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Cleveland is a city of approximately 390,000 residents, located in northeastern Ohio’s Cuyahoga County. The city has experienced a wide range of negative events associated with the local commercial sex market, including HIV-positive persons continuing to sell sex, assaults of both prostituted persons and sex buyers, sex trafficking of adults and children, trafficking-related child sexual abuse materials (CSAM), and related homicides that have specifically targeted those engaged in prostitution. For example, in January 2022 a man was convicted for shooting at Homeland Security agents on Cleveland’s East Side as well as sex trafficking of a juvenile and producing child sexual abuse materials (CSAM, often called “child pornography” in state criminal codes). The agents were at the man’s home to investigate sex trafficking of a minor, and the suspect fired six shots at Homeland Security agents who were executing a search warrant. The man was convicted of assaulting a federal agent with a deadly weapon, discharging a firearm during a crime of violence, sex trafficking of a minor, production of child pornography, and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
To address the wide range of problems associated with the local commercial sex market, the Cleveland Police Department has conducted street-level reverse stings since 1976, and more recently, has added web-based reversals to its array of efforts to combat demand. As street-level stings typically utilize undercover female officers, operations have at times involved “dual-sweeps,” where officers initially saturate a targeted area and arrest all prostituted women in the vicinity, then replace them with female police decoys along the same streets. At times, the CPD has reported that city “sweeps” of prostituted persons have uncovered victims of domestic minor sex trafficking.
In February 2022, Ohio Attorney General Yost announced that eight sex buyers had been arrested during a human trafficking sting called “Operation Fouled Out,” which coincided with the National Basketball Association’s All-Star Game in Cleveland. The sting was coordinated through the Ohio Organized Crime Investigations Commission and led by the Cuyahoga Regional Human Trafficking Task Force, and involved several law enforcement agencies and social services organizations. Attorney General Yost said of the operation:
“This operation’s mission was two-fold: to arrest johns soliciting sex and to proactively encounter potential victims. Our task reinforced both the consequences for buying sex and the pathways available for victims to find a way out.”
The names ages, and hometowns of the arrested sex buyers were released to the public, and their mugshots were posted on the attorney general’s Twitter page. In addition to arresting sex buyers, law enforcement also identified and interviewed 15 individuals selling sex, and potential victims of sex trafficking were provided assistance and health care by organizations including the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center and Canopy Child Advocacy Center.
Not all arrests of sex buyers are the result of reverse stings, but are instead the product of investigating allegations against offenders with real victims. For example, in May of 2021, multiple law enforcement agencies collaborated in an undercover investigation that resulted in the arrest of a Tuscarawas County man. Police reported the trafficker agreeing to pay $1,000 to a woman to have sex with the woman in addition to her 14-year-old daughter. The offender was arrested on charges of compelling prostitution, (OH ST § 2907.21), attempted unlawful conduct with a minor (OH ST § 2907.04), and possessing criminal tools (OH ST § 2923.24), all of which are felony crimes. Officers also seized his computer and cellphone to be examined for child sexual abuse materials. The East Palestine Police Department, Tuscarawas County Sheriff’s Office, Ohio Investigative Unit, and Columbiana County Prosecutor’s Office assisted the Mahoning Valley Human Trafficking Task Force during the investigation. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said:
“We know that those fueling the demand for human trafficking have no regard for jurisdictional boundaries when attempting to buy sex. The Ohio Organized Crime Investigations Commission model gives local law enforcement officers the power to partner and share cross-border expertise, relationships and resources to thwart these criminals and end their exploits.”
Loss of Employment
Among the consequences of buying sex in Cleveland has been the loss of employment. For example, in August 2019, a former Cleveland police supervisor was sentenced to 10 days in jail for soliciting prostituted women while on-duty. He was also required to attend sex addiction counseling, attend separate counseling specifically for people convicted of soliciting prostituted persons, complete 200 hours of community service, and spend two years on probation. The man had previously pleaded guilty to five counts of first-degree misdemeanor soliciting prostitution. Seven similar charges were dropped as part of the plea agreement. The man had been a police officer for 29 years before he surrendered his license. Investigators presented evidence that the man made 11 attempts to hire a prostituted woman while on duty at the First District police station between July 28, 2018 and December 2, 2018, and offered them between $40 and $100 for various sexual acts. He had also used the national Law Enforcement Automated Data System (LEADS) to look up information and state identification photos of two women; using the database for personal reasons is a felony under Ohio law. The officer had also used an unnamed social media platform to send messages to 2,300 women while he was on-duty between June 1, 2018 and January 31, 2019, according to charges in common pleas court.
In July 2021, a former Cleveland Catholic Diocese priest pleaded guilty in federal court to two counts of sex trafficking of a minor, three counts of sexual exploitation of a child, and one count each of transportation of child pornography, receipt and distribution of visual depiction of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct, and possession of child pornography. The man allegedly enticed the minors to send sexually explicit photos and videos. The man was alleged to have threatened to send the photos to family and friends of the victims if they did not send him more, and authorities said, in some cases, he followed through on his threats, sending the photos to the victims’ mothers. He had used the social networking site Grindr.com to make contact with a minor victim for the purpose of “engaging in a commercial sex act.” He was accused of enticing the victim to identify another minor victim with whom he could engage in commercial sex acts. The offender met the victims on multiple occasions for the purpose of engaging in sex acts in exchange for money and alcohol, the release stated. The man could face up to life in prison.
For their part, Cleveland residents have also taken an active role in demand reduction efforts. In 2007, residents of the Ohio City neighborhood camped out in lawn chairs along busy intersections and established informal patrols on Friday evenings, holding signs that read “Dear Johns, your plate number is being recorded. Yours truly, The Neighbors.”
In 2008, a handful of community members laid the foundation for what would become the city’s first john school. The “No New Tricks” John School was the brainchild of Brian Kazy, project coordinator for the Detroit Shoreway Weed and Seed Initiative, and Robin Palmer, a social worker and head of the trauma assistance and counseling group known as the Mokita Center. Limited to first-time offenders, the diversion program was a day-long course that stressed personal accountability and public education. It was held as often as once per month, and through April 2012, boasted a recidivism rate of less than 1%. Though initially limited to sex buyers arrested in the Detroit Shoreway area, the “No New Tricks” John School expanded citywide with the assistance of the CPD and Cleveland Municipal Court in May 2012. The school was financed by the sex buyers themselves, who were required to pay a fee to enroll.
Web-Based Reverse Stings
The Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force has actively conducted undercover online operations in Ohio for many years. For example, in 2019, the “I-Team” (ICAC) and agents from the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office carried out an online undercover sting during MLB All-Star Week that resulted in the arrest of more than two dozen suspects. Suspects were arrested after chatting online with what offenders believed to be teenagers, trying to arrange sex. Offenders were actually chatting with undercover agents from the Cuyahoga County Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. In May of 2021, 31 people, ranging in age from 20 to 80 years old, were arrested as part of “Operation Deja Vu,” a similar undercover operation led by the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force and the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office. Suspects, who came from five different counties, including Cuyahoga County, were arrested after engaging in sexually explicit online conversations with people they believed were minor children.
Initial charges ranging from third-degree to fifth-degree felonies were filed against the defendants, including attempted unlawful sexual conduct with a minor (OH ST § 2907.04), disseminating matter harmful to juveniles (OH ST § 2907.31), importuning (OH ST § 2907.07), compelling prostitution (OH ST § 2907.21), carrying a concealed weapon (OH ST § 2923.12), failure to comply (OH ST § 2921.331), and possessing criminal tools (OH ST § 2923.24). Undercover officers posed as children under 16 years old. The 31 individuals talked with the children on popular social media apps. Some sent pictures of their genitalia to the officers who they believed were children, while others offered to pay for sex during those online conversations. “Operation Deja Vu” was the fourth undercover operation the ICAC Task Force has led since 2018. Those operations have yielded 108 arrests combined. All 31 individuals arrested locally were held in the Cuyahoga County Jail while they waited for their case to be presented to a grand jury for an indictment. Task Force Officials reported that the pandemic played a crucial role in the significant increase in the number of cyber tips officers received within the prior year:
“In February of 2020, we were averaging anywhere from 700 to 800 cyber tips. In March and April of 2020, we went up to between 1,200 and 1,400 cyber tips. So you have a pandemic, you also have a lot of children going to school at home, you have offenders, adults who are now working from home. Perfect storm in essence, and that those numbers have continued to increase. We received over 10,300 cyber tips last year alone, which puts Ohio in the top five consistently with regards to the work that we have to do.”
In response to a survey conducted in 2021 by the NCOSE team for a National Institute of Justice grant to update and expand Demand Forum (Grant #2020-75-CX-0011), representatives from the Cleveland Police Department reported that public education specifically addressing demand was conducted by the Cleveland State University Police Department.
- Compelling Prostitution (OH ST § 2907.21) is a felony of the third degree and requires offenders to register as Tier 2 Sex Offenders.
- Unlawful Sexual Conduct with a Minor (OH ST § 2907.04) is a felony of the fourth degree and requires offenders to register as Tier 2 Sex Offenders.
- Disseminating Matter Harmful to Juveniles (OH ST § 2907.31) is a felony in the fifth degree if material or performance involved is obscene, and a felony in the fourth degree if the material or performance involved is obscene and the juvenile to whom it is sold, delivered, furnished, disseminated, provided, exhibited, rented, or presented, the juvenile to whom the offer is made or who is the subject of the agreement, or the juvenile who is allowed to review, peruse, or view it is under thirteen years of age and requires offenders to register as Tier 2 Sex Offenders.
- Importuning (OH ST §2907.07) is a is a felony of the fifth degree on a first offense, and is a felony of the fourth degree if the offender previously has been convicted of a sexually oriented offense or a child-victim oriented offense and requires offenders to register as Tier 1 Sex Offenders.
- Possessing Criminal Tools (OH ST § 2923.24) is a felony of the fifth degree if the circumstances indicate that the substance, device, instrument, or article involved in the offense was intended for use in the commission of a felony.
- Carrying A Concealed Weapon (OH ST §2923.12) is a felony in the fourth degree.
- Failure to Comply (OH ST § 2921.331) is a felony of the fourth degree if the jury or judge as trier of fact finds by proof beyond a reasonable doubt that, in committing the offense, the offender was fleeing immediately after the commission of a felony.
ORC Felony Punishments
- Third-degree felonies — 9 months to 36 month (1-5 years for certain F-3’s) in prison and a maximum of $10,000 in fines
- Fourth-degree felonies — 6 months to 18 months in prison and a maximum of $5,000 in fines
- Fifth-degree felonies — 6 months to 12 months in prison and a maximum of $2,500 in fines
Sex Offender Registration
The state of Ohio has a Three Tier Offense-Based Registry. Each crime is classified by either Tier 1, Tier 2, or Tier 3, Tier 3. The tiers include crimes that range in severity, Tier 1 being least severe and Tier 3 being most severe.
The length of registration is dependent upon an offender’s classification:
- Tier 3: Lifetime registration (every 90 days)
- Tier 2: 25 years’ registration (every 180 days)
- Tier 1: 15 years’ registration (annually), or 10 years in certain cases
- Cleveland Police Department
- Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office
- Detroit Shoreway Weed and Seed Initiative
- The Mokita Center
- Montgomery County’s Neighbors Against Drugs (NAD) Program
- The Imagine Foundation
- Operation Broken Silence
- Cleveland State University Police Department
- Cuyahoga Regional Human Trafficking Task Force
- Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office
- Homeland Security Investigations
- Mahoning Valley Human Trafficking Task Force
- Bureau of Criminal Investigation
- Ohio Investigative Unit (component of Ohio State Highway Patrol)
- Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force
- Cleveland Division of Police
- Middleburg Heights Police Department
- Warrensville Heights Police Department
- MetroHealth Police Department
- Chagrin Valley Dispatch
- Cleveland Rape Crisis Center
- Canopy Child Advocacy Center
2021 National Assessment II Survey
- Brief Blurb on “No New Tricks” John School, The Mokita Center.
- “From Alice’s Alley to John School”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 18 2012.
Street-Level Reverse Stings:
- “Police Dress up as Prostitutes to Catch Johns; Safety Forces’ Effort Aims to Clean up City”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 18 2006.
- “Cleveland Police Conduct Undercover Prostitution Sting”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 24 2008.
- “Cleveland Teacher Busted for Prostitution Pleads Not Guilty”, CBS/WOIO-TV 19, May 14 2008.
- “Cleveland Police Bust ‘Johns’ in Prostitution Sting”, NBC/WKYC-TV 3, October 3 2014.
- “Cleveland Police Round up Hookers, Johns”, WTAM-AM 1100, October 3 2014.
- “Cleveland Police Target Prostitutes and Their Customers in West Side Sting”, ABC/WEWS-TV 5, October 3 2014.
Web-Based Reverse Stings, Identity Disclosure:
- “15 Charged in Undercover Prostitution Sting at Cleveland Hotel”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 16 2014.
- https://fox8.com/2019/07/11/authorities-to-release-more-info-on-sex-stings-during-all-star-week (2019)
- 31 People Arrested in Undercover Online Child Sex Crimes Operation in Cuyahoga County (2021)
- https://www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/Media/News-Releases/February-2022/Attorney-General-Dave-Yost-Announces-Success-of-An (2022)
- https://www.cleveland19.com/2022/02/21/8-arrested-anti-human-trafficking-operation-during-nba-all-star-weekend-cleveland (2022)
- https://www.13abc.com/2022/03/05/8-ohio-men-arrested-nba-all-star-weekend-sting-plead-not-guilty-soliciting-prostitution (2022)
- “Cable TV to Broadcast Names of Guilty Johns”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 1 1993.
- “Council Panel Broadens Plan to Seize Cars Used in Crimes”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 20 2000.
- “Po Pimps: Prostitution Bust Yields Big Time Arrests”, CBS/WOIO-TV 19, November 8 2010.
- “Inequality of Life: One Step at a Time”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 4 2007.
- “Fighting the Sex Trade on Multiple Fronts”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 7 2011.
Loss of Employment:
- https://www.cleveland.com/cleveland-cop-charged-with-11-counts-of-soliciting-prostitutionl (2019)
- https://www.cleveland.com/cleveland-police-officer-accused-of-soliciting-prostitutes-on-duty (2019)
- https://www.cleveland.com/ex-cleveland-police-supervisor-sentenced-to-10-days-in-jail-for-soliciting-prostitutes-while-on-duty (2019)
- https://www.cleveland.com/metro/2019/02/cleveland-cop-charged-with-11-counts-of-soliciting-prostitution (2019)
- https://www.cleveland.com/metro/2019/03/cleveland-police-officer-accused-of-soliciting-prostitutes-on-duty-charged-with-felony-misuse-of-computers (2019)
- https://www.cleveland.com/metro/2019/08/ex-cleveland-police-supervisor-sentenced-to-10-days-in-jail-for-soliciting-prostitutes-while-on-duty (2019)
- https://fox8.com/news/cleveland-priest-to-plead-guilty-to-child-sex-crimes (2021)
- https://fox8.com/tag/cleveland-priest-arrested (2021)
- https://www.centredaily.com/news/nation-world/national (2022)
Local Sex Trafficking, Child Sexual Exploitation, Related CSAM, Drug, Weapons Offenses:
- “Four Charged in Prostitution”, Lakeland Ledger, August 22 1974.
- “Prostitute, 12, Flees to Streets to Dull His Pain”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 19 1993.
- “Man Suspected of Using Minors in Sex Ring”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 29 2001.
- “Couple Accused of Running Prostitution Ring”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 12 2002.
- “Law & Order; Cleveland; Prostitution Ring Alleged”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 13 2002.
- “Law & Order; Cleveland; Men Face Additional Charges”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 30 2002.
- “Girl Flees Captors; Sex Ring Busted Teen Was Abducted outside Tower City”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 15 2003.
- “From a Cleveland Street Corner to a Pimp’s House in Detroit; Abducted Girl’s Escape from Sex Ring Brought down ‘Mr. Daddy'”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 17 2003.
- “Teen Hustler’s Story Reveals Boys’ Plight; Desperate Kids Lured into Prostitution, Drugs”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 19 2006.
- “Pair Imprisoned for Running Teen-Prostitution Ring”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 9 2007.
- “The Cleveland Backpage Report: An Analysis of Human Trafficking and the Online Commercial Sex Industry in Northeast Ohio”, Report, Operation Broken Silence & The Imagine Foundation, 2011.
- “Former Catholic Charities Worker Sentenced”, CBS/WOIO-TV 19, April 4 2011.
- “Elyria Man Indicted for Child Sex Trafficking”, CBS/WOIO-TV 19, June 2 2011.
- “Exclusive: Young Girl’s Cry for Help Uncovers Prostitution Ring Which Includes Teen Sex”, CBS/WOIO-TV 19, December 13 2011.
- “Investigator: 15-Year-Old Saved from Sex Ring”, NBC/WKYC-TV 3, January 20 2012.
- “Signs of Human Trafficking Can Stay Hidden in Plain Sight”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 12 2012.
- “Cleveland Woman Sentenced to 6 Years for Kidnapping, Sexual Battery, Prostitution of a Minor”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 30 2012.
- “Cleveland Woman Sentenced for Sex Trafficking Ring Involving Children”, CBS/WOIO-TV 19, November 29 2012.
- “Cleveland Man Sentenced to 20 Years in Prison for Prostituting Runaway”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 1 2012.
- “Busted for Prostituting 17-Year-Old Girl”, CBS/WOIO-TV 19, December 31 2012.
- “16-Year-Old Girl Caught in Sex Sting”, CBS/WOIO-TV 19, January 14 2013.
- “Teenage Girls Were ‘Virtual Prisoners’ in Elyria House; Man Charged with Forcing Victims into Drugs, Prostitution”, Plain Dealer, May 10 2013.
- “Ohio Woman Accused of Forcing Teens to Pay Off Drug Debt with Prostitution Enters Guilty Plea”, Columbus Republic, September 21 2013.
- “Edison Man Allegedly Enslaved Women in High-Priced Prostitution Ring”, NJToday.com, November 12 2013.
- “Edison Man Indicted in Alleged Prostitution Ring”, Bergen Record, November 12 2013.
- “Three Men Accused of Prostitution, Sex Charges Involving Missing Berea Teen”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 17 2014.
- “Man Pleads Guilty to Using Heroin to Control Women in Prostitution Ring,” FOX/WJW-TV 8, December 8 2014.
- “3 Indicted for Alleged Sex Trafficking of Minors in Sacramento, Solano Counties,” Sacramento Bee, September 11 2015.
- “Man Interrupts Trial to Plead Guilty to Human Trafficking, Drug Trafficking,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 14 2015.
- https://www.wkyc.com/article/news/gina-dejesus-highlights-human-trafficking-in-cleveland-walk-for-freedom (2018)
- https://lawandcrime.com/crime/sociopath-priest-who-used-confession-to-sexually-blackmail-boys-is-sentenced-to-life-in-prison (2021)
- https://www.cleveland19.com/man-accused-shooting-homeland-security-agents-cleveland-indicted-sex-trafficking-child-porn-charges (2022)
- https://patch.com/ohio/cleveland/potential-trafficking-victims-identified-during-all-star-weekend (2022)
- https://www.centredaily.com/news/nation-world/national (2022)
- https://www.news5cleveland.com/news/local-news/oh-cuyahoga/northeast-ohio-human-trafficking-on-the-rise-subject-of-forum (2022)
- https://www.13abc.com/pure-filth-9-suspects-indicted-ohio-human-trafficking-investigation-involving-children (2022)
- https://aleteia.org/former-priest-in-prison-for-sex-abuse-dies-by-suicide (2022)
- https://www.wkyc.com/article/news/investigations/man-sues-catholic-diocese-of-cleveland-claims-former-robert-mcwilliams-raped (2022)
Background on Prostitution in the Area:
- “Cleveland to Get Tough on Prostitutes”, Baltimore Afro-American, March 21 1970.
- “Arrest 6 in Prostitution Ring Sweep”, Gettysburg Times, April 12 1972.
- “Prostitutes Active Despite Police Unit”, Portsmouth Times, July 16 1975.
- “Women Sue Policeman Who Jailed Them on Prostitution Charge”, Lakeland Ledger, September 2 1981.
- “Prostitutes’ Tips Lead to Call-Girl Ring”, Akron Beacon Journal, January 22 1989.
- “Browns Warn League about Prostitution Investigation”, Gainesville Sun, February 6 1989.
- “Cleveland City Councilman Eugene Miller to Propose Tougher Penalties for Prostitution”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 27 2013.
- “Proposed Tougher Penalties for Prostitution in Cleveland Likely to See Debate at City Council Safety Committee Meeting”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 3 2013.
Documented Violence Against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:
- “Nightmare Hid in City Block Short on Dreams”, NBC News, November 4 2009.
- “11 Bodies, One House of Horrors: Why Cleveland Women Were ‘Invisible'”, CNN, October 26 2010.
- “The Other Serial Killer”, Cleveland Magazine, July 2012.
- https://www.justice.gov/cleveland-man-sentenced-40-years-prison-following-convictions-sex-trafficking (2022)