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CRIME: Grant to fight human trafficking leads to 9 arrests in Bemidji

BEMIDJI--A grant obtained by the Bemidji Police Department to help fight human trafficking has resulted in charges against nine people according to Police Chief Mike Mastin.

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BEMIDJI-A grant obtained by the Bemidji Police Department to help fight human trafficking has resulted in charges against nine people according to Police Chief Mike Mastin.

The charges against each individual vary, Mastin said, but are all related to sexual contact with minors. Though the effort has been ongoing for a year, at least four of the arrests were made since Dec. 16.

"The goal obviously is to rescue and protect children from sex trafficking or this type of abuse," Mastin said. "We want to eliminate the demand for this, and ultimately we want perpetrators to believe that everyone they communicate with, especially online, is an undercover police officer."

According to criminal complaints against two men charged after communicating with undercover officers they believed to be children, police would proactively investigate the solicitation of minors by creating advertisements on websites such as Craigslist. In those ads, the undercover officers would present themselves as minors interested in meeting for sex.

The officer would then communicate with the suspect via email or text message and arrange a meeting, where the subject would be identified and arrested.

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"The majority of this happens...online and in a clandestine, semi-anonymous environment, the internet," Mastin said.

He added that the investigations have been time-consuming and that the department has been working toward the arrests for the past year.

"The people that engage in this take time to groom the victim, they have to build a rapport...they also have to trust that this is a child and not an undercover law enforcement officer so it takes time," Mastin said. "It takes months to build that relationship, and that's why you're seeing multiple arrests now."

Mastin said investigators identified a total of 21 perpetrators and that the investigations into the 12 who have not yet been charged are ongoing. Charges have included solicitation of prostitution in a public place, engaging in sex trafficking of an individual, solicitation of children to engage in sexual conduct, prostitution and engaging in electronic communication relating to or describing sexual conduct with a child.

The $47,000 grant, from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, was obtained in January 2016, Mastin said, but the department chose not to publicize it to avoid tipping off potential perpetrators.

"If we start putting it all over media that we're doing this, people are going to stop doing this in our area and we're not going to catch them," Mastin said. "So we've intentionally been quiet about it, but for the last year we've been working on it."

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