FENTON — At an Aug. 14 press conference, Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson announced the arrest of 17 people from seven different sting operations relating to crimes involving child pornography or human trafficking.
One of these sting operations took place at a Fenton hotel when officers arrested a person from Saginaw who set up a meeting with an underage person with plans to have sexual relations.
“Even during COVID and all the things that have happened around the nation, we have continued to seek out people that are here to harm your kids, my kids, your grandkids- people that are pedophiles and predators, people that seek to harm those that can’t protect themselves,” said Swanson. “We at GHOST are the voice for the voiceless, and we do that with our partners, partners from all over.”
GHOST stands for the Genesee Human Oppression Strike Team, a task force within the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office that seeks to apprehend people who attempt to have sexual relations with children.
“If you are not aware that human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise, then unfortunately that message hasn’t gotten out strong enough,” he said on Friday.
On the dates of March 12, April 23, Aug. 12, Aug. 13 and Aug. 14, GHOST completed seven operations throughout Genesee County. Of these seven operations, six were undercover sting operations and one was a rescue mission.
In the six undercover sting operations, officers with the GCSO posed as 15, 14 and 13-year-old children and talked to people online who set up a time and place to meet for sexual relations. These officers used social media sites that U.S. teens use today, such as Kik.
The sting operations took place at the following locations: in Fenton off of Silver Lake Parkway; Grand Blanc near Holly Road and I-75; in Davison near I-69 and M-15; and Flint Township near I-75 and Miller Road.
Two arrests took place in Fenton on Aug. 14.
“It’s in every one of our communities,” Swanson said. “What we need to do is be vigilant on finding where these people will come and what they will do, and they didn’t come just from Genesee County.”
In total, 17 people were arrested as a result of these six sting operations. One person they arrested in Davison had more than 1,000 child pornography images and videos on a device.
“When I’m talking child pornography, I’m talking below the age of 7. When he was arrested, a comment was made, ‘there’s things on my phone I know are going to be bad,’” Swanson said.
The GCSO forensic department is working on sifting through the relevant technology. Some of those 17 people who were arrested brought methamphetamine, cocaine, and weapons to these meetings. Swanson said they are working “hand-in-hand” with the prosecutor’s office on these cases. The Genesee County prosecutor is David Leyton.
GHOST operators did a “phenomenal job,” Swanson said. There were no injuries during these operations. While doing this work, Swanson said they talked to more than 2,000 people wanting to have sexual relations with kids age 15 and under.
Swanson said they were to likely release information on those arrested on Aug. 19. Details were not available at presstime, but one person arrested was a former police officer and firefighter in Burton, who’s now been charged with two 20-year felonies and a four-year felony.
Those apprehended in these cases will face multiple charges: using a computer to commit a crime, a 20-year felony; accosting a child for immoral purposes, a four-year felony; and possession of child sexual abusive material, a 20-year felony.
GHOST has conducted a rescue operation in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
“These are the children that are 17 and below that are what I call ‘the forgotten population.’ Lost in the cracks,” Swanson said. The GCSO receives information on missing children from numerous sources, such as the Genesee Intermediate School District, local schools as well as police departments, including Argentine Township.
The Aug. 14 operation included seven four-man teams going across the county in an attempt to find 27 missing kids. From 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., seven children were rescued. One of those seven included a 16-year-old girl in Montrose who was locked in a barn surrounded by a fence with barbed wire on top.
“She was trafficked. She was taken out of the county,” he said.
Swanson gave thanks to former Genesee County Sheriff Robert Pickell, and spoke about the origins of GHOST. Swanson had the idea when he was overseas working with an international organization, Operation Underground Railroad.
He thanked Jared Hudson, a Navy Seal, who’s one of the operators of GHOST. Hudson, who met Swanson in Haiti, said that he wanted to work with law enforcement to get bad people off the streets.
“During COVID, during crisis, we’re out there protecting people,” Swanson said. “Those that are vulnerable are being protected.”
He encouraged people to have discussions about vulnerability and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
“Those predators go out there and try to seek, to give vulnerable people shelter and food and love and attention, and that is called grooming. And then they groom to bring in, and then once you’re in, you’re in,” he said.
Since GHOST started, officers have made 73 arrests and the county has not lost one of these cases in court, Swanson said.