COLUMBUS— The fight against human trafficking was and remains a top priority for Attorney General Dave Yost during 2020 as his office continued its multifaceted approach to end labor and sex trafficking in Ohio.
“In 2020, advances were made towards our goal where no one is bought or sold in Ohio,” Yost said. “While there is much more work to do, the review of our many successes will guide our future actions.”
A comprehensive approach across the office contributes to the fight against human trafficking, including the attorney general’s Human Trafficking Initiative, Ohio Organized Crime Investigation Commission task forces, Crime Victims Services section and Policy and Legislative section, among others.
Through demand reduction operations, prosecutions, education, training and legislation, much work was accomplished during 2020 to raise awareness about human trafficking.
Rescues, Arrests and Prosecutions
During the third week of October, more than 50 law enforcement agencies and non-governmental partners throughout Ohio collaborated on Operation Autumn Hope, a comprehensive effort aimed at breaking the cycle that fuels sex trafficking.
The successes of Operation Autumn Hope:
- 109 human trafficking victims were rescued by the Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force, Columbus Police’s PACT Unit and the Cuyahoga County Human Trafficking Task Force.
- 76 missing and exploited children cases were cleared, including 45 through physical recovery by the U.S. Marshals.
- 22 individuals seeking to have sex with a minor were arrested by the Mahoning Valley Human Trafficking Task Force and the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
- 157 men were arrested on charges of soliciting and other crimes by law enforcement agencies in Cuyahoga, Franklin and Lucas counties.
Ohio Organized Crime Investigation Commission task forces completed long-term investigations and conducted human trafficking stings that resulted in a combined 121 arrests, including:
- In February, the Cuyahoga County Regional Human Trafficking Task Force secured indictments for the human trafficking crimes of Dr. Randolph Brown and Joyce Richmond, both of Cuyahoga County.
- Also in February, Youngstown resident Ronald Hellman Jr. was sentenced to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to felony charges of trafficking in persons, promoting prostitution and sexual battery. The Mahoning Valley Human Trafficking Task Force (MVHTTF) investigated Hellman and several criminal associates who trafficked young women, including juveniles, and targeted women exiting drug rehabilitation.
- In March, a one-day human trafficking operation conducted by the MVHTTF in Trumbull County led to the arrests of eight men seeking to buy sex via the internet.
- In August, three Columbus men were indicted on 23 felony charges as part of a human trafficking investigation conducted by the Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force.
- Also in August, two Austintown Township men – Robert Basic and Ryan Marenkovic – were arrested on felony charges involving child pornography as part of an investigation conducted by the MVHTTF.
- In September, Paul Chiles (aka “Tommy Guns”) was indicted on 19 felony charges as part of a human trafficking operation carried out by the Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force. Chiles not only operated a human trafficking ring, the task force learned, but also provided illegal narcotics that caused the overdose death of a young Columbus mother.
- In October, Portsmouth attorney Michael Mearan was indicted on 18 felony counts related to human trafficking that spanned 15 years and involved six victims. The case is ongoing.
- In December, the Liberty Township Police Department, in conjunction with the MVHTTF, conducted a single-day human trafficking sting that led to the arrests of 14 men.
Collaboration and Education
In January 2020, more than 600 people attended the inaugural Ohio Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Summit, themed “Hope in Action.” The event focused on connecting people and other resources in the statewide fight against human trafficking.
Registration is currently open for the 2021 Human Trafficking Summit, scheduled virtually for Jan. 14. To learn more about the event, visit https://www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/Human-Trafficking-Summit.
The Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission, which includes a diverse group of law enforcement officers, social service providers, academic experts and government partners, worked in 2020 to enhance Ohio’s response to human trafficking. The commission met quarterly to compile information, collaborate on initiatives and make recommendations to the attorney general’s office. The commission added a subcommittee on healthcare and a committee of human trafficking survivors this year.
Additionally, staff members of the AG’s Human Trafficking Initiative worked to:
- Collaborate with community stakeholders, including local human trafficking coalitions, Ohio Realtors, My Project USA, ONCAC, Adult Advocacy Centers, the Renee Jones Empowerment Center, Out of Darkness, Sanctuary Night, SEOLS, the Sisters of SCPA, Freedom 4/24 and many others.
- Train non-traditional partners, such as Columbia Gas and AEP employees, to recognize the signs of human trafficking while working in the community.
- Deliver presentations to local, state and national groups to help raise awareness of human trafficking.
As part of our offices’ initiatives to strengthen the laws around human trafficking, we reached out to the General Assembly to introduce multiple ideas on how to increase the tools we have available to combat human trafficking. The passage of House Bill 431 is one of those successes that highlighted the ideas brought before the legislature. The highlights of HB 431 include:
- Expands protections for human trafficking victims under the age of 18. Prosecutors are no longer required to demonstrate fraud, force or coercion for 16- and 17-year-old victims of human trafficking.
- Creates the offense of engaging in prostitution, prohibiting a person from recklessly inducing, enticing or procuring another person to engage in sexual activity for hire.
- Increases the penalty for engaging in prostitution to a first-degree misdemeanor with a requirement that the offender attend an educational program or treatment program and pay a fine of up to $1,500.
“So much has been done this year to bring awareness to evil that is human trafficking, but now is not the time to let up,” Yost said. “Results are achieved through hard work, continued dedication and accountability – we all have a role to play.”