177 arrested, 109 survivors in statewide human trafficking sting

A suspect who was apprehended by the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children task force for human trafficking

A suspect who was apprehended by the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children task force for human trafficking

COLUMBUS — Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced the results of what is believed to be the largest anti-human trafficking operation in state history during a Monday Zoom press conference.

Through collaboration by more than 50 law enforcement agencies and non-government partners, Yost instituted Operation Autumn Hope in pursuit of rescuing human trafficking victims and the arrests and apprehension of their perpetrators.

“The success of Operation Autumn Hope is measured not only in the number of arrests but in the lives that were rescued from this evil,” Yost said, which resulted in 177 arrests and 109 survivors. “Every agency on this team looks for the day when no person is bought and sold in Ohio. Don’t buy sex in Ohio.”

“These predators shamelessly target the most innocent and defenseless members of our community,” added Franklin County Sheriff Dallas Baldwin, whose county along with Cuyahoga and Lucas counties arrested 157 men on charges of soliciting and other crimes. “Operation Autumn Hope is sending a loud and clear message: We are watching, we will catch you, and we will protect our children.”

Across southern Ohio, 76 missing and exploited children cases were cleared, including 45 by physical recovery by the U.S. Marshal’s Service. Among those missing included a 15-year-old girl missing from Cleveland whose recovery linked her and other possible victims to an individual in Columbus suspected of human trafficking; a 15-year-old male with two warrants who is a suspect in multiple shootings and a homicide; and a 14-year-old girl who was reported missing by the Lancaster Police Department who was recovered in Columbus within six hours of being reported missing.

“My thanks to all personnel who have stepped up for this operation,” said Peter C. Tobin, U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of Ohio. “These are the same personnel who hunt down violent fugitives every day. I’m incredibly proud of them and pleased that they were able to apply those same skills to finding missing children. I know Operation Autumn Hope has made a difference in a lot of young lives.”

The operation, conducted over the span of three days last week, required officers to work undercover and had federal support from such groups as the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations.

“When federal, state and local law enforcement agencies join together, we can better protect the most vulnerable,” said Chris Hoffman, a FBI Special Agent operating in Cincinnati. “We are all committed to rescuing trafficking victims and ensuring those who prey on others are criminally charged.”

Yost took questions from the press regarding Friday’s arrest of Portsmouth attorney and former City Councilman Michael Mearan. While conducted at the same time, Yost said Mearan’s arrest came following a years-long investigation through the Organized Crime Investigations Commission and not associated with Autumn Hope.

The attorney general announced the indictment of Mearan on 18 felony counts of human trafficking between 2003 and 2018, who if convicted could face more than 70 years in prison.

Yost, who tweeted previously that the arrest was “a long time coming,” said that Mearan used his specialized knowledge and trust he had gained through his office to his favor in the abuses. Six survivors came forward and told a similar story, leading to his indictment.

A typical tactic used by defense lawyers in these cases is to target the victim’s past, said Yost, which is made easier when that person has a criminal record or drug issues. Now in the era of #MeToo, such attacks on credibility are not as effective when more voices are heard.

“The people who do this over-and-over again leave behind them a tale that is told over-and-over again by women who do not know each other,” said Yost Monday morning, prior to arraignment of Mearan that afternoon. “When they all tell the same story with the same salient points, then you can’t rip apart their credibility as easily.”

“Even though they may have had issues in their past, their courage, the pain it causes them to come forward and testify gives them a special credibility,” he added. “I think that’s what we’ll see with the Michael Mearan case.”

Yost later reiterated that Mearan is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but he is confident with the investigation which offered the findings that led to his indictment.

Reach Patrick Keck (740)-353-3501 ext. 1931, by email at pkeck@aimmediamidwest.com, or on Twitter @pkeckreporter.© 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved.