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Prostitution sting targeting Highway 101 corridor nets 19 arrests

A huge multi-agency law enforcement operation in Sonoma County last week that targeted suspected prostitutes, pimps and their would-be clientele is part of a growing trend of collaboration and cross-pollination in the field of commercial sex and human trafficking enforcement, police said.

About 100 law enforcement officers from 23 agencies as far away as Livermore and San Jose, including a dozen FBI personnel, participated in a series of stings last Friday, organized by local police and sheriff's personnel at motels in Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Rohnert Park, authorities said.

The effort, planned over six weeks, was driven in part by a desire to curb what authorities say is a burgeoning trade in sex around the area since the opening last fall of the Graton Resort and Casino in Rohnert Park, authorities said.

There are no specific data to prove a linkage between the casino and a rise in activity, but local authorities say they and their counterparts in the Bay Area, as well as members of the FBI, have seen increasing references in online advertising suggesting prostitutes are coming to the area to take advantage of heavy casino traffic. Human intelligence gathered locally and in the Bay Area similarly supports the trend, police said.

"We really don't suspect that they (the casino) are condoning or facilitating this in any way," Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Terry Anderson said. "They just happen to be an entertainment venue, you know. They're not responsible for people's actions."

Undercover investigators have turned for enforcement to the same online websites increasingly used by participants in the sex trade to advertise and arrange dates.

Last week's stings included participation by a half-dozen social agencies and nonprofits who provided outreach and services to sex providers interested in getting out of prostitution.

There were free HIV tests and counseling provided both to prostitutes and customers who wanted them, police said. About seven people sought the tests, Face2Face spokeswoman Meghan Murphy said. In addition, county workers were on-hand to provide information about ongoing support now available under state law to teens who have aged out of foster care but still can obtain financial assistance up to age 21, police said.

The event also served as a kind of investigative training ground, where those with experience in the under-cover, online exchanges used to lure suspects to "trysts" that actually end in arrest brought their expertise to the table, local authorities said.

Those who wanted to learn how different agencies function in the evolving arena of commercial sex enforcement picked up plenty of tips in a field where partnerships are increasingly common and necessary, they said.


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