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Payette County is a county in Southwestern Idaho of roughly 24,000 residents, and its county seat and largest city is Payette, ID. The county lies along U.S. Route 95 in the Treasure Valley of southwest Idaho, about 50 miles west of Boise, ID, and borders the state of Oregon. Additionally, the county is part of the Ontario, OR Micropolitan Area. Prostitution has been documented in the county dating back to the early 1900s. In 1908, Payette County (then in Canyon County; Payette County was formed in 1917), attempted to prohibit prostitution and liquor traffic in conjunction with similar efforts that were occurring across the state at the time. The City of Payette was too small to have a red light district, but it had a brothel at the edge of town, and in 1908 the Payette Independent reported that two sheepherders had been severely beaten and robbed as they left the brothel. Among the more serious crimes associated with the local commercial sex market are child sex trafficking and targeted violence against sex buyers, prostituted persons, and victims of sex trafficking. For example, in March 2012, an Idaho State Police trooper stopped a man from Washington state at a rest stop in Payette County and arrested him for driving without privileges. At the Payette County Jail, his passenger, a 15-year-old girl, was found to be a ward of the state of Washington and a runaway who was being trafficked for sexual exploitation. The man was prosecuted and sentenced to 57 months in federal prison for his role in sex trafficking.
In committee hearings for a human trafficking bill in 2018, a state representative brought a number of child sex trafficking survivors to testify. They testified that sex buyers are just as dangerous as sex traffickers and frequently abuse and rape their victims. One survivor testified that while she was being trafficked as a child, she was choked, tied up, cut with knives, and then penetrated with sharp objects by an abusive male sex buyer. A 15-year-old Payette girl told the committee she had been sex trafficked at the age of 13 by her mother’s sex trafficker/pimp and emphasized that she had been sex trafficked because there was an increase in demand for commercial sex in the area.
Consumer-level demand provides the revenue stream for all prostitution and sex trafficking, and has therefore been targeted by local law enforcement agencies in their strategy for prevention and response. Law enforcement agencies within Payette County have been known to conduct web-based reverse stings in the region. For example, in 2016, the Payette Police Department participated in an undercover anti-sex trafficking operation in Malheur County, OR, that led to the arrest of 11 male sex buyers. The operation was led by the High Desert Drug Taskforce, and also included the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office and police departments in Ontario, OR and Nyssa, ID. During the investigation, undercover officers posted decoy ads on websites known for prostitution and sex-trafficking. Sex buyers who had responded to the decoy ads and arranged prices and times to meet for commercial sex with undercover officers, were arrested upon their arrival to a hotel in the Ontario area, and booked into the Malheur County Jail.
In addition to reverse sting operations, the Payette County Sheriff’s Office, in coordination with additional local and state law enforcement agencies have also investigated and arrested suspected sex buyers as a result of tips from community members to local law enforcement. For example, in 2000, a Payette man was arrested for allegedly soliciting a woman and two minors for commercial sex purposes. His arrest came after a tip from a 34-year-old Payette woman, who told police she was approached by the alleged sex buyer and asked if she, her 13-year-old daughter, and a 16-year-old female relative, would engage in commercial sex acts for him. The investigation continued and police tried to identify his possible clients and determine the extent of the man’s alleged business. The man had been an interpreter for the Payette County Court system, was arraigned on two counts of felony attempting to induce persons under 18 into prostitution and one count of felony attempting to induce an adult into prostitution. The case went to a grand jury.
Loss of employment and public identity disclosure are consequences of buying sex in the county. For example, in February 2019, the Fruitland High School principal and boys basketball coach was arrested and charged with three misdemeanors, stemming from allegations of sexual harassment of a female staff member at the school, court documents show. The charges include two counts of sexual battery and one count of solicitation of prostitution, both misdemeanor charges. According to reports, the man was hired by the school district in 1998, and had served as the school’s boys basketball coach for 19 years and had been the Fruitland High School Principle since 2010. As a result of his arrest, he was placed on leave amid a criminal investigation by the Idaho State Police. However, in April 2019, the Fruitland School District announced the former principle’s official resignation. During the third day of the trial at the Canyon County Courthouse, the offender testified that he and the victim, an adult woman who had just started working at the Fruitland High School in August 2018, had ongoing conversations from about September to November of that year on multiple platforms. Both attorneys asked questions based on over 50 pages of email conversations between the offender and the victim. The conversations included both parties talking about sexually explicit acts. Fitch said the two started their conversation with texts in September, which quickly escalated to being sexual in nature. The conversations moved to email and eventually to Google Hangouts and Snapchat. Only emails were recovered during the investigation. According to a report from the Idaho Education News, the woman had only responded to some of the emails because she felt pressured by the offender, who was also her boss. The victim claims the former principle grabbed her in her office at the school, placed her hand on his groin in the teacher lounge, and offered to pay her $300 for sexual favors when she attempted to call off the interactions. If the former principle is found guilty of the charges, he faces up to one year maximum in the county jail for each charge. The sex buyer’s identity and image were included in reports by local media outlets.
In 2019, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office received a tip from a Payette County law enforcement agency that alleged a former Fruitland police officer of soliciting underage boys for sex acts on social media. According to reports, the WCSO stated that the cases go back as far as 2017, and took place in Payette County cities Fruitland and Payette. The case was passed to the WCSO to avoid conflict of interest. According to the criminal complaint, the former officer was soliciting up to four different minors in Payette County. The offender allegedly used multiple social media accounts to contact the youths, including Instagram and Snapchat. The former officer was employed as a Fruitland Police Officer in both a reserve and full-time capacity between April 2015 and June 2019, and resigned from Fruitland Police in June 2019 while he was a reserve officer. All of the offenses were believed to have occurred while the former officer was off-duty. In addition, the offender was involved with numerous youth-based organizations, including the Boys & Girls Club in Payette and Ontario School District, where he was terminated in June after working for a few months. In May 2020, the offender was sentenced to 10 years in prison (with the potential to be released after one year and complete the remainder of his sentence on probation). He will also be required to register as a sex offender upon his release. The offender’s identity and image were included in reports by local media outlets.
- Payette County Sheriff’s Office
- Payette County Prosecutor’s Office
- Payette Police Department
- Fruitland Police Department
- Fruitland School District
- Washington County Sheriff’s Office
- Malheur County Sheriff’s Office
- Ontario Police Department
- High Desert Drug Taskforce
- Nyssa Police Department
- Idaho State Police
Web-Based Reverse Stings, Identity Disclosure:
- https://www.ktvb.com/article/15-arrested-in-ontario-area-sex-trafficking-investigation (2016)
- https://www.koin.com/news/sex-trafficking-sting-in-se-oregon-nets-15-arrests/ (2016)
- Sex-trafficking operation nets 15 people in 1 week (2016)
Loss of Employment, Sex Buyer Arrest, Identity Disclosure:
- https://www.argusobserver.com/news/police-arrest-payette-man-on-charges-of-soliciting-prostitutiontracy-widner-argus-observer-october-18-2000/ (2000)
- https://www.idahopress.com/news/local/former-fruitland-principal-testifies-in-trial-denies-crimes/article (2019)
- https://www.ktvb.com/article/news/crime/fruitland-high-principal-accused-of-groping-sexually-propositioning-school-employee/ (2019)
- https://www.argusobserver.com/court-pushes-out-trial-for-former-high-school-principal (2019)
- https://www.idahoednews.org/news/fruitland-principal-charged-with-sexual-battery-patronizing-a-prostitute/ (2019)
- https://www.ktvb.com/article/news/crime/mike-fitch-not-guilty-former-fruitland-principal-sexual-battery-charges (2019)
- https://www.idahoednews.org/fruitland-principal-charged-with-sexual-battery-patronizing-a-prostitute/ (2019)
- https://www.idahostatesman.com/news/local/education/article2294 (2019)
- Ex-Fruitland officer accuses of child sexual abuse remains in jail (2019)
- https://www.eastidahonews.com/2019/09/ex-fruitland-police-officer-accused-of-8-sex-crimes-involving-children-remains-in-jail/ (2019)
- https://www.ktvb.com/article/news/crime/ (2019)
- https://www.parentsformeganslaw.org/ex-fruitland-police-officer-pleads-guilty-to-4-felony-sex-crimes-involving-children/ (2020)
- Ex-Fruitland police officer pleads guilty in child sex abuse case (2020)
- Former Idaho police officer sentenced for 4 sex charges (2020)
- https://www.idahopress.com/news/local/former-fruitland-police-officer-gets-up-to-10-years-in-prison-for-sex-crimes-against/article (2020)
- https://m.argusobserver.com/news/former-cop-takes-plea-deal-alexander-plaza-faces-100-years-in-prison-for-multiple-sex/article (2020)
Background on Local Prostitution and Sex Trafficking:
- “Arrests Increase in Ontario during 2005,” Ontario Argus Observer, May 14 2006.
- https://www.justice.gov/usao-id/pr/washington-man-sentenced-idaho-sex-trafficking-case (2013)
- https://www.boiseweekly.com/boise/human-trafficking-absence-of-choice/ (2014)
- https://www.eastidahonews.com/2018/03/look-sex-trade-east-idaho-women-work/ (2018)
- https://www.idahopress.com/news/local/former-fruitland-assistant-track-coach-arrested-on-suspicion-of-rape/ (2019)
- https://www.idahopress.com/news/local/charges-dismissed-against-former-fruitland-assistant-track-coach-accused-of-rape-other-crimes/article (2019)