WASHINGTON — An operation targeting child prostitution rescued 105 teenagers and swept 150 alleged pimps off the streets of cities nationwide, including the Columbia area, the FBI announced Monday.
The juveniles, ranging in age from 13 to 17, had been trafficked through social media, online classified ad services and conventional street trolling. They are only a small part of what officials say is the much larger national problem of child prostitution.
We are trying to take this crime out of the shadows, and put a spotlight on it, Ron Hosko, assistant director of the FBIs Criminal Investigative Division, said at a news conference.
The 72-hour sweep that lasted through the weekend was the seventh round of a campaign begun in 2003. State, local and federal investigators joined in the latest operation.
In South Carolina, among those in custody in the raids were William Jerome Gibson, an accused pimp, and Andrea Bostic, allegedly one of the of-age women he prostituted.
According to federal court documents, Gibson and Bostic were both arrested Saturday night at a Columbia-area Quality Inn hotel after a 16-year-old girl agreed to trade 30 minutes of sex for $80.
Gibson, who officials said was out of jail on bond on murder charges in the 2011 shooting death of Terrance McNair-Bailey, was arrested in the hotels parking lot with a handgun in his car.
Bostic, who allegedly was in charge of other women Gibson prostituted when he wasnt around, was arrested in an adjacent room to the one belonging to the girl.
A third woman being forced into prostitution was also found at the hotel, the documents allege. She told police Gibson forced her to work for him to pay off a $1,000 debt.
The girl rescued by authorities in Columbia told officials that she had only been a prostitute for about two days, and that she only went into business with Gibson because she wasnt being fed at her grandmothers home.
Gibson, she told authorities, promised her clothes, food, a place to stay and half of whatever money she took in.
This is a particularly vulnerable population, said Drew Oosterbaan, chief of the Justice Departments Child Exploitation and Obscenity section. Traffickers are preying on youth with low self-esteem and minimal support, he said.
Many of the teenagers caught up in the sex trade come from broken homes, officials say. Hosko said the pimps may recruit their prey relatively gently, using compliments and rewards, but then will use violence and drugs to keep the juveniles in line.
Customers are often found at big-time sporting events, Hosko said, or they may be found through online advertising. Unlike Craigslist, the other big popular classified ad website, Backpage, still includes a listing for escorts.
It is a venue that we look at very closely, Hosko said. We will continue to look at Backpage and other (places) where pimps gather.
South Carolina officers discovered the 16-year-old girl through an advertisement on Backpage, according to the documents. The girl told officers that Bostic took photos that were later posted to the site along with a listing advertising specials. The Backpage website includes a statement denouncing human trafficking, and contact information for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. A TechCrunch article last year reported that Backpage screens for potentially troublesome keywords in submitted ads, and reports to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children those sex ads suspected of dealing with a minor.
If youve seen a missing child, or a child that is being victimized, please take action and make a report, the Backpage website states.
Staff writer R. Darren Price and McClatchy Newspapers Michael Doyle contributed to this report.