Human trafficking operation aims to stem sex trade in Chattanooga region

A placard of a child sits on a table during a conference on human sex trafficking in Atlanta.
photo Scenic City Sex Trafficking


To learn more about human trafficking issues and how to help or get help, visit the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s website, or nonprofit organization sites or

The recent human trafficking operation called "Operation Someone Like Me" conducted by state and local authorities in Chattanooga takes on the sex-trade world from the perspective of the women who are trapped there.

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation director Mark Gwyn said at a Friday news conference that law enforcement's target in this and similar operations is the people who are recruiting, coercing and physically forcing women into the sex trade.

"This is not your typical prostitution operation," Gwyn said. "We target individuals, victims, that we feel are being trapped. They are being forced by threat, coercion, by pimps. We try to target those victims we think we can save."

The 20 men arrested in the operation were charged on prostitution-related offenses but were not identified as human traffickers, TBI officials said.

TBI spokesman Josh DeVine said most of the charges were for patronizing prostitution, but additional charges could be coming for some men. DeVine said no human trafficking charges have been filed to date.

A dozen women, ranging in age from 18 to their mid-30s, were involved in the four-day operation. Some were arrested on prostitution-related offenses, but investigators issued citations to others, according to DeVine.

Gwyn said the state agency has added four agents to train local law enforcement statewide about human trafficking. He said the Chattanooga operation follows actions in Middle Tennessee and West Tennessee, and praised cooperation by Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher and his officers.

The operation's name arose from a young woman who was instrumental in an earlier operation, said TBI Special Agent in Charge Margie Quin.

Officials thanked the woman for her help but she wanted to thank them instead.

"She said, 'No. Thank you. You don't know what it means to someone like me that the TBI and police are willing to go out and rescue these girls,'" Quin said.

"We were struck by that one phrase, 'someone like me,'" Quin said. "So we named our operations all across the state 'Someone Like Me' to remind ourselves that's exactly what we're out there for."

The Chattanooga operation started in September when officials ran three advertisements on with undercover TBI agents acting as prostitutes, Quin said.

More than 100 contacts were made over a six-and-a-half-hour period, and 11 men were arrested. When the ads ran a second day for four hours, another 40 contacts were made and nine more men were arrested, she said.

In October, investigators began contacting women who had advertised on and who law enforcement believed were potential victims of human trafficking, Quin said. Twelve women were cited, then taken to meet officials with End Slavery Tennessee and Second Life of Chattanooga, some of whom are survivors of trafficking.

photo Josh DeVine, TBI

"Several of the women did seek services," she said. "Some are in safe houses and some are receiving treatment and counseling as we speak."

While the "john" arrests are familiar territory for police, police Chief of Staff David Roddy said the officers wanted also "to reach out to the 'Jane' side of this equation and let them know that there is hope and there is a way out."

End Slavery Tennessee founder and Executive Director Derri Smith said victims of human trafficking enter a world where the death rate is "significantly higher than that of the general population."

The End Slavery and Second Life intervention team included a former human trafficking victim to offer "empathy and understanding" to create trust with the women, Smith said.

Often victims "are too scared and too scarred to cooperate with law enforcement in prosecuting the perpetrators," she said.

Second Life's website cites a 2009-2010 TBI study that reported 4,000 trafficking victims statewide. The report said traffickers target Tennessee because of its extensive interstate system, heavy gang activity in Memphis and Nashville and the large flow of tourists through Knoxville, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Being on the Interstate 75 corridor through Atlanta puts Chattanooga on the human trafficking map.

About 85 percent of Tennessee counties reported at least one case of sex trafficking during 2009-2010, according to the study. In Hamilton County, more than 100 cases of adult sex trafficking and more than 25 cases of child sex trafficking were reported in the period.

Second Life Chattanooga CEO Jerry Redman said efforts such as "Someone Like Me" help victims of human trafficking by giving them hope.

With hope, "you can see the light start coming on in their eyes," Redman said.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said state and federal authorities nationwide are working on solutions.

"There are 27 million people around the world who are enslaved; 30 percent of them are in sexual servitude," Corker said. "It's a lot more prevalent than people are aware of."

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at or Benton or or 423-757-6569.