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Berrien County is a county of about 154,000 residents in the southwestern corner of Michigan, located on the shores of Lake Michigan and bordering Indiana. The county seat is the city of St. Joseph. Prostitution and sex trafficking have been well-documented in the county, resulting in complaints to law enforcement from residents and businesses. Drugs have been connected to the local commercial sex mark, and there have been cases of child sex trafficking.
Consumer level demand provides the revenue stream for all prostitution and sex trafficking, and has therefore been targeted by local law enforcement agencies as a strategy for prevention and response. There has been at least one web-based reverse sting conducted in the county to combat demand for commercial sex. In May 2022, the Berrien County Sheriff’ Department arrested a well-known South Bend youth hockey coach during a child sex trafficking sting in Nile Township. The man responded to an advertisement on a prostitution website called Skipthegames.com and thought he was meeting a 15-year-old girl for sex. He also sent the undercover officer posing as a minor a picture of his penis and another of his face and hand making a gesture for oral sex. The man thought he was meeting the child for sex, which was agreed to in exchange for $80 and some soda, but was instead arrested after arriving at the agreed upon location. He admitted to using the prostitution website a few times per month. His identity and mugshot were released to the press.
Some local arrests of sex buyers are the result of investigating allegations against real victims as opposed to the product of sting operations using police decoys, and some arrests result in employment loss. For example, in July 2016, three Berrien County Sheriff’s deputies resigned amid a months-long investigation involving sexual misconduct between jail officers and female inmates. The investigation began when an “outside person” filed a complaint after learning of the alleged conduct. The investigation led to criminal charges against one of the former deputies who had offered to pay money to engage a person in prostitution. He pleaded no contest to the charge and was sentenced to a $505 fine and 40 hours of community service. The sex buyer’s name and identity were released to the press. He and another officer resigned shortly after the investigation began, and the third was recommended for firing but was allowed to resign as a result of union negotiations. The Berrien County Sheriff claimed none of the improper conduct happened on jail property, but began after the women were released. However, the women’s lawsuit claimed the officers began approaching them asking for sexual favors while they were in the jail and the women said they felt coerced because of the deputies’ positions of power over them. The Berrien County Sheriff’s Department asked the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department to review each step of the investigation to maintain impartiality.
In August 2020, a partner in a company that hoped to obtain a medical marijuana grower’s license was charged with felony soliciting prostitution from a minor, delivery of narcotics to a minor, and child sexual abusive activity after allegedly giving crack cocaine and marijuana to a 16-year-old girl on multiple occasions at his residence in 2019. The girl’s phone had “numerous” sexually explicit photos and videos that she said were taken while at the man’s residence, as well as many pictures of her using drugs.
In April, 2023, a 54-year-old Buchanan attorney was charged with 10 counts of criminal sexual conduct and four counts of “engaging a person for the purposes of prostitution.” Berrien County court documents reportedly said that the man allegedly abused seven separate victim that either he or others employed by him represented in court. Two charges are for a victim between 13 and 15 years old when the crimes happened. The man was accused of the abuse from 2010 through 2022 and was released after posting bond, which was set at $150,000. His identity was included in news reports.
- Berrien County Sheriff’s Department
- Oakland County Sheriff’s Department
Employment Loss, Community Service, Identity Disclosure:
Web-Based Reverse Stings, Identity Disclosure:
- https://realnewsmichiana.com/youth-hockey-coach-arrested-for-attempting-to-have-sex-with-child-prostitute (2022)
- Arrest Document (2022)
Sex Buyer Arrest, Identity Disclosure:
Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:
- https://www.leaderpub.com/berrien-county-ranks-in-top-15-for-human-trafficking-in-michigan (2013)
- https://wsbt.com/it-makes-your-skin-crawl-local-hotel-combats-sex-trafficking (2016)
- https://www.abc57.com/news/app-helps-berrien-county-take-on-human-trafficking (2017)
- https://www.heraldpalladium.com/news/local/sex-trafficking-happens-here-too-fbi-agent-says (2017)
- https://www.southbendtribune.com/story/news/partner-in-niles-marijuana-business-going-to-trial-for-alleged-activities-with-mino (2020)
- https://www.southbendtribune.com/story/news/local/former-partner-niles-marijuana-store-sentenced-sex-crimes (2021)
- https://www.southbendtribune.com/ex-partner-niles-marijuana-facility-pleads-guilty-sex-crime (2021)
Background on Prostitution in the Area: