The notice from the Malheur County (Ore.) Sheriff’s Office didn’t mince words.
“Victims of sex trafficking and prostitution are forced, coerced and manipulated into this lifestyle against their will,” read the notice announcing 15 cross-border arrests tied to a week of undercover sex trafficking stings. “They are forced to suffer through physical, sexual and mental abuse.”
But among the arrests were three women accused of prostitution. And even if authorities determine prostitutes were manipulated into sex work, said Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe, that doesn’t preclude charges against them.
“They still may be charged no matter what,” he said Monday. “Because if you don’t charge them, then there’s no incentive to change. But what we want to be real careful of is we don’t throw them out to the same manager, or pimp, if you will.”
The stings, run Dec. 11-17, targeted both the people who provide sex for money and those who pay for the service.
Eleven men were also arrested on misdemeanor charges of commercial sexual solicitation, including seven residents of Southwest Idaho. And a Las Vegas man is charged with using force to make two of the women engage in prostitution.
Wolfe said this was his first experience with a trafficking sting, and with the dilemma of whether to charge potential abuse victims. The challenge, he said, is determining whether women engage in prostitution willingly or are forced, manipulated or coerced into it.
“It becomes very complicated to get that figured out,” he said. “Most often, they won’t talk, so you do everything you can to give them an opportunity to articulate that they were or are victims.”
Wolfe said it’s easier to discern whether individuals are victims of trafficking if they’re underage, as minors are unable to consent. The women in Oregon are between the ages of 22 and 36.
Wolfe did not say whether they identified themselves as abuse victims.
Another problem for Malheur County is a lack of assistance for victims of sex trafficking. If people are being manipulated by another individual, Wolfe said, “you want them to have resources.” He hopes his county will implement some sort of court program or similar option for those believed to be victims of trafficking.
Though presented in a weekend press release as one sting, the investigation actually took place in multiple parts.
Two of the women — 22-year-old Ravonne Williams and 25-year-old Evelyn Young — were arrested with Antonio Walker, 34, after police responded to online ads they had placed, said Wolfe. The women are charged with prostitution, Walker with compelling prostitution.
The third woman charged with prostitution, 36-year-old Misty Redding of Ontario, operated separately from the other three, Wolfe said.
Police said the 11 men charged with commercial sexual solicitation then responded to decoy ads police placed on “known sex trafficking websites.” They allegedly contacted police decoys, arranged payment for sexual acts and were arrested at an Ontario-area hotel.
“There’s still a couple (of those individuals) in jail, and they will see a judge today,” Wolfe said Monday morning.
The Malheur County Sheriff’s Office worked with the Nyssa, Ontario and Payette police departments for the operation.