21 arrested in Utah sex trafficking operation. It’s 'not even the tip of the iceberg,’ police say

A recent operation headed up by the Utah County Sheriff's Office to combat human sex trafficking resulted in 21 arrests and three women being rescued, according to the sheriff's office.

But Sheriff's Lt. Jason Randall, head of the investigations unit, said despite the success of the operation, it represented just a small fraction of the overall problem of sex trafficking in Utah and throughout the nation.

"This isn't even the tip of the iceberg. This is like a snowflake on an iceberg. We are barely scratching the service," he said.

On Thursday, the sheriff's office held a press conference to announce the results of an undercover operation held Feb. 14-17. During the campaign, investigators went online looking for both victims of human trafficking, as well as people — mainly men — who were willing to engage with women or children in illegal sexual activities.

A total of 21 people were arrested for investigation of a variety of drug- and trafficking-related charges, such as enticement, sexual solicitation and unlawful sexual conduct, according to the sheriff's office. A probable cause affidavit filed with the Utah County Jail states that one man traveled to Lehi, where police had set up their undercover operation, from Evanston, Wyoming, believing he would be meeting a girl for sex.

Another man, from Sandy, responded to an advertisement set up by undercover investigators on "an online social media site that is known to be used to solicit minors for sexual acts," and offered an officer (posing as a girl) $100 for sex, a second booking affidavit states.

"One of the individuals that showed up brought rope, brought tape, brought toys, brought lingerie. And this person was under the understanding they'd be meeting with a 13-year-old child," Randall said of one of the men arrested. "There's no doubt in my mind that we have saved multiple other child victims because this man is a perpetrator and he showed up with the intent of doing harm to a 13-year-old girl."

During the course of the operation, police also found three women who were being forced into prostitution and were being trafficked through social media platforms.

One of the goals of undercover operations like this, Randall said, is to reach those women who may believe their situation is hopeless and they don't have a choice but to continue being trafficked.

"They don't see a window. They don't see a door out," he said. "In the situation they're in, the victim can't always see the light at the end of the tunnel, or that there even is a light. And all they see is, quite frankly, doom and despair."

Randall said law enforcers meet with each of the victims after they are rescued and let them know what resources are available. But sometimes it takes a couple of tries to convince women and girls trapped in cycles of abuse that there are other options, he said.

There are many victims around Utah, Randall said. Some of them go unnoticed because they "look like us" and "live in our own neighborhoods." The goal, he said, is to identify them and help them turn their lives around.

Ten law enforcement agencies participated in the undercover operation, which received funding from the Malouf Foundation to help pay for equipment used in the strings as well as overtime pay for officers. Randall said the sheriff's office has at least four more similar operations planned for 2022.