More than 80 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies recently launched a statewide human trafficking operation that resulted in over 500 arrests, three of which were made in Santa Barbara County, officials announced Thursday.
In conjunction with Human Trafficking Awareness Month, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office personnel joined 120 other officials from across the state to participate in Operation Reclaim and Rebuild, a three-day effort to combat human trafficking.
The operation took place from Jan. 25 to 27 and resulted in the recovery of 56 adult and minor victims. Officials said 178 males were arrested for solicitation, and 30 males were arrested for pimping. In total, there were 510 people arrested statewide.
In Santa Barbara County, investigators conducted "in-call" stings, where an undercover investigator contacted a person advertising on an online escort page and negotiated a sex act in exchange for money. Investigators contacted the individuals who were advertising and attempted to determine if they were being exploited.
Four women were contacted for prostitution and offered services from the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office advocates specially trained in human trafficking. Two additional individuals -- one from Las Vegas and one from San Gabriel -- who were contacted during the operation were additionally offered services from the advocates.
Ernest McDowell III, 29, Keilon Ernest Palms Sr., 30, and Tavari Devon Evans, 28, all from Fresno, were arrested for allegedly pimping and pandering. Evans was also booked on charges of possession of a controlled substance.
All the victims recovered during the course of the operation were offered services.
Lt. Brian Olmstead, who supervised the operation in Santa Barbara County and represented the Sheriff's Office at a press conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday, said he was encouraged by the number of law enforcement agencies working together to combat human trafficking statewide.
"Members of law enforcement in Santa Barbara County will continue to conduct proactive operations in order to rescue victims of human trafficking and arrest the suspects who are preying on the vulnerable population within our communities.
"We hope the public will be vigilant in reporting any suspicious activity that could be related to human trafficking," he added. "People who are victims of human trafficking have been rescued solely by citizens who reported seeing suspicious behavior."
As part of Operation Reclaim and Rebuild, investigators from the Santa Barbara County sheriff's Special Investigations Bureau and Criminal Investigations Bureau, along with the Santa Barbara Police Department, Santa Maria Police Department, Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office, Ventura County District Attorney's Investigator Office, San Luis Obispo County District Attorney's Office Investigator Office, the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations, all worked together with the Santa Barbara Human Trafficking Task Force.
The Santa Barbara County Human Trafficking Task Force includes participants from local and federal law enforcement, behavioral wellness, faith organizations, child welfare services and health care providers.
In September 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded $1.34 million to Santa Barbara County to help fund its Human Trafficking Task Force.
The grant funding was also allocated to help provide investigative resources necessary to not only proactively investigate and prosecute human trafficking cases but to also enable victim and rape crisis advocates to provide critical services for both adult and minor domestic and international trafficking victim's services.
During the grant's first year, the task force identified more than 45 victims, arrested 15 pimps and arrested 35 individuals within Santa Barbara County for arranging to purchasing sex. All the arrests came from proactive investigations made possible by the grant and collaborative efforts among law enforcement agencies working within Santa Barbara County.