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Coalition forms to combat sex trafficking

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Washington County Attorney’s Office has secured a $125,000, two-year state grant for a major crimes analyst and the county board approved funding for an additional assistant county attorney, enabling the creation of a major crimes section.

As it creates a coalition to combat sex trafficking, the attorney’s office will focus on the worst of the worst criminals, several speakers said at the press conference today.

“And what’s the most egregious crime that could be committed?” County Attorney Pete Orput said, answering his own question. Most of the latest major crimes in Washington County have turned out to be prostitution.

As Orput announced a coalition to combat sex trafficking, he was flanked by the CEO of Tubman family crisis and support services, local police departments, as well as members of community services, probation, the county attorney’s office and the sheriff’s office.

“All of the law enforcement agencies in Washington County are involved in this initiative,” Orput said. “We’ve created a new, comprehensive system. Criminals don’t have respect for boundaries and we won’t, either.”

On the tail of 1-1/2 years of high-profile sting operations at the Red Roof Inn in Woodbury, the coalition provided details of plans to streamline the process by which police arrest and courts convict perpetrators who take advantage of children for prostitution.

“When we work as a team, we can go after the other side, the worst of the worst -- people who are profiting off the exploitation of children,” Woodbury Public Safety Director Lee Vague said.

The addition of an additional coworker frees up one assistant attorney -- known as one of the office’s “heavy hitters,” criminal division chief Fred Fink has said in the past -- to focus his time on seeing prostitution cases from the time an officer or deputy identifies a victim through to prosecution.

Police will work with Imran Ali, who leads a new major crimes section of the attorney’s office, to not only provide probable cause for charges but also to gain evidence needed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt who committed a crime.

“These cases are complicated, very time consuming,” Sheriff Bill Hutton said. All of the area law enforcement’s expertise is needed, he added.

“Rather than 150 felony files, I can focus just on this,” Ali said. “I’ll be able to assist them in the investigation from the beginning. I’ll tell them how to have a rock-solid case in court. These cases of child exploitation, we can’t afford to make mistakes on.”

Boosted by the grant, Washington County Attorney’s Office legal assistant Brooke Olson will focus on criminal analysis of text messages between pimps and victims, as well as child pornography on perpetrators’ devices -- a job in which Orput said he wouldn’t last two days.

Led by chief Tony Zdroik, the juvenile division will review the criminal sexual assault and runaway cases from the past two to three years to re-examine whether the cases involved prostitution.

“It’s worth a second look,” Orput said. “What if we didn’t dig deep enough?”

What had been a piecemeal system has been transformed into an organized effort against major crimes, the county attorney said. Police and attorneys attempt to put perpetrators behind bars, attorneys work closely with probation officers to limit re-offending clientele, social workers are immediately available, and victims receive the services they need.

“We want better outcomes for kids,” community services director Dan Papin said.

“How do you give them the chance to have a productive life in the future?” Oakdale police chief Bill Sullivan said of the victims.

“We are all coming together for that common good,” Hutton said.

The ultimate goal: “find the bastards and pile on,” Orput said. “We’ll all be ready.”

According to the coalition’s new procedures:

  • The county attorney’s office major crimes section’s top priority will be sex trafficking.

  • Law enforcement partner to create a Washington County Human Trafficking Unit.

  • Partner organizations coordinate for training, database management and sex trafficking investigations.

  • Training and materials has been developed for law enforcement, hotels and others, including how to recognize sex trafficking activities and potential victims.

  • Closed and pending cases of at-risk juveniles will be reviewed.

  • A program to identify and track potential victims of sex trafficking will be created.

  • To reduce the number of sex trafficking incidents, the coalition plans to increase the number of investigations and prosecutions on the demand side of prostitution.

From the standpoint of the the attorney’s office, Fink said, it’s important to “cross every T and dot every I.”

If the operation proves fruitful -- and Orput and Fink strongly believe it will -- proponents of the coalition to combat sex trafficking are likely to come back to the county board in 2016, seeking more funding, which would be spent on more assistant county attorneys to be major crimes specialists.

“The work that’s out there, there’s enough for two, three, four,” Ali said.

“I’m confident that it will show a great deal of success,” Fink said. “In 2016, I wouldn’t be surprised if we asked for more. By then, we’ll have a track record.”