Super Bowl sting: 26 nabbed for soliciting sex from minors, 7 for trafficking

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MINNEAPOLIS—A 43-year-old man thought he was texting with a girl when he asked her age and whether she had modeled before. She said she was 14 years old and had not modeled.

The conversation continued, with the man writing, "I promise you will have fun. .... Let's have an adventure? What do you think ..."

He said he wanted to take photos of her and told her that, in the past, he had taken nude photos and it sometimes turned "into a physical experience," according to a search warrant.

The man asked if he could stop over and the person on the other end of the line — an undercover officer — provided him an address to an apartment. As the man approached the door, law enforcement officers arrested him.

The man was among 36 individuals arrested on suspicion of felony solicitation of a minor in an undercover sting in the week leading up to Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis.

Officers also arrested seven people on suspicion of sex trafficking and "rescued 14 women from trafficking operations" — they were not arrested and were referred to social service agencies, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Superintendent Drew Evans said Tuesday.

The operation was led by the Human Trafficking Investigators Task Force, which is housed at the BCA.

The task force conducts similar undercover stings periodically throughout the year, but timed this one to the Super Bowl because officials wanted to draw attention to the issue of sex trafficking happening in communities year-round, Evans said.

Before the Twin Cities hosted Super Bowl LII, planning had been underway to address any accompanying uptick in prostitution or sex trafficking. While people elsewhere have made claims that the Super Bowl is the biggest time for sex trafficking, a University of Minnesota report noted that "the Super Bowl does not appear to have the largest impact" and that different types of events also generate an increase.

"The vast majority" of the men arrested for allegedly soliciting children were from Minnesota, Evans said.

"We didn't necessary expect a significant surge of people from out of town, but it was a time to highlight this terrible crime of those who are soliciting our children online," he said.

The operation, which involved 17 law enforcement agencies and county attorney's offices, ran from Jan. 26 to Saturday.

It was not a scenario in which men were responding to ads made by undercover officers.

Rather, the men were "already online trying to target children" on websites or social media and they happened to encounter undercover officers who were posing as children on the sites, Evans said.

The men tended "to be very up front in their pursuit" of people who they thought were children, Evans said. Prosecutors will be reviewing the cases for potential charges.

Minneapolis police had separate teams working on undercover sex trafficking details around the time of the Super Bowl, said John Elder, a department spokesman. Elder said they expect to have information about how many people they arrested by the end of next week.

Last week, a Missouri man in town to work at Super Bowl Live was charged with offering two VIP tickets to the event in exchange for sex with a pair of teens in an undercover sting.

Anti-sex trafficking efforts in the Twin Cities were focused on the 10 days around the Super Bowl, beginning Jan. 27.

Katie Bloomquist, vice president of the Sex Workers Outreach Project — USA, said attempts by Twin Cities law enforcement and various groups to increase attention on sex trafficking haven't differentiated between sex workers and sex trafficking.

"Increased awareness that lacks nuance creates a sense of fear and further marginalization among the sex worker community," Bloomquist wrote in an email Tuesday. "... Many sex workers did not have the luxury of taking a week off until the Super Bowl was over, and therefore were subjected to working conditions that were made more hostile and risky due to the police's surveillance."

Additional street outreach and shelter beds that were set up and used during the Super Bowl demonstrate the need for more resources year-round, said Terry Forliti, executive director of Breaking Free and Beth Holger-Ambrose, executive director of The Link.

In St. Paul, 31 women — ages 17 to 45 — came through Breaking Free's drop-in shelter and 14 of them stayed at an overnight shelter that was set up temporarily in the nonprofit's University Avenue building, Forliti said.

The majority of the youth whom outreach walkers talked to on the streets were from Minnesota — not in town for the Super Bowl, Holger-Ambrose said.

Some of the teens whom The Link staff helped at their Prior Lake shelter for sexually exploited youth reported they were brought to different hotels during Super Bowl week, but that wasn't different than the experiences they already had of being trafficked, Holger-Ambrose said.

Sarah Horner contributed to this report