FORT BEND COUNTY (Covering Fort Bend News) - Human traffickers are targeting junior high and high school aged girls to lure them into prostitution and it’s happening in our back yard. That’s the message of Fort Bend County District Attorney Brian Middleton and a large group of law enforcement agencies that worked to charge 64 people and rescue two teenage girls and 5 women who they say were victimized.
They called it Operation Freedom. The busts came during a three week period where those involved utilized the Fort Bend County Precinct 3 Constable’s Office in Katy as a base of operations.
“We housed all the agencies here that were doing their investigative work and their work behind the scenes on the social media,” said Constable Wayne Thompson. “We did provide transport to the Fort Bend County Jail. We also had members on the arrest team and we helped secure facilities to conduct these operations,” Thompson added.
“Our goal and our focus was to really target individuals who were purchasing sex, exploiting individuals for sex and also using online social media components to lure individuals in for sex including juveniles,” said Fort Bend County prosecutor Jenna Rudoff.
Operation Freedom Summary
- 3 arrests for compelling prostitution
- 3 arrests for promoting prostitution
- 1 Houston Police Officer Arrested
- 4 Criminal Gang Members
- 24 arrests of men buying sex
- 11 narcotics charges
- 3 miscellaneous charges including fraud, evading arrest and failure to identify.
- Money and vehicles were also seized.
“The traffickers are very sophisticated. They know how to use social media,” said Sherri Zack of the U.S Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas. “Their weapon is a cell phone and they will continue to wield that weapon as long as they can and as often as they can.”
The news conference was held on the first Friday of a new school year. A big part of the message was directed at parents, children, teachers and area school district administrators.
“I want to make it clear to the public that 90-percent of the grooming and recruiting process occurs online and parents need to be very aware of social media applications that their children use and know who they are talking to,” said Houston Police Sgt. John Wall who is part of the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance.
“We need to be cognizant of the fact that the use of social media and the internet also permeates the schools,” Zack said.
“Human Trafficking routinely occurs in plain sight. It involves all social and demographic levels, races and religions and economic levels. It’s not just a city problem,” District Attorney Middleton said.
“Recently we prosecuted a case and it was a local high school where girls were being recruited. They were being recruited in person. They were being recruited online. There were communications using social media and chat apps. This is something that students need to be made aware of that they are vulnerable to this,” Zack said.
“Teachers need to be on the lookout for the signs of the grooming that is going on and as a community we need to make sure that we are all vigilant,” Zack said.
Experts say adults need to watch for changes in children, and their friends that don’t seem to fit the normal pattern.
“We need to ask questions,” Zack said. “Middle schoolers need to be aware that they too are vulnerable and they are incredibly impressionable.”
Perhaps the most sinister part of human traffickers who groom and recruit children for prostitution is who they enlist to carry out their trap.
“They use other children to recruit,” Zack said. “It is pervasive in the gangs. It is pervasive in areas where children are seeking financial independence from their parents. They're seeking to go out and explore what they believe are their invulnerabilities and be kids. What they don’t understand is how dangerous this is,” Zack said.
Experts say one of the ways to control victims is to first get them hooked on drugs.
“Drugs are absolutely being used to control the victims and we can’t be naive about the fact that they are being used in the schools,” Zack said.
“We’ve been in office for about two years and eight months and we’ve been sounding the alarm on this, along with certain others,” Constable Thompson said. “It’s unfortunate that this happened but it sheds some light on what we’ve been warning and what the DA’s office has been warning about what has been going on in this area,” he added. “We’re glad that we were able to get people out of this vicious process.”
“Investigation of human trafficking is very time consuming. The perpetrators are very sophisticated,” said District Attorney Brian Middleton.
Perhaps it is why so many organizations were needed to make these most recent arrests. Middleton expects there will be more as his investigation continues.
Organizations that took part in Operation Freedom:
- Fort Bend County District Attorney’s Office
- The Houston Trafficking Rescue Alliance - a collaboration of 22 different agencies from local state and federal levels.
- Fort Bend County Precinct 3 Constable’s Office
- Houston Police
- Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office
- Harris County Sheriff’s Office
- Department of Homeland Security
- U.S. Department of State
- U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas
- Texas Department of Family and Protective Services
- The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission
- YMCA International
- The Deliver Fund
- The Texas Forensic Nurse Examiners
- Harris County District Attorney’s Office
Watch the news conference below courtesy of KHOU Channel 11.