A police prostitution sting by nearly a dozen agencies netted the arrests of 62 people during 15 days, the majority of them in Odessa, authorities announced on Thursday.
Charges ranged from misdemeanor prostitution to felony online solicitation of a minor. Police also arrested a 67-year-old woman, Hui Sun Lee, on one count of aggravated promotion of prostitution. The investigation relied heavily on the internet, with officers posing as prostitutes and johns.
Odessa Police Chief Mike Gerke said the purpose of the investigation was to combat human trafficking.
“We won’t turn a blind eye,” Gerke said. “We won’t ignore those things, however distasteful they are. We will confront them and we will continue to combat those things… This was a successful operation, but it won’t be the last operation.”
Gerke said the online stings — some of which used fake advertisements for prostitutes as young as 13 — “were fruitful, unfortunately.”
“It’s a problem in any town, especially oilfield towns right now,” Gerke said, saying the “predators out there are more to blame” than the prostitutes.
Police arrested 55 suspects in Odessa and seven in Midland with an average age of about 29. Eighteen of the charges were felonies and 50 were misdemeanors. Only one suspect had not been arrested by Thursday.
Authorities named the investigation “Operation Gauntlet.” It was supervised by the Texas Department of Public Safety and lasted 15 days. Other agencies involved included the police departments of Midland, Andrews and Abilene, among others.
Capt. Jaime Ramos of the DPS criminal investigations division said the investigation reflected an increased attention to human trafficking after another sting in 2017 resulted in the arrests of more than 30 people on prostitution-related charges.
“We repeat the message again for those that didn’t hear it clearly: Stop preying on our children,” Ramos said, speaking before a screen displaying mug shots of people arrested that the captain called “The Wall of Shame.” “Stop preying in our neighborhoods. Because we are tired, and it’s a matter of time before you come knocking on our door or we come knocking on yours.”
Online stings are key in disrupting modern prostitution, Gerke said.
“In days of old you would set up stings on the street,” Gerke said. “That just doesn’t really work anymore. To get the real players in this you have to set up those online stings.”