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 a national crackdown on prostitution and human trafficking led by the FBI. 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 Oklahoma, Louisiana, Ohio, Arkansas and Arizona between Wednesday and Friday. Whether or not all of these arrests were part of Operation Cross Country could not be confirmed.
Detectives with the Pittsburgh Police Department Vice Unit began placing phone calls Friday afternoon to numbers advertised in the escort section of a website called backpage.com, a site known to be used by human traffickers and pimps to illicitly sell sex. All of the appointments were set up for hotel rooms on the third floor of the Sheraton Hotel, according to court documents.
Between 3:30 PM and 11:30 PM, the women, with advertised names such as “Paris” and “Natalia,” arrived at the hotel to meet with who they thought to be clients. Upon arriving, each woman placed a phone call to the undercover detective who told her the room number.
At least two of the women inquired upon arrival to the room as to whether the supposed client was in fact a police officer.
According to court documents, the woman calling herself Natalia, in fact Jessica Oliver, 23 of Pittsburgh, “did a cop check” on the officer and then said, “Okay, I just want to make sure you‘re not a cop.”
Undercover detectives agreed to a price, ranging between $200 and $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 a number of the women, who were later transported to Allegheny County Jail.
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 23 year-old Heather McGure to the hotel. Ms. West claimed only to be serving as a driver and for security purposes. She is facing misdemeanor conspiracy and promoting prostitution charges.
On Saturday alone, 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, a number of the ads overtly offered such services, and even listed prices.
In July 2013 the FBI led a similar nationwide operation over the course of 72 hours, recovering 105 juveniles and arresting 152 pimps in 76 different cities. 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 that operation, and did not recover any juveniles.
First Published June 21, 2014 10:55 AM