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Operation nets 21 arrests on suspected human trafficking, child exploitation | #childpredator | #onlinepredator | #sextrafficing

Aug. 14—A four-day, “all-hands-on-deck” undercover operation by local, state and federal authorities last week resulted in the arrest of 21 men on suspicion of charges related to human trafficking and child exploitation.

During a Monday news conference held in the office of Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer, representatives from the multiagency task force said “Operation Bad Barbie” began three months ago and involved more than 40 sworn officers and intelligence staff, with the intent to target “adults seeking to sexually exploit children.”

“I believe our children in Kern County are safer this week due to their efforts,” Zimmer said.

Agents and detectives, posing as minors on fake accounts created on several social media apps and online sites, offered sex for pay, with the intent to engage in conversation with suspected predators. Authorities said that, unfortunately, it didn’t take much effort to get predators interested.

“It doesn’t take that long when you start one of these chats,” Zimmer said.

They were also in contact with victims who were being trafficked “and sold for sex by their traffickers.”

The 21 arrests made between Aug. 9 to 12 — ranging in age from 23 to 56 — were made on suspicion of charges including human trafficking, pimping, pandering, sending harmful material to seduce a minor; arranging a meeting with a minor for lewd purpose; contact with a minor with intent to commit a sexual offense; abduction to live in an illicit relationship; and possession of child pornography.

“These cases will be submitted by our law enforcement partners to my office, the Kern County District Attorney’s office, for review and for prosecution,” Zimmer said. “The cases will be prosecuted in a state court in the Kern County Superior Court. All these persons on this board were arrested for felonies and they are all facing the potential of prison sentences.”

Included in those arrested was one registered sex offender who has a prior conviction for sexual assault involving a 14-year-old. Additionally, three sex trafficking victims who were with the suspects were rescued and received appropriate services.

While news releases distributed before and after the news conference said there were 23 arrests, Zimmer clarified there had been 21, as the other two turned out to be victims.

The operation involved the collaboration of the California Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking and Sexual Predator Apprehension Team, Homeland Security Investigations, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, the Bakersfield Police Department, investigators from the Kern County District’s Attorney Office and the California Department of Corrections Parole Division.

“These types of operations are vital to the safety of our children and families,” said Bakersfield Police Chief Greg Terry. “Even though it is largely hidden from view, human trafficking occurs in our community.”

According to a news release by California Attorney General Rob Bonta, the task force has since its creation in June 2021 arrested about 649 traffickers and supported 650 victims.

While not getting into the individual details of the case, Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Michael Ciapas said “this is the second operation like this that HSI has orchestrated to this magnitude here in Kern County.”

“Though the internet, social media platforms and other apps are used to connect friends and family, unfortunately they can also be used as an opportunity and pathway to victimize our most vulnerable and our most innocent,” Ciapas said.

As the new school year approaches, Zimmer said that county officials are training teachers, nurses and other community partners to better recognize symptoms of trafficking or coercion or changes in a child’s life.

“An 11-year-old should not have a $500 purse,” Zimmer said, adding that the average age of those trafficked is 11 to 14 years old. “Which is very often an indicator that something’s going on at home, or that something isn’t right.”

KCSO Sheriff Donny Youngblood made a plea to parents, asking them to pay closer attention to the apps children and teens download and who they’re messaging.

“They’re getting online, they’re being contacted by predators and they’re being groomed,” Youngblood said. “It’s your role as parents to ensure that’s not happening.”

Youngblood referenced the abduction, rape and murder of 13-year-old Bakersfield teen Patricia Alatorre in July 2020.

“It wasn’t that long ago,” Youngblood said.

Anyone with information can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 to access help and services. If you or someone else is in immediate danger, call 911.

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