Deputies rescue three women who were victims of sex trafficking

Tulare County Human Trafficking Task Force arrests 16 “johns” in two prostitution stings last week in the Visalia area

VISALIA – Three women sold as sex slaves were rescued by local law enforcement during a human trafficking bust last week.

The women were found by Tulare County Sheriff’s Office deputies during an investigation into human sex trafficking on July 23 in the Visalia area. The victims were offered to have Family Services respond immediately to assist them. Victims are always offered counseling and housing. If they decline services, TCSO provides the victims’ names and contact information to Family Services for follow up.

“We at the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department are actively involved in the prevention of human trafficking and feel no human being should be bought or sold,” TCSO spokesperson Liz Jones said. “We will continue to conduct these types of operations in the future for the safety and security of the residents of Tulare County.”

Six men were arrested during the investigation for soliciting sexual favors through escort ad services. Those arrested were: Herman Chatrath, 28, of Visalia; Carmen Rosales, 30, of Visalia; Matthew Tilschner, 55, of Visalia; Rigoberto Cortez, 54, of Dinuba; Carlos Chen, 32, of Irvine, Calif.; and Jesus Moreno, 35, of Parlier, Calif. The Sheriff’s Department said it is still investigating suspects responsible for trafficking the three women.

The investigation was led by the Sheriff’s Human Trafficking Unit, along with members of the Visalia Police Department and the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office assigned to the Tulare County Human Trafficking Task Force.

On July 22, the task force arrested 10 “johns,” a term used for clients, who paid for sex during an undercover anti-human sex trafficking operation. All were charged with solicitation of prostitution and some of the men received additional charges ranging from resisting arrest to possession of a concealed firearm. Those arrested were: Richard Lozano, 43, of Visalia; Efrain Rojas Martinez, 41, of Tulare; Jorge Cuevas-Zazueta, 38, of Visalia; Alexis Hernandez, 21, of Visalia; Elijah Hignojoz, 25, of Visalia; Eddie Cardiel, 39, of Hanford; Andres Banuelos, 31, of Visalia, who was also arrested for possession with intent to sell; Charles Bright, 51, of Visalia on charges of drug possession and possession of a concealed weapon; and Keon Wiggins, 29, of Visalia who was charged with resisting arrest.

Sgt. Mike Verissimo, public information officer for the Visalia Police Department, said VPD headed up the under cover operation with assistance from its own Special Enforcement Unit as well as the DA’s Office, Sheriff’s Office, Tulare Regional Gun Violence Enforcement Team and California Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking and Sexual Predator Apprehension Team.

“We usually bring in a number of officers because you don’t know if the person is a gang member, a violent criminal or someone who is armed,” Verissimo said.

Valley victims

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, there were more than 1,500 human trafficking cases reported in California in 2019—more than any other state in the nation. In California, human trafficking has been most prevalent in urban areas and, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, three of the top child prostitution regions nationwide are in the Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco metropolitan areas. Among other industries, victims of human trafficking can also be found among migrant and seasonal agricultural workers, providers of residential care, and in California’s garment sector.

Due to its location between hubs in Southern California and the Bay Area, its high number of vulnerable populations, such as migrant workers and foster youth, the Central Valley is particularly susceptible to all types of human trafficking, including sex trafficking and labor trafficking. More than 1,000 human trafficking victims have been identified in the Central Valley, according to the Central Valley Against Human Trafficking. Nine in 10 are women, three in 10 are minors, two-thirds were born in the United States and 80% of them are forced into prostitution.

Common signs someone is a potential victim of trafficking include if they:

  • Are not free to leave or come and go as they wish,
  • Are unpaid, paid very little, or paid only through tips
  • Work excessively long and/or unusual hours
  • Are not allowed breaks or suffer under unusual restrictions at work
  • Owe a large debt and are unable to pay it off
  • Were recruited through false promises concerning the nature and conditions of his/her work
  • Face high security measures at work and/or living locations (e.g. opaque windows, boarded up windows, bars on windows, barbed wire, security cameras, etc.)
  • Have few or no personal possessions
  • Are not in control of their own money, or have no financial records, or a bank account
  • Are not in control of their own identification documents (ID or passport)
  • Are not allowed or able to speak for themselves (a third party may insist on being present and/or translating)

If you see any of these red flags, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 for specialized victim services referrals or to report the situation. Learn more about reporting potential human trafficking situations at humantraffickinghotline.org/report-trafficking. You can also call Sheriff’s Office anonymously through Tip Now by emailing [email protected] or by calling 559-725-4194.

State back up

California Attorney General Rob Bonta formally launched new regional Human Trafficking and Sexual Predator Apprehension Teams (HT/SPAT) during a press conference on June 18 asking local law enforcement to take advantage of the new resource. The two teams—one covering Northern California and another covering Southern California—are now in action across the state to support law enforcement partners in disrupting and dismantling human trafficking and the criminal exploitation of children. The Attorney General also announced new funds included in the proposed state budget aimed at combatting the effects of the pandemic on human trafficking and directly supporting survivors across California through $30 million in new grants over the next 3 years. The new proposed funds are in addition to $10 million per year in grants already included in the budget.

“Plain and simple: Human trafficking is a modern day form of slavery. Whether it’s forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation of children, there is no place for these kinds of crimes in California or anywhere,” said Attorney General Bonta. “Unfortunately, the pandemic has only served to exacerbate many of the underlying risks that lead to human trafficking in our state. We all have to work together across every level of government and society to help bring human trafficking to an end.”

In addition to its more recent work in Tulare County, HT/SPAT enforcement efforts include: Nearly 300 on-the-ground address checks of potential suspects and high-risk sex offenders; the development of dozens of investigative leads, conducting suspect and survivor interviews in conjunction with law enforcement partners; the execution of nearly two dozen search warrants; outreach to non-profit organizations that provide services to survivors; and assisting in and directly securing arrests related to human trafficking and other violations of California’s laws.

The HT/SPAT program also works to monitor and ensure compliance with California’s laws among registered sex offenders, largely focusing on those who have been identified as “Well Above Average Risk Offenders” in the California Sex Offender Registry. These individuals generally have a higher predicted rate of recidivism within the first five years of release from custody. Overall, there are 13 special agents and two crime analysts in the HT/SPAT program, all are new positions dedicated to directly tackling and assisting in efforts to eradicate human trafficking in the state.

The Attorney General encourages law enforcement partners across the state to reach out to the new HT/SPAT program for assistance on human trafficking matters, particularly those that may be complex or impact multiple jurisdictions.

Bonta also issued guidance to help law enforcement protect commercially sexually exploited children from further harm. Commercial sexual exploitation of youth is defined as a commercial sex act where anything of value is given, including the provision of food, shelter, or payment, in exchange for the performance of a sexual act. Both girls and boys can be impacted and are subject to many of the same risk factors.

For more information on human trafficking prevention, visit the state attorney general’s web site at www.oag.ca.gov/human-trafficking.

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