The FBI says it has rescued 105 children who were forced into prostitution in the United States and arrested 159 people it described as pimps and others in a series of raids in 76 American cities.
Three adults in Memphis were arrested as part of the weekend sting "Operation Cross Country," was the largest of its type and conducted under the FBI's "Innocence Lost" initiative.
The 159 adults arrested are either facing state or federal charges.
The young people in the roundup, almost all of them girls, ranged in age from 13 to 17.
Three juveniles in Memphis were recovered, including a 14-year-old girl.
Rodney Armstrong, Trenton Mitchell and Charlisa Wright are facing commercial sex trafficking charges. Police say they were pimping out the female teen. The girl told investigators she was being forced into prostitution and they were posting pictures of her online.
"Operation Cross Country VII" was a 72-hour nationwide enforcement to address commercial child sex trafficking throughout the United States.
"Child prostitution remains a persistent threat to children across America," said Ron Hosko, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division. "This operation serves as a reminder that these abhorrent crimes can happen anywhere, and the FBI remains committed to stopping this cycle of victimization and holding the criminals who profit from this exploitation accountable."
To date, the FBI and its task force partners have recovered more than 2,700 children from the streets. The investigations and subsequent 1,350 convictions have resulted in lengthy sentences, including 10 life terms and the seizure of more than $3.1 million in assets.
The Memphis police Department was one of more than 230 law enforcement agencies that participated in the three-day nationwide operation.
Hosko said the website Backpage.com was used to advertise prostitution services in many of the cases across the country.
The largest numbers of children rescued in "Operation Cross Country" were in San Francisco, Detroit, Milwaukee, Denver and New Orleans. The operation was conducted under the FBI's decade-long Innocence Lost National Initiative. The latest rescues and arrests were the largest such enforcement action to date.
RODNEY RMSTRONG AFFIDAVIT: http://content.foxtvmedia.com/whbq/ArmstrongAffidavit.pdf
TRENTON MITCHELL AFFIDAVIT: http://content.foxtvmedia.com/whbq/trentonmitchellaffidavit.pdf
CHARLISA WRIGHT AFFIDAVIT: http://content.foxtvmedia.com/whbq/WrightAffidavit.pdf
FBI National Press Release: http://www.myfoxmemphis.com/link/648854/fbi-national-press-release
In their efforts to identify child victims, investigators seek help wherever they can find it — in some cases from adult prostitutes, Hosko said. He said almost all the victims in sweeps like the one over the weekend are girls and that the profiles of the victims cut across racial lines and boundaries of wealth.
Social media are a common denominator in many of the rescues.
Last year, five members of the Underground Gangster Crips contacted teens at school or through Facebook, DateHookUp.com or other online social networking sites, enticing the girls to use their looks to earn money through prostitution.
As for websites, Liz McDougall, the general counsel for Backpage.com, said that if that site were shut down to the advertisements in question, the information that can lead to the rescues would be lost to law enforcement because the ads would be pushed to "offshore uncooperative websites."
"We feel very strongly that we're doing the right thing, and we're going to continue to do the right thing and we congratulate the FBI and everybody with the task forces involved in the program," said McDougall.
In earlier sweeps, child prostitution victims have been recovered at major sporting events — including the NCAA Final Four and Super Bowl, Hosko said.
In the 1990s, gangs took control of street prostitution across America; that forced pimps to move girls into sporting events where security existed, said Dr. Lois Lee, founder and president of Children of the Night, a nonprofit group that has rescued 10,000 children from prostitution since 1979.
Hosko said the plight of the young people often goes unreported to authorities because the children in many instances are alienated from their families and are no longer in touch.
Pimps operate wherever vulnerable potential victims can be found. Some are being recruited right out of foster care facilities, Hosko said.
For the past decade, the FBI has been attacking the problem in partnership with a private group, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
John Ryan, the head of the center, called the problem "an escalating threat against America's children."
The Justice Department has estimated that nearly 450,000 children run away from home each year and that one-third of teens living on the street will be lured toward prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home.
Congress has introduced legislation that would require state law enforcement, foster care and child welfare programs to identify children lured into sex trafficking as victims of abuse and neglect eligible for protections and services.
"In much of the country today, if a girl is found in the custody of a so-called pimp she is not considered to be a victim of abuse, and that's just wrong and defies common sense," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said during a Senate Finance Committee hearing last month. Wyden co-sponsored the legislation with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
FOX13 News reporter Matt Gerien and Associated Press reporter Pete Yost in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
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