YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – It often starts with messages on social media, predators looking for underage victims. Only on this day, members of the Mahoning Valley Human Trafficking Task Force and agents with the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children unit are on the other end of the conversations.
Over a dozen men have been arrested locally as a result of a statewide anti-human trafficking operation, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office announced Monday. A total of 45 missing children have been found across the state.
Agents, working their phones and laptops, try to draw those predators out into the open. And just like a fly with a spider’s web, some of them are going to get caught.
Last week, WKBN First News joined task force members for a portion of their three-day sting operation. One of nearly a dozen carried out across the state called “Operation: Autumn Hope.”
Fourteen were arrested locally, most of them appearing in court on Friday. Jarod Mills, of New Castle, told Judge Molly Johnson he’s a church pastor.
“Some of the careers some of the people have are that they would be doing this sort of thing. You think you would get used to it, but you always seem to be surprised,” said Mahoning County Sheriff Jerry Greene.
This was the fourth of these local stings.
The Mahoning Valley Human Trafficking Task Force was formed three years ago. Since then, local officials have helped other agencies start their own units, and the idea was embraced by Ohio Attorney General David Yost. He made a stop at the “local sting house” last week.
“It is among the most important public safety work we do, once you understand what happens when someone is trafficked for sex,” Yost said.
The suspects come from all around the region, from Akron and Kent to Hermitage and Salem and from Trumbull and Mahoning counties as well.
John Harmocy, of McDonald, could do little more than shake his head after getting caught trying to leave while deputies blocked his car.
Between the chatter on their phones and laptops, the arrest teams, and roving surveillance, there are nearly three dozen people needed to make each of these operations work.
“I think we have been very successful, and we’ve got particularly good at what we do here and how we do it,” Greene said.
All of those arrested locally are facing lower-level felonies as well as being listed as sexual predators, but Yost says he is working to beef-up the potential penalties.
“We got a proposal before the legislature to change that. I am hopeful that it might get approved by the end of the year,” Yost said.
Regardless, the Sheriff says he has no plans to stop the stings, warning those who prey on young children may find themselves chatting with law enforcement.
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