkansas, nearly all the prostitution charges were accompanied by a felony charge for “possessing the instrument of a crime” or something similar. The felonious criminal instrument? A cellphone or laptop. Prostitution is just a misdemeanor, but the government tacked on felony charges because the sex worker communicated with potential clients using email or texts.
Clients, too, were subject to Operation Cross Country stings. The 2016 efforts yielded at least 175 arrests for simple solicitation. If we combine these with the hundreds of prostitution arrests, we find that the number of people arrested for attempting to engage in consensual commercial sexual activity with another adult is almost eight times bigger than the number of juveniles identified.
Further research turns up roughly eight defendants arrested on state-level trafficking charges in cases involving an actual underage victim. There was a Wisconsin mother accused of trafficking her daughters, ages 16 and 17; a younger brother, who was not being trafficked, was also counted among child-rescue totals. A Florida man and his girlfriend were accused of facilitating (without force) a 16-year-old’s prostitution in Tampa. Tyrell Moss, 32, and Jada Boyd, 19, were accused of facilitating the prostitution of a 17-year-old girl in Cleveland, and Abel Paredes, 25, was accused of driving a 16-year-old to a prostitution date in California. An unidentified man and women were also arrested in conjunction with a 17-year-old girl in San Jose.
In addition, 25-year-old Charles Quinn was arrested under a recent Louisiana law against “human trafficking someone under age 21.” The law allows for 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds to be treated like children, rather than adults, in prostitution prosecutions, so anyone who assists them can be charged with sex trafficking even when no force, fraud, or coercion are at play. Allegations of none of those thing were made in this case, and Quinn’s “victim,” an 18-year-old girl, was also arrested for prostitution.
Two of the men indicted on federal trafficking charges, cousins Calvin Miller and Henry Dailey, are accused of behavior that’s certainly abusive: pimping out three adult women they kept in line via threats, intimidation, monitoring their phone activity, and even sexual assault. The women told police they initially consented to both prostitution and their arrangements with Miller and Dailey but were now only sticking around out of fear that the cousins would find and hurt them otherwise. It’s a situation that few would deny deserves attention from law enforcement. But city police and state prisons have long sufficed for investigating and punishing this sort of crime. Why do local pimps with a violent streak suddenly require the full force of the federal criminal justice system?
The only federal defendant to be convicted so far is Irick Oneal, found guilty of sex trafficking after driving a 15-year-old runaway to a hotel in Odessa, Texas. A detective posing as a customer had arranged to meet the girl there after seeing her, posing as an adult, in an escort ad online. Once the girl “agreed to engage in deviant sexual intercourse with the undercover agent for a fee,” cops swarmed in and eventually discovered that she was underage, according to an affidavit from FBI Special Agent Laura A. Field.
The girl, who had a fake ID saying she was 19, “refused to answer any questions about who she was working for,” the affidavit states. “She has been in [Child Protective Services, or] CPS custody for approximately three years, but she keeps running away. Throughout the night, the minor victim made several comments about wanting to be on her own, wanting to run away from CPS, and hurting/killing herself if she went…back to CPS.” Police nonetheless returned her to CPS and counted her among the tally of children they rescued that week.
Oneal was found waiting in the hotel parking lot and has been in law enforcement custody ever since. The affidavit says he admitted the girl was working with him and his girlfriend, who had posted the ad, but said they did not know her true age. In January 2017, Oneal was found guilty by a federal jury of one count of sex trafficking a child. He faces a possible sentence of life in federal prison.
The other federal charge for sex trafficking a minor is against John Dickerson. On October 15, around 6 p.m., Dickerson dropped a 17-year-old girl off at a motel room so she could meet someone—unbeknownst to them, an undercover cop—for an appointment. Police listening in “heard the female state she would do vaginal sex, but not anal or kissing, for $200″ and “at that point, the take-down signal was given,” according to the criminal complaint against Dickerson. “As law enforcement entered the room, the black female was instructed to place her hands behind her back so that restraints be [sic] placed on her wrists.…She was wearing a white Oklahoma sweatshirt, with no pants on.”
Police searching the vicinity found Dickerson, who later admitted to transporting the 17-year-old “to a hotel twice and a house once, within the past few weeks,” the complaint notes. Dickerson “admitted [that he] had received $100 or more.” He was charged with one count of child sex trafficking.
The FBI describes these teenagers and others as “children” they “rescued.” But it’s a strange sort of rescue. Sometimes, “child victims” are arrested and jailed themselves, either for prostitution or for charges like loitering. There were an estimated 1,130 youth arrests for prostitution in 2009, according to a 2016 report commissioned by the Justice Department; 55 percent of those arrested were black and 35 percent white. In addition, 4,399 young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 were arrested that year in the 26 states for which data was available.
Arrest for these young people doesn’t just mean detention and court fees but a potential criminal record that could bar them from being eligible for certain shelters and social services, or from having a fair shot at jobs, scholarships, loans, leases, and other opportunities in the future.
Even when not arrested, they’re subjected to a barrage of armed men bursting into their rooms, handcuffed, coerced into cooperating with law enforcement, and detained at jails or juvenile detention centers until they can be returned to families or foster homes, turned over to child protective services, or placed in some sort of shelter.
The “victims’ service advocates” on hand to help them are generally members of law enforcement themselves, usually from the FBI or U.S. Attorney’s Offices. They’re looking to help, sure, but also to get information that will help their colleagues build a case. And the “services” provided to “rescued” teens are frequently banal or just useless—bags of socks and snacks, “case management” from faith-based charities with missionary motives, referrals to shelters that are full or youth programs that don’t accept kids with criminal backgrounds.
In Evaluation of Services for Domestic Minor Victims of Trafficking, a DOJ-funded report prepared by RTI International and published in 2015, researchers studied three nonprofit recipients of federal grants for serving juvenile sex trafficking victims (the Salvation Army, the Streetwork Project at Safe Horizon, and Standing Against Global Exploitation Everywhere). Looking at the 201 youth served by these groups over a 3.5-year period, the researchers discovered serious gaps between what these organizations offered and what real-life kids needed. And the use of the word “kids” here is debatable—the median age in the cohort was 17.
The “narrative of ‘abducted innocents’ was rarely seen,” they note, and “force was rarely identified by young people as precipitating initial engagement in sex trades.” Rather, “the common thread was of young people engaged in sex trades as the least-bad solution to meeting fundamental needs for safety, shelter, social connection, and love.” Furthermore, “sex trade engagement was never the only problem in these young people’s lives and often not their most critical problem.”
Mental health issues were common, as was past or current neglect and abuse from parents or guardians—many had run away because of it. Somewhere between half and three-quarters of the minors were enrolled in school. Around a third to a half were already part of state child protective services, and many had been in the juvenile justice system too.
Both systems frequently failed to “recognize trafficking among their clients, or did not consider it as falling within their responsibility to address,” the researchers note. “At the same time, legal provisions enacted to protect minors, such as required parental notification by shelters, frequently represented barriers to service, particularly for youth whose families do not protect or provide for them.” Children and teens also reported apprehension about talking to police and “experienced violence from law enforcement and in detention.”
The report urged police to “stop arresting minors engaged in prostitution” and stop “using arrest to ‘encourage’ service use, or housing them in jails rather than settings appropriate for crime victims.” But the researchers also note resistance to such recommendations. As one public defender asked them, “How else do you get [juveniles] services but lock them up and force them to engage in services?”
Federal prosecutors still make routine use of the century-old Mann Act today. In fact, three of the five people facing federal charges as a result of the latest Operation Cross Country stand accused of violating the law. Two of these defendants—the cousins—were also charged with sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion, but the third, 26-year-old Derrick Horne, stands accused of nothing more than “enticing an 18-year-old woman across state lines for prostitution,” according to a DOJ press release.
Horne met the 18-year-old, “Leia,” through an app called Hot or Not a few weeks prior to his run-in with the FBI. They were both living in Kansas City, which straddles the Kansas/Missouri state line. Horne arranged to help Leia get into prostitution, with him placing ads and serving as a bodyguard for a portion of the proceeds. Leia later told police that her first client paid $170, of which she kept $90 and Horne kept $80.
On the night of October 15, an undercover cop answered Leia’s online ad and they agreed to meet at his hotel room for half an hour. To get to the hotel, Horne drove Leia from the Missouri side of the city to the Kansas side. Once Leia agreed to have sex with the undercover officer for $150, both she and Horne were arrested. It’s not clear whether she was ultimately charged with prostitution. Horne, however, now faces up to 20 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine for violating the Mann Act.
Horne was also charged for possessing a firearm; as someone with a previous felony drug conviction, he is banned from owning them entirely. In a request that Horne not be released on bail pending trial, prosecutors cited the fact that he had the gun and “made statements to a witness indicating he may harm third persons, specifically, ‘johns’ who might harm women for whom defendant was pimping.” A willingness to protect vulnerable young women from violence is apparently a major strike against him in the state’s eyes.
Advocates of Operation Cross Country often justify the stings by saying that “if it saves even one child, it’s worth it.” That ignores tremendous opportunity costs. The vast array of resources—money, manpower, time—that go into Operation Cross Country come from a limited pool. Authorities are routinely taking money set aside to stop child sexual exploitation and using it to find and punish adults, many just a few years past childhood themselves, for private sexual activities. It’s tough for anyone to defend this type of siphoning, let alone those who claim to be the most concerned about helping kids.
Focusing on the few children who might be saved by such stings overlooks the harms the enforcers are doing to many other children and adults. Remember, the FBI has admitted that the majority of “trafficked teens” are not being forced into selling sex, and many have no pimp or trafficker. They don’t need to be freed from captivity or pried away from a bad guy’s control. For most of the minors identified, “rescue” means—at best—being returned to the places they tried to escape.
At a bare minimum, turning Operation Cross Country into a legitimate framework for combatting sex trafficking would require ceasing the massive, multifaceted national vice sting that the feds have grown to rely on for funding and good publicity. But with very few people authentically being helped and a hefty price tag per arrest, perhaps the program simply isn’t worth saving.
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