An uptick in sex trafficking of children on the Internet has united Washington County prosecutors and law enforcement leaders in a vow to take the fight to perpetrators.
County Attorney Pete Orput said the coalition will take direct aim at people who exploit girls and boys for profit by coordinating various government resources, in a renewed effort to address the growing online sex trade.
“With the Internet, a lot of perps think it’s risk-free, and order up a human being to be delivered like a pizza and nobody will find out. We plan to let these perpetrators know the risk has become much higher,” Orput said Wednesday at a news conference attended by two dozen county and city leaders.
Orput’s new special crimes prosecutor, Imran Ali, said the FBI recently identified the Twin Cities as being one of the nation’s top metro areas for sex trafficking. Because of social media and other Internet functions, he said, sex trafficking has spread from Minneapolis and St. Paul into Washington County and other suburban areas.
With geographic boundaries eliminated, many more men shop for underage victims through Internet ads, he said.
“Now, they can do it from the privacy of their own homes, on their cellphones,” Ali said.
The coalition includes Sheriff Bill Hutton and several police chiefs, including Lee Vague of Woodbury, Craig Woolery of Cottage Grove, John Gannaway of Stillwater and Bill Sullivan of Oakdale.
“From our perspective, this is a significant use of resources,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to try to give some kids a future.”
Over two weeks in September, a series of undercover stings in the metro area led to charges against 21 men. Thirteen of them were in Washington County, and more cases are pending.
The stings, known as Operation Guardian Angel, also produced arrests in Dakota and Ramsey counties.
Wednesday’s news conference in Stillwater included representatives of social services who will work with law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to help victims of sex trafficking. The number of victims is expected to grow as Internet connections create increased customer demand for children, said Jennifer Polzin, the executive director of Tubman, Minnesota’s largest domestic violence agency.
“Many of these victims look like our sons and daughters,” she said, explaining that often adults in positions of power manipulate troubled and neglected children
Tony Zdroik, who heads the juvenile division in the Washington County attorney’s office, said there’s a strong connection between runaways and juvenile sex trafficking. His office is reviewing old cases involving runaway children to find possible links to sex crimes.
Orput said the coalition, by combining resources, can do a better job detecting sex crimes against children, as well as adults, than was possible in the past. A change in direction became necessary as criminals found a bigger market of paying men on the Internet, he said.
“Criminals don’t respect political boundaries, so we won’t either,” he said.