Putnam County is in northern Tennessee. Almost half of its population of about 74,000 reside in Cookeville, a city of about 31,000 residents. 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 Putnam County Sheriff’s Office and the Cookeville Police Department have 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 in Cookeville 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 2014, an undercover prostitution and drug investigation resulted in 16 arrests during the two-week operation in Putnam County on a stretch of U.S. 17 in East Palatka where prostitution occasionally occurs as a problem. Most of the arrests were made along the highway between Florida 207 south to Kane Road. Those arrested were charged with soliciting prostitutes and drug crimes. A dozen of the arrests were of suspects who approached the undercover officer and offered to pay for sex.
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.
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.
- Putnam County Sheriff’s Office
- Putnam County Grand Jury
- Tennessee Bureau of Investigation
- Cookeville Police Department
- Office of the 13th District Attorney General
- Homeland Security Investigations
Street-level Reverse Sting, Shaming:
- https://www.jacksonville.com/news/crime/2014-04-22/story/16-arrested-two-week-putnam-prostitution-and-drug-sting (2014)
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)
- http://wreg.com/2018/05/18/10-charged-after-sex-trafficking-sting-in-tennessee/ (2018)
- https://www.newschannel5.com/news/10-charged-in-human-trafficking-operations (2018)
Background on Prostitution and Sex Trafficking 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.
- http://www.chattanoogan.com/2017/12/8/359851/11-Arrested-In-Undercover-Prostitution.aspx (2017)
- https://www.wkrn.com/news/witnessing-sex-trafficking-sting-was-eye-opening-for-tennessee-lawmaker (2018)