Inside an undercover sex trafficking operation by Rowan County deputies

ROWAN COUNTY, N.C. — In early March, the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office gave Channel 9′s Hannah Goetz exclusive access to their undercover sex trafficking operation.

>> “9 Investigates: The Rescued”

The two-day operation involved 21 officers and over 270 man hours.

Here’s how it worked: First, detectives reached out to women through online prostitution advertisements.

“They’re basically just an advertisement for escort services,” said Rowan County Lt. Ryan Barkley with Criminal Investigations. “It’s hundreds of dollars at a time, and it’s for sexual acts.”

“We would basically just, kind of try to act like you’re actually trying to solicit their services,” said Det. Ryan Dangerfield with the Special Victims Unit. “But ultimately, we’re trying to get them to come meet with us.”

They set meetings with the women so they could talk to them alone and ask if they needed help.

“The human trafficking aspect of it, you’re not going to find them until you meet them, and this is the only way to meet them,” Barkley said.

“We want to get a snapshot of human trafficking and trafficking in Rowan County,” Sheriff Travis Allen explained.

The goal

The operation went after alleged traffickers and tried to rescue their victims.

“We’re not really concerned about an adult woman that is consenting with an adult male, even though it is against the law. That’s not our focus,” Allen said.

As far as the women detectives met through the ads, Allen said deputies were only asking them for information.

“We’re not necessarily looking to charge the ladies. We might not charge a single one, even the ones that show up. But we hope to gather information from them. Make them be comfortable. Do you know of any ladies that are being trafficked? Even though you may not be, can you help us find some victims, it may be, that we can help,” he said. “So this is really what we’re looking for. We’re not looking for the arrest. We’re looking for information. We’re looking for a snapshot, a picture so that we can know what’s going on in our community.”

Goetz asked why the operation is unique from others the department has done in the past.

“You can’t find anybody that has any experience in this. So our detectives are up there, they’re learning as they go,” Allen said. “They’re putting on this mission, this operation, and they’re -- literally, like you saw -- walking through it, talking through it as they go in initial stages. Because there’s nobody to show them this, there’s very few people that have this type of experience.”

‘Then the adrenaline kicks in’

After days of planning and responding to online ads, the detectives were ready to move forward with meeting the women. Additional officers, paramedics, and other backup resources were standing by.

Anyone that arrived with one of the women would be detained until law enforcement decided whether they should be charged.

A local hotel agreed to serve as the meeting location. Officers had two adjoining rooms -- one for takedowns, the other for surveillance.

“So we wanted to make sure that we did this as safely as possible, not only for us, but for them,” Det. Barkley said.

Detectives stationed cameras inside the room and in the hallway outside the room, “so that we see when our suspect has came into the room, so we know when to move in and know what we are expecting, or have an idea of what’s happening in the room before we actually go in,” they said.

Then, they set times to meet with the women. One of the detectives at those meets was Det. Christopher “Rooster” Greer.

“I was the undercover officer responsible for meeting these individuals that we communicate through online, essentially just meeting with them, speaking with them, and getting them in the hotel room for the takedown team,” Greer explained.

″The adrenaline kicks in. You’re trying to make sure everything goes smooth,” he went on to say. “You got to try to play cool and calm and not try to alert what you’re actually doing there.”

″We took officer safety very seriously. We had people inside and outside, we had people in the lobby, just making sure that from start to finish, we had eyes on whoever was there,” Barkley said.

Once people arrived at the hotel, the takedown teams detained them. They were searched, interviewed, and offered help.

“Once they did show up, we could detain them and make sure they didn’t have a weapon, and then back down and let them know, ‘Hey, we’re not here to ruin your life. We’re here to help you,’” Barkley said. “‘And to make sure that you get resources -- if you want them, we’re here to give them to you.’”

>> To read about how deputies rescued a 16-year-old girl from being trafficked, click here.

Hannah Goetz

Hannah Goetz, wsoctv.com

Hannah is a reporter for WSOC-TV.

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