SULLIVAN COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) – The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has made yet another bust in the battle against human trafficking, this time in partnership with the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office.
According to TBI spokesperson Leslie Earhart, Sullivan County detectives requested the TBI’s assistance in conducting the operation. The sting resulted in the arrest of four individuals from Northeast Tennessee: Matthew Bailey, Kenneth Kotowski, Ronnie Gilliam, and Michael Alverson.
Earhart told News Channel 11 this latest operation was just one of 12 human trafficking busts conducted by the bureau so far this year. Notable busts aside from these four arrests include an operation in Northeast Tennessee back in June that resulted in the arrest of seven individuals and an even larger bust just last month in Middle Tennessee that landed 11 people behind bars.
While Northeast Tennessee has seen a recent uptick in local human trafficking arrests, it’s a statewide issue according to law enforcement.
TBI Director David Rausch spoke with our sister station WKRN in Nashville on Thursday regarding the growing problem of human trafficking.
“It is growing. It’s a growing challenge, it’s a growing issue and it’s something that we recognize that more needs to be done,” he said.
Rausch’s comments followed the TBI’s recent request to the state to triple the number of personnel in their human trafficking department, equating to more than $1.6 million in funding.
Currently, the human trafficking department consists of four agents and one supervisor for the entire state. Despite the small numbers combating the widespread issue, agents have still been able to make big arrests.
While many hear about human trafficking and acknowledge it exists, many people may not truly know what it consists of. Jeremy Lofquest with the TBI’s Human Trafficking Division said there are common misconceptions surrounding the crime.
“When one hears trafficking, a lot of times you think being abducted out of a parking lot in a big white van and sold to some sex trafficking ring overseas somewhere. That does happen but it’s a very small percentage,” said Lofquest.
He said it can happen anywhere, commonly a hotel room or even from the victim’s home. Gabi Smith with the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking said it’s a traumatic experience.
“Trafficked individuals bear a lot of trauma. It’s very hard to make them or help them find their self-identity again and make them want to try and help themselves. It is really difficult,” said Smith.
News Channel 11 asked the TBI if there’s a part of the state where they see the issue more. Earhart simply said, “it’s a statewide problem, we work cases all across the state”, but that it’s also not limited to Tennessee.
“Human Trafficking is a problem all across the U.S. You are hearing more about it in Tennessee because our state has some of the toughest laws in the country when it comes to trafficking. The operations focus on identifying and recovering potential victims of human trafficking as well as identifying those seeking to engage in commercial sex acts with minors. State leaders have also made combating the problem a priority,” said Earhart.
Earhart also sent this statement to News Channel 11:
“Our team has been conducting undercover operations in partnership with local law enforcement agencies for several years all across the state. The operations focus on identifying and recovering potential victims of human trafficking as well as identifying those seeking to engage in commercial sex acts with minors. Targeting the demand is key, which is what we assisted the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office in doing during last week’s operation”-Leslie Earhart, TBI Spokesperson
While human trafficking is a significant issue locally, statewide, and nationally, it’s a problem many people aren’t even aware of.
“I feel like it really comes as a shock to people like yes, it does happen in somewhere like East Tennessee and the rural areas we live in,” said Smith.
News Channel 11 also reached out to the Sullivan County district attorney’s office for comment on the arrests and operation. While they could not comment on the specifics, quoting harm to the integrity of current and future operations, they could comment on the charges the four men face.
Lauren Williams with the district attorney’s office said all four men are charged with the highest offense of a Class B felony. The sentencing for this class of felony ranges anywhere from eight to 30 years behind bars, but criminal history is taken into account when sentencing.
Williams said in situations like these, it’s a mixed bag in terms of prior offenses, staging some people may have priors, others might not.
All four are charged with patronizing prostitution from a minor and trafficking for a commercial sex act. One of the men is also charged with the exploitation of a minor by electronic means, which means he either requested or sent explicit images, according to investigators.