TBI conducting sex trafficking stings across the state, including East TN

TRI-CITIES, TN (WJHL)- The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is cracking down on people trying to buy and sell children for sex acts, something investigators say happened right here in the Tri-Cities.

Leslie Earhart, public information officer for TBI, said sex trafficking is a demand-driven industry. To meet the demand of the number of people wanting to buy sex, some children are forced to engage in sex acts.

“In our community there is currently a pretty significant appetite for purchasing sex from women and children, and until we address that and try to change some of those behaviors and hold perpetrators accountable nothing is really going to change,” Kate Trudell, executive director for the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking said.

So to catch those buying and selling people for sex, TBI is conducting a series of stings. Starting on a website called backpage.com, the same site where Sullivan County detectives said a man was selling a 15-year-old Tri-Cities girl for sex last week.

Earhart said in the stings, investigators put up a few ads on the site.

“In the Nashville operation which was conducted in August we had 485 men respond to those ads,” Earhart said. And of those who actually showed up to the motel, “Eighteen of them believed that they were showing up for sex with an underage girl and actually paid for an underage girl so that’s extremely disturbing and it shows you the problem we’re dealing with.”

Earhart said the men who respond to these ads aren’t who you might expect. “During the last operation we had a state employee show up we also had a former Vanderbilt football player show up,” Earhart said.

She said TBI is continuing the stings across the state including East Tennessee.

“The men showing up to pay for sex they have a lot to lose so knowing that we could be behind that hotel door waiting to arrest them serves as a deterrent,” Earhart said.

And once the victims are brought in to the sex-trade, it’s not easy to get out.

“There’s typically a lot of psychological abuse, brainwashing that occurs in these relationships and so you know the women really feel that if they were to leave either they would be physically harmed or they’re simply led to believe that there are no options for them other than this life,” Trudell said.

Earhart said TBI offers victims of human trafficking, no matter their age, services including counseling, housing, and addiction treatment.

“We show them that there is a way out so it’s important we’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem,” Earhart said.

As for the sting operations, since 2015, TBI has conducted six,  resulting in 143 arrests and citations, according to Earhart said.

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