FORREST COUNTY, Miss. (WDAM) - An undercover investigation aimed at taking down people who prey on children online led to four arrests in the Pine Belt.
WDAM got an exclusive look behind the scenes into a major operation leading to the arrests in Forrest County.
“Knowing that there are children out there who are being sought, groomed and so terribly treated by adult males to me it’s just a matter of justice,” said Sandy Middleton, executive director for the Center for Violence Prevention.
The Pine Belt Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force is actively at work trying to stop the exploitation of children through operations targeting child predators.
"It's evil and it's the worst type of victimization you could ever see," said Middleton.
The truth behind the reality of abuse.
“These girls are starved, beaten, raped, chained to trees and locked in trunks," Middleton said. “They have these terrible experiences.”
Middleton said pimps capitalizing on vulnerable children is happening in Pine Belt communities. This organization is an advocate for victims and is among the task force encompassing federal, state and local law enforcement agencies working together to save victims and take down predators.
“The same kind of person that would talk and chat online with a child is the same kind of person that would possibly pay for a child in a human trafficking kind of scenario,” said Forrest County Chief Investigator Captain Phillip Hendricks.
In a secret location, hidden cameras were recording, undercover surveillance was in place and fake adds within online dating apps were sent out in attempt to lure in potential pimps.
“And then we had chatters who were actually talking to the people that replied to the adds,” said Hendricks. “The chatters would identify themselves as minors. If the person continued to talk to them and want to talk about sex or transmit sexually explicit pictures or ask to meet for sex, then we would identify that person as a suspect.”
Hendricks said throughout this operation, adult men were taken down walking into a room where they thought they were meeting a child. Instead, the alleged predators came face to face with a team of specially trained undercover federal, state and law enforcement officers.
“We arrested three people who actually showed up to meet with a minor for sex and another person had sent sexually explicit pictures and had asked to meet for sex, but didn’t actually show up,” Hendricks said. “That person was also arrested.”
Four men were arrested during this operation and are now facing child exploitation charges in Forrest County. Those taken down during the operation include Desmond Alexander Vanburen, Marc C. Porter, Chadwick Wilson and Ellicio Murillo, Junior.
“We’ve seen from our other investigations that a lot of time human traffickers try to create this fake dating relationship with their victims first,” said Hendricks. “So, we kind of expected that some of the people we might be arresting might be traffickers trying to recruit new victims.”
This investigation is ongoing and more charges could be coming as well as more arrests in this case. Hendricks said it’s critical parents and guardians help in this battle to protect children in our communities.
“I hope that parents will see the real danger that is out there, be involved in their children’s lives especially in their online activity,” Hendricks said.
With human trafficking and child exploitation, in some cases, it’s common to see abusers forcefully exploit physical and mental torture among it’s victims, according to Hendricks. Those horrifying stories and images play a part in the continued fight for the innocent.
Middleton said through the unraveling of violence and predatory attempts, there is a light shining on the other end; survivors and those who are invested in stopping the grave violation of human rights.
"The people have come to the task force who want to work these cases," said Middleton. "Somebody didn't send them. They are here because they want to be here and they want to work these cases. We as a community have to take a stand and stand up for these kids. Not just the kids, but adult women too."
If you are suspicious of human trafficking or child exploitation you can call the Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-3737-888.
Operation Take a Seat was a coordinated effort between multiple law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and service organizations.
Law enforcement agencies that participated in the operation were the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Homeland Security, Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, Mississippi Department of Corrections, the Forrest County Sheriff’s Office, Hattiesburg Police Department, Purvis Police Department, Waveland Police Department, Meridian Public Schools Campus Police Department and the Hinds County Sheriff’s Office.
Not-for-profit organizations that provided volunteers and logistical support were Klaas Kids, FREE International, Called2Rescue, Anonymity Rescue Ministries and the Center for Violence Prevention.
Legal consultations in the planning of the operation were provided by the Southern District of Mississippi U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office, 12th Circuit District Attorney’s Office, 15th Circuit District Attorney’s Office and the Forrest County Prosecutor.