TPD undercover operation rescues juvenile sex trafficking victims

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TPD undercover operation rescues juvenile sex trafficking victims

By Rikki Mitchell. CREATED May 6, 2014 - UPDATED: May 7, 2014

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - In the light of day, Tucson Police officers sit behind dark tinted windows...waiting.

It's an undercover operation like you've never seen before, where the goal is not to throw people in jail.

"They get stuck into what you could call a deep hole," said Lt. James Scott with the Tucson Police Department. "They need a hand to reach down and help them get out."

It's all part of Project RAISE, that began almost two years ago and has since rescued dozens of women from the sex trafficking industry.

Started by the Tucson Ward 6 City Council office, the eight-hour operation takes place once every six months, and involves more than 50 Tucson and Marana police officers, and several FBI agents.

It all starts at a Tucson Police substation, where an undercover officer browses escort ads online.

Another officer makes a call, the girl agrees to meet him and the operation has begun.

It's a short drive to the south side motel, and from there, everyone moves into place.

"The play has been made so if we can get an eye, we need to get an eye somewhere," radios Sgt. Jerry Skeenes to his officers.

A short time later and police have several people detained including three juvenile sex trafficking victims and 21-year-old Andrew Hodge.

Police say Hodge had a felony warrant that sent him right back to prison. They also say he is a person of interest in the juvenile sex trafficking case because he was with the three young girls.

As part of the investigation, police say they are looking in to the possibility that there were three pimps involved.

As for the girls...

"Several of them we find out are actually victims of the sex trafficking trade," said Lt. Scott. "It's not a lifestyle that they really want to be involved in, they get coerced."

The goal of Project RAISE is to give these young women a chance to get out.

"What we would do in the past is we would arrest these ladies, and men too, we would take them to jail and it would sort of be a revolving door," said Lt. Scott.

Instead, with Project RAISE, the women are taken to a local church. 

"Here it's nice for them to feel that comfort level and to know what will happen to them," said Beth Jacobs, a survivor of the sex trafficking industry.

At 16-years-old, Jacobs says she was forced into prostitution.

"I would do things wrong and they would beat me," she said. "And that's how I learned the rules."

Now she serves as an advocate to the young ladies coming through Project RAISE.

"We don't judge them because we have been there, she said. "And we do know what it feels like and it is scary."

The women have their first court appearance here at the church. From there, they can enter a diversion program, receive health screenings and are given food and clothing.

"If a person wants to leave the life tonight we can make that happen," said Jacobs.

In all, Tucson police picked up 10 women that night and rescued three juveniles from a multi-state sex trafficking investigation.

The adult women were all given options and resources and now, it's up to them.

"Don't get me wrong, it's not all changed and beautiful yet," said Jacobs. "But we're making moves toward that and this is a great starting place."


Rikki Mitchell

Rikki Mitchell

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Rikki Mitchell is a proud University of Arizona grad and joined the KGUN9 team after graduation. Rikki reports for the evening newscasts.