COLUMBUS, Ohio — A firefighter, college professor, and Cleveland city councilman were among 161 people arrested in a sex stitch surgery last week, described as the state’s largest targeting human trafficking.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, multi-county law enforcement officers, social service providers, and former trafficking victims met on Monday at the Ohio Statehouse to discuss the initiative.
Dubbed “Operation Ohio Knows,” the week-long sting was intended to create a deterrent to those seeking sex for pay or profit, Yost said.
“We want to send a message to everyone in the country: don’t buy sex in Ohio,” he said.
Police spread across the state, communicating with hundreds of men seeking sex. For each arrest made, officers contacted up to eight “johns” whose actions did not match the elements of a crime, Franklin County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Rick Minerd said.
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 US Marshals Service operation.
Fifty-one women, potential victims, were assisted by social services lawyers. It is not clear how many women are involved.
Most of those arrested were charged with prostitution, a first-degree crime. Other charges related to drugs and firearms.
A change in state law passed in the spring requires convicts to receive trafficking education.
“We can’t arrest our way out of human trafficking,” Yost said, noting that arrests are nonetheless important as a deterrent. “If there are no buyers, there is no human trafficking.”
He wants people to know it’s not a victimless crime.
“When you’re the buyer, you have no idea who you’re dealing with,” he said. “The pimp, the trafficker, doesn’t show up and sits in the corner looking at you. The survivor doesn’t say, ‘I don’t want to do this, but if I don’t, I’m going to be beaten’ or ‘He’s going to take my drugs withhold.’
“Because we don’t know, anyone in Ohio who buys sex is taking the risk of being complicit in human trafficking.”
Human trafficking survivor Mandie Knight spoke via Zoom about her past lifestyle and her gratitude at her arrest.
“If I hadn’t been arrested, gone to jail and had no consequences for the decisions I made, I wouldn’t be here today and I wouldn’t be as successful in life,” said Knight, a wife, mother and student of forensic criminology.
Mark Jessie, a councilor running for re-election on Nov. 2 in Elyria, Ohio, a town about 30 miles outside of Cleveland, was busted in the sting.
“I take this very seriously and realize it’s a huge mistake,” he told The Columbus Dispatch, part of the USA TODAY Network, on Monday. Jessie said he was seeking sex from someone he thought sold on a website.
When officers arrested him, he said, “there was an immediate feeling of wanting to throw up and facing the consequences with my family and friends.”
Summit County Sheriff Kandy Fatheree warned her colleagues not to rest on sting operations alone.
“This is the beginning and not the end, and I think we still have so much work to do across the state,” she said.