The TBI and Chattanooga police released the results of their latest human trafficking operation on Friday morning.
TBI Director Mark Gwyn said the operation "Someone Like Me" was conducted over the course of a few weeks in Chattanooga.
Similar operations have already taken place in middle and west Tennessee.
Investigators placed ads on Backpage for 6 1/2 hours on a Thursday and another set of ads for 4 1/2 hours on a Friday.
They also had undercover agents respond to Backpage ads offering prostitution services.
100 people responded on the very first day of the operation and over 80 more responded to the second ad.
20 individuals were arrested for various charges and some were armed with weapons.
Women who were taken into custody when undercover officers responded to ads were processed and given the opportunity to be placed into protective custody in an effort to escape their current situation.
The women were also given the opportunity to enroll in programs to help them transition.
TBI Director Mark Gwyn says the many of the women are Tennesseans, adding "these are our neighbors, someone's daughter."
Gwyn says similar investigations throughout the state will continue in an effort to end human trafficking in the state.
We met with U.S. Senator Bob Corker today. He told us slavery is against the law in every country and yet there are 27 million people enslaved, and that's something he wants fixed.
“Thanks to some legislation we passed recently at the national level, TBI's and TBI's like that in other states, are now able to use wire taps - which gets them in the ability to check emails and that kind of thing - to stop this kind of thing,” said Corker.
UPDATE: Here is the full release from the T.B.I.:
CHATTANOOGA â Today, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation announced results of a two-part operation to combat human trafficking in Tennessee. âOperation Someone Like Meâ 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 âOperation Someone Like Meâ, 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.
âWe have evolved from the research and reporting phase and into the operation phaseâ, says TBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Margie Quin. âWeâre 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.â
âThe TBI has made this a priority,â said TBI Director Mark Gwyn. âLives are at stake at this very moment. We will be the agency â and the state â to do everything possible to make a difference.â
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.
âAs a former sex crimes detective, I know the disturbing effect crimes of this nature have on the victims involved,â said Chief of the Chattanooga Police Department Fred Fletcher. âLaw-enforcement and service provider partnerships like this are vital to the safety and well-being of our city.â
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 TBIâs website.
Last year, as part of its commitment to address this issue, the TBI unveiled a public awareness campaign, entitled âIT Has To Stop,â 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 âOperation Someone Like Meâ 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