Local prostitution ring busted in national FBI crackdown on human trafficking, 'Operation Cross Country'

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Federal agents and local detectives swarmed the third floor of Pittsburgh's Station Square Sheraton Hotel Friday night, making it the dramatic scene of law enforcement's nationwide war on human trafficking.

Nine women were arrested at the hotel as part of what appears to be an FBI-directed national crackdown on prostitution and human trafficking. Federal, state and local law enforcement officials coordinated to carry out the sting, part of a federal effort called Operation Cross Country.

While FBI officials said no details would be released before Monday, reports indicate that similar stings took place in Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, Ohio and Oklahoma between Wednesday and Friday. Whether all of these arrests were part of Operation Cross Country could not be confirmed.

Detectives with the Pittsburgh police vice unit began placing telephone calls Friday afternoon to numbers advertised in the escort section of the website backpage.com, known as a site that human traffickers and pimps use to illicitly sell sex.

"It's an extraordinarily harmful website," said Lauren Hersh, a former Brooklyn prosecutor and now director of anti-trafficking policy and advocacy at Sanctuary for Families, a New York-based nonprofit. "I've seen countless young girls who have been exploited on the website."

Detectives set up all of the appointments at hotel rooms on the third floor of the Sheraton, according to court documents.

Between 3:30 and 11:30 p.m., the women, with advertised names such as "Paris" and "Natalia," arrived at the hotel to meet whom they thought to be clients. Upon arriving, each woman, or in some cases pairs of women, would place a call to the supposed client who told her the room number.

Upon arrival to the room, at least two of the women asked whether the male was a police officer. According to court documents, the woman calling herself Natalia, a 23 year-old from Pittsburgh, "did a cop check" on the officer and then said, "OK, I just want to make sure you're not a cop."

Undercover detectives agreed to a price, from $200 to $1,000, with the women and exchanged the money; usually it had to be placed on a bedside table or television, as the women refused to handle the money directly. The detectives then signaled for back-up, and detectives and agents swarmed the room. The FBI conducted interviews with several of the women, all but one of whom were later transported to Allegheny County Jail. One was released, with a summons to be issued in days.

Of the nine arrested, eight were charged with prostitution. They ranged in age from 23 to 32. A ninth, Heather West, 38 of Pittsburgh, drove a 23-year-old to the hotel who was arrested on prostitution charges. Ms. West claimed only to be a driver and there for security purposes. She is facing misdemeanor conspiracy and promoting prostitution charges.

On Saturday, the day after the arrests, another almost 40 advertisements for adult "escorts" in the Pittsburgh area were posted on backpage.com. While the website says advertising of prostitution services is prohibited, numerous ads overtly offered such services and even listed prices. Backpage is one of several websites that law enforcement uses to monitor human trafficking, according to experts.

"Those websites actually create the biggest marketplace that we've ever seen in this country for victims of sex trafficking," said Andrea Powell, founder and executive director of FAIR Girls, a Washington, D.C.-based anti-trafficking organization.

"They're participating in this problem as well; they're not just a hapless platform," she said of the sites, adding that reports have shown Backpage and similar sites earning as much as $42 million a year from sex advertising.

"It looks virtual, it's online, but they're real victims," she said.

In July 2013, the FBI led a similar nationwide operation in 76 cities over the course of 72 hours. The sting recovered 105 juveniles who were being sold for sex, and 152 pimps were arrested. Similarly, the operation took place over a weekend, and details were not released until Monday, when the success of the operation was touted.

The FBI's Pittsburgh division arrested two pimps in the 2013 operation and did not recover any juveniles.

Matt Nussbaum: mnussbaum@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1504 or on Twitter @MatthewNussbaum.

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