SALT LAKE CITY — Human trafficking in Utah is real, says state Attorney General Sean Reyes, even if prosecutors don't always charge a person with that crime.
Wednesday, Reyes, along with top members of his staff were joined by police chiefs and investigators from across the state to announce the results of two recent operations.
In April and May, the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force participated in Operation Broken Heart III, an operation that involved 61 ICAC teams nationwide. More than 1,300 arrests were made nationwide, including 71 in Utah, said Leo Lucey, chief of investigations at the attorney general's office.
During that operation, at least six children between the ages of 5 and 12 were rescued, he said.
"These victims are in the state of Utah, from the state of Utah," he said, stressing these were not cases of pictures being sent to someone from outside the state.
Those 71 arrests also included people in Utah manufacturing child pornography with children as young as 5 years old and adults soliciting other adults to engage in sexual activity with children under their care, Lucey said.
KSL first reported in May a spike in arrests by ICAC agents in cases that were similar. In each case, investigators arrested a man they had contacted through Craigslist, according to several Salt Lake County Jail reports. In each arrest, an ICAC agent posed as a young girl, usually 13, and a man replied that he was interested in meeting for the purpose of sex, the reports state.
The attorney general's office would neither confirm nor deny in May that ICAC was involved in a special operation. On Wednesday, Lucey said he could not comment about the specifics of cases still pending.
He said, however, that just as troubling as the number of people involved in sexual exploitation of minors and human trafficking was the demand for such illegal activity.
"The demand is huge, and the internet plays a massive role in creating the demand, advertising the product, whatever criminal enterprise you're involved in," he said.
In addition to the 71 arrests, members of the SECURE Strike Force have been investigating in the past few months 11 human trafficking cases. Nine of those involved sex trafficking and two labor trafficking, Lucey said. At least 10 victims were identified in those cases, including two minors, he said.
One of those cases involved Todd Jeremy Rettenberger, 37, who was charged in April of making women work as prostitutes at the Plaza, Royal Garden, Little America and Ramada hotels in Salt Lake City and the Crossland Hotel in Springfield, Oregon, in January and February. He solicited clients by posting ads with pictures of them on a website called backpage.com, the charges state.
One of the women met Rettenberger while both of them were working at an Arctic Circle restaurant in Bountiful and he "recruited her into his service," according to the charges.
One woman told prosecutors she started working for him because she was a heroin addict and he gave her drugs, the charges state.
Reyes and Lucey said Wednesday that the notion that human trafficking only involves people who are abducted off the streets, sent to another state or country and forced into prostitution, is wrong. As long as prosecutors can prove the women were either forced, threatened or coerced into prostitution, then it constitutes human trafficking.
Both victims said Rettenberger threatened to harm them and their families and forced them into violent sex acts if they stopped working. He was charged with two counts of human trafficking for forced sexual exploitation, a second-degree felony; two counts of aggravated exploitation of prostitution, a second-degree felony; pattern of unlawful activity, a second-degree felony; obstruction of justice, a third-degree felony; and witness tampering, a third-degree felony. Rettenberg was also convicted 20 years ago of killing a Motel 6 clerk in Woods Cross when he was a teen.
Change in culture
Because law enforcement today is better educated about trafficking and have been given the tools by lawmakers to prosecute such cases, cases that just 5 or 10 years ago would have been classified as prostitution involving "pimps" and "Johns" are now being handled as human trafficking, Reyes said. The problem, he said, is these cases no longer involve a car pulling up to a curb and soliciting a woman on the sidewalk, he said.
Today's cases are complex and involve increased funding and large amounts of overtime hours by investigators. But Lucey said those involved in human trafficking in Utah will be found.
"That's what people need to understand. We will find you. It may take us a little while. But we are going to spend every day with these task forces doing nothing but that. If you're looking to solicit those services, to exploit those services, to benefit from those criminal enterprises, then we're going to try and find you," he said.