Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Prostitution Ring Busted in National FBI Sweep

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Prostitution Ring Busted in National FBI Sweep

Article excerpt

Federal agents and local detectives swarmed the third floor of Pittsburgh's Station Square Sheraton Hotel Friday night, making it the dramatic scene of law enforcement's nationwide war on human trafficking.

Nine women were arrested at the hotel as part of what appears to be an FBI-directed national crackdown on prostitution and human trafficking. Federal, state and local law enforcement officials coordinated to carry out the sting, part of a federal effort called Operation Cross Country.

While FBI officials said no details would be released before Monday, reports indicate that similar stings took place in Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, Ohio and Oklahoma between Wednesday and Friday. Whether all of these arrests were part of Operation Cross Country could not be confirmed.

Detectives with the Pittsburgh police vice unit began placing telephone calls Friday afternoon to numbers advertised in the escort section of the website backpage.com, known as a site that human traffickers and pimps use to illicitly sell sex.

"It's an extraordinarily harmful website," said Lauren Hersh, a former Brooklyn prosecutor and now director of anti-trafficking policy and advocacy at Sanctuary for Families, a New York-based nonprofit. "I've seen countless young girls who have been exploited on the website."

Detectives set up all of the appointments at hotel rooms on the third floor of the Sheraton, according to court documents.

Between 3:30 and 11:30 p.m., the women, with advertised names such as "Paris" and "Natalia," arrived at the hotel to meet whom they thought to be clients. Upon arriving, each woman, or in some cases pairs of women, would place a call to the supposed client who told her the room number.

Upon arrival to the room, at least two of the women asked whether the male was a police officer. According to court documents, the woman calling herself Natalia, a 23 year-old from Pittsburgh, "did a cop check" on the officer and then said, "OK, I just want to make sure you're not a cop."

Undercover detectives agreed to a price, from $200 to $1,000, with the women and exchanged the money; usually it had to be placed on a bedside table or television, as the women refused to handle the money directly. …

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