Local, state and federal law enforcement agents conduct a sting operation Sept. 5, 2014, at a Bismarck hotel that targeted buyers of commercial sex with minors. - Amy Dalrymple / Forum News Service
By Katherine Lymn
Forum News Service
The arrival of texts and emails sounds repeatedly from phones and laptops in this bustling suite on the fourth floor of one of Bismarck’s nicer hotels.
Local, state and federal law enforcement agents have posted ads on Backpage and Craigslist, offering sex for sale.
The group is dressed comfortably for the long night ahead of them. They could be getting ready for the weekend, but not this Friday night.
Instead they are actors, posing as pimps marketing sex with underage girls.
Ding. Another potential customer, another willing buyer.
The sting, led by Internet Crimes against Children agents, was like many that occur in western North Dakota now, whether on a small scale within local police departments or on a larger scale like this one. It’s one way experts say the Internet opens doors for law enforcement in addition to opportunistic pimps.
Forum News Service was granted special access in September to observe a sting.
As a chat develops between the agents - posing as pimps - and the men who are responding, the agents reveal the offer for sex is actually with an underage girl. Many of the men stop chatting and move on.
Others are undeterred or even enticed by the idea of sex with an underage girl. They are instructed on where to meet her.
The ones who show up at the hotel are directed to a particular room, a room where a knock on the door will make prosecutors’ cases and change the men’s lives.
In two “arrest rooms,” agents pass the time playing video games and snacking until a john comes knocking.
There’s a female agent in each room and she serves as the voice behind the door.
When the would-be john enters, it’s “a guns-out scenario,” says Rob Fontenot, a state Bureau of Criminal Investigation agent who periodically checks out each staging area, grabbing snacks from each room as he goes.
And then the men are in handcuffs, and they see the bulletproof vests, Tasers and badges.
“They physically can’t move a lot of times,” Fontenot says. “We’ve had people say, ‘Just [expletive] shoot me. My life’s over.’”
Back at a makeshift headquarters, agents chat and plan, replacing ads as their host sites remove them. The TV show “Law and Order: SVU” -- special victims unit -- plays in the background.
Ding, ding, ding.
Another agent tracks requests in an Excel spreadsheet, collecting the age of the child the man thinks he’s meeting, the acts he has requested, the price he has agreed to pay.
The 20 agents take eight hotel rooms, three for the operation and five for sleep. Many have traveled for this, and it’s a long commitment.
Responses kept coming, questions, requests for pictures.
The chats leading to potential meetups quickly become nauseating, the men rushing to see what they can get. The younger a girl looks in a picture, the faster the offers come, Fontenot says.
He doesn’t try to disguise his disgust.
“There’s no way of making sense of what these guys want to do to kids.”
At a national training session Fontenot attended to learn more about human trafficking, he heard about a woman who was forced to service 68 men in one day.
“I realized hell’s gonna be full,” Fontenot said.
The sting that night, also a training exercise for officers who hadn’t participated in such an operation before, netted one human trafficking arrest and another days later from the same set of ads. Similar stings in the state have captured johns at rates that show the demand is there, and that a man’s first stop when looking to pay for sex is the Web.
If you see potential trafficking or are a victim, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
- Phone: (888) 373-7888
- Email: NHTRC@PolarisProject.org
- Text: "INFO" or "HELP" to BeFree (233733)
Toll-free, open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Confidential with interpreters available.