Ohio's Operation "Autumn Hope" just rescued 109 survivors of human trafficking and recovered 45 missing children in what Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said he believes is "the largest statewide anti-human trafficking operation in the history of the state of Ohio."
During today's press briefing, Yost said more than 50 law enforcement and social service agencies — federal, state and local — worked together in an effort to "break the cycle that fuels sex trafficking across the state."
"Ohio law enforcement and their partners have come together to attack human trafficking in an effort to rescue victims and arrest perpetrators everywhere, from the streets of our neighborhoods to the dark corners of the internet," said Columbus Division of Police Deputy Chief Jennifer Knight, one of those involved in the operation.
Investigations and stings took place across the state and had four main goals: to rescue victims of human trafficking and connect them with social services; recover missing and exploited children; apprehend those seeking to have sex with a minor; and arrest male "johns" looking to buy sex. Yost said 177 johns and traffickers were arrested.
Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force, Columbus PACT Unit and the Cuyahoga County Human Trafficking Task Force worked together to rescue the 109 survivors of human trafficking.
“These vulnerable members of our population usually slip through the cracks,” said Sgt. Dana Hess, director of the Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force. “This operation highlighted the vast number of potential victims and allowed law enforcement the opportunity to make contact and link them to services.”
Sondra Miller, president and CEO of the Cleveland Rape Center, one of the social service groups involved, said, “Survivors of rape and sex trafficking deserve to be believed and have access to justice. By holding offenders accountable and reducing demand for human trafficking, this operation prevented many others from being harmed.”
U.S. Marshals Branch Chief Floriano Whitwell said the Marshals are "very committed to combating trafficking by way of rescuing missing children."
Whitwell called missing children an "epidemic" and said 280,000 went missing last year. He quoted estimates saying that one in five or one in six of endangered runaways — the largest portion of those missing — are being trafficked.
Since 2015, the U.S. Marshals have recovered 1,400 children. During Operation Autumn Hope alone, they recovered 45 children and closed 84 missing children cases across Ohio and West Virginia.
According to a release from Yost, "Among those missing included a 15-year-old girl missing from Cleveland whose recovery linked her and other possible victims to an individual in Columbus suspected of human trafficking; a 15-year-old male with two warrants who is a suspect in multiple shootings and a homicide; and a 14-year-old girl who was reported missing by the Lancaster Police Department who was recovered in Columbus within six hours of being reported missing."
“The success of Operation Autumn Hope is measured not only in the number of arrests but in the lives that were rescued from this evil,” Yost said. “Every agency on this team looks for the day when no person is bought and sold in Ohio. Don’t buy sex in Ohio."
Unrelated to Operation Autumn Hope was another major recent human trafficking arrest. Yost and Scioto County Prosecutor Shane Tieman reported last week that Portsmouth, Ohio attorney Michael Mearan has been indicted on 18 felony counts related to human trafficking offenses spanning 15 years and involving six victims. The felony counts include trafficking in persons, compelling prostitution, promoting prostitution and engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity.
If convicted, Mearan, who is 74 years old, faces more than 70 years in prison.