Largest human trafficking sting in Ohio history nets 161, including city councilman

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COLUMBUS, Ohio – A firefighter, college professor and a Cleveland-area city councilman were among 161 people arrested in a sex sting operation last week, described as the state's largest focused on human trafficking.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, law enforcement officials from multiple counties, social service providers and former human trafficking victims met in the Ohio Statehouse on Monday to talk about the initiative.

Dubbed "Operation Ohio Knows," the weeklong sting was intended to create a deterrent for those who seek sex for pay or profit, Yost said.

"We want to send a message to everybody in the country: Don't buy sex in Ohio," he said.

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'Operation Ohio Knows'

Law enforcement fanned out across the state, communicating with hundreds of men seeking sex. For every arrest made, officers contacted up to eight "johns" whose actions didn't meet the elements of any crime, said Chief Deputy Rick Minerd of the Franklin County sheriff's office.

Three of the perpetrators were willing to pay to have sex with people they thought were minors. Ten minors reported missing were recovered during a simultaneous operation carried out by the U.S. Marshals Service.

Fifty-one women, would-be victims, were provided assistance by social service advocates. It was unclear how many of the women were charged.

Most of those arrested were charged with engaging in prostitution, a first-degree misdemeanor. Other charges related to drugs and firearms.

A change in state law passed in the spring requires those convicted to undergo human trafficking education.

"We cannot arrest our way out of human trafficking," Yost said, noting that arrests are nevertheless important as a deterrence. "If there are no buyers, there will be no trafficking."

He wants people to know that it's not a victimless crime.

"When you are the buyer, you have no idea who you're dealing with," he said. "The pimp, the trafficker, doesn't show up and sit in the corner watching you. The survivor doesn't tell you, 'I don't want to do this, but if I don't, I'm going to be beat' or 'He's going to withhold my drugs.'

"Because we don't know, anybody in Ohio who purchases sex is assuming the risk that they're complicit in trafficking."

Human trafficking survivor Mandie Knight spoke via Zoom about her former lifestyle and her gratitude at being arrested.

“Had I not been arrested, had I not gone to jail and had I not suffered some consequences for the decisions I was making, I wouldn’t be here today, and I wouldn’t be as successful in life," said Knight, a wife, mother and student in forensic criminology.

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Arrested city councilman: 'An enormous mistake'

Mark Jessie, a councilman running for reelection Nov. 2 in Elyria, Ohio, a city roughly 30 miles outside Cleveland, was picked up in the sting.

"I'm taking this very seriously and realize it's an enormous mistake," he told The Columbus Dispatch, part of the USA TODAY Network, on Monday. Jessie said he sought sex from someone he thought was selling it on a website.

When officers arrested him, he said, "there was an immediate feeling of wanting to throw up and an immediate feeling of facing the consequences with my family and friends."

Summit County Sheriff Kandy Fatheree cautioned her colleagues not to rest on sting operations alone.

"This is the beginning and not the end, and I think we have so much work to do across the state," she said.

Follow reporter Dean Narciso on Twitter: @deannarciso

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Ohio human trafficking bust 'Operation Ohio Knows' nets 161 arrests