Cookeville is a city of about 31,000 residents in northern Tennessee’s Putnam County. Prostitution and child sex trafficking, both web- and business-based, has been identified as a problem and generated numerous complaints from residents to law enforcement.
The Cookeville Police Department has used female undercover officers to stage prostitution reverse stings at local businesses, such as spas, where johns may solicit prostitution. In September 2009, for example, a reverse sting was conducted following an investigation of a spa that provided storefront cover for a brothel. Once sufficient evidence was collected to support a raid of the brothel, the takedown occurred and the staff arrested. The brothel was then “staffed” by undercover officers, and additional appointments were made with customers. Those who appeared and offered to pay for sex were arrested. All arrestees had their names and ages, as well as the charges filed against them, reported in the local news media.
Complaints continued, and in November 2013, CPD officers conducted a web-based reverse sting with the support of the Algood Police Department, that resulted in the arrests of four sex buyers. In an interview with the Cookeville Herald-Citizen about the investigation, a CPD representative commented at the time:
“This is a new and growing area of crime for us. We are going to try our best to divert and deter this kind of activity… Our concern is all of the drug activity and crime that goes with it that is not welcome in Cookeville… We are absolutely dedicated to making these operations successful.”
In November 2015, media outlets reported the completion of an additional sting using online advertisements. During the investigation, law enforcement arrested four men on charges of patronizing prostitution, and one woman for prostitution. One of the johns intercepted during the sting was also charged with solicitation of a minor, as he allegedly attempted to purchase sex from a decoy he thought was an underage girl. Members of the press described the 2015 arrests as part of a “long-term [anti-prostitution] investigation,” suggesting that the sting had remained ongoing from November 2013 to November 2015. When asked about the operation, a CPD representative expressed law enforcement’s concern that prostitution in the city may be linked to other crimes, stating:
“While some people believe prostitution is a ‘victimless’ crime, that’s just not true. In reality, prostitution is often connected with drug crimes and other violent crimes. In fact, just recently in Cookeville, a young man interacted with a prostitute and was subsequently robbed at gunpoint and had his vehicle stolen… Human trafficking is a rapidly growing crime. While a prostitute may be in his or her 20s, it is still quite possible that person is being tightly controlled and being forced into servitude by either a single person or organized group of persons for the purpose of using that person for making money.”
In February 2017, an undercover human trafficking operation conducted by Special Agents with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Office of the 13th District Attorney General, Cookeville Police Department, Putnam County Sheriff’s Office, and Homeland Security Investigations resulted in the arrest of ten men facing felony charges in a targeted effort to identify individuals attempting to purchase illicit sex from minors.
“With each similar operation we conduct, we want to send the same message; that we will not tolerate the sexual exploitation of any person in our community. This is a demand-driven crime, involving men from all kinds of backgrounds. As a state, Tennessee has led the fight to see to it that no child or adult falls victim to these sexual predators.” [TBI Acting Director]
The operation occurred February 15th to February 17th, and focused on individuals seeking to engage in commercial sex acts with females under the age of 18, and those engaged in trafficking others for commercial sex acts. For all three days, advertisements were placed on backpage.com, and two female TBI Agents posted as individuals offering sex on that site. In the course of the three-day operation, men using 697 unique phone numbers responded to the ads that were posted online, seeking to purchase illicit sex. The total number of contacts, such as text messages and calls, was 5,211.
During the course of the resulting text or phone conversations, the Agents identified themselves as being 14 to 17 years old. Some of the conversations between the men and undercover agents continued after they learned they were chatting with someone asserting they were under-aged. A total of ten men traveled to the location to meet for the purpose of illicit sex from a female they believed to be a minor. On May 8th, 2018, the Putnam County Grand Jury returned indictments, charging ten individuals in connection with this operation.
- Cookeville Police Department
- Algood Police Department
- Tennessee Bureau of Investigation
- Office of the 13th District Attorney General
- Putnam County Sheriff’s Office
- Homeland Security Investigations
- Putnam County Grand Jury
- John Arrests with Shaming:
- “Attorney Cited for Patronizing Prostitution,” Cookeville Herald-Citizen, July 28 2015.
- Business-Based Reverse Stings with Shaming:
- “Four Charged in Spa Sex Sting,” Cookeville Herald-Citizen, October 15 2009.
- Web-Based Reverse Stings with Shaming:
- “14 Charged in Prostitution Sting,” Cookeville Herald-Citizen, November 25 2013.
- “Correction,” Cookeville Herald-Citizen, November 26 2013.
- “Longterm Prostitution Investigation Nets Several Charges,” Cookeville Herald-Citizen, November 6 2015.
- “Five Face Prostitution Charges in Court Next Week,” Cookeville Herald-Citizen, November 18 2015.
- “Local Man Charged with Patronizing Prostitution, Soliciting Minor,” Cookeville Herald-Citizen, November 18 2015.
- http://www.crossville-chronicle.com/news/local_news/arrested-in-putnam-county-human-trafficking-operation (2018)
- http://www.wgnsradio.com/tbi-human-trafficking-case-lands-multiple-men-behind-bars (2018)
- http://www.wbbjtv.com/2018/05/17/10-indicted-putnam-co-human-trafficking-operation/ (2018)
- Background on Prostitution in the Area:
- “Woman Charged with Prostitution,” Cookeville Herald-Citizen, January 23 2007.
- “Prostitution Charges Lead to Judicial Diversion for Two Women,” Cookeville Herald-Citizen, May 12 2010.
- “Sex Sting Yields Probation for Two Women,” Cookeville Herald-Citizen, May 13 2010.
- “Possible Prostitution Activity Reported,” Cookeville Herald-Citizen, November 12 2013.
- “Prostitution Charges Dismissed,” Cookeville Herald-Citizen, June 27 2014.
- Documented Violence against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area: