By Johnny Edwards – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Jennifer Peebles – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Anti-sex trafficking announcement created flurry of social media misinformation.
Trevontae Shareef says he didn’t know that his girlfriend of seven months was a runaway from state foster care. At least, not until early August, he said, when about a dozen federal agents and police officers clad in body armor showed up at the front door of his mother’s house in Covington and pushed their way past him.
Guns drawn, they searched the house until they found the 17-year-old girl hiding under furniture in the garage.
“We were all just shocked,” Shareef, 21, said.
Federal authorities weren’t just looking to find a missing teenager that day, but also to make a public impression. They allowed a TV news crew to tag along for the raid and record footage from outside the house. Neighbors watched from their lawns as officers brought Shareef and his mother’s fiancé, Kirk Waters, outside and handcuffed them.
Three weeks later, both of their names would be included among the arrests made during the U.S. Marshals Service’s “Operation Not Forgotten,” described as a two-week joint law enforcement effort that located 39 missing and endangered children, ages 3 to 17, and involved the arrest of nine “criminal associates.”
Public announcements about the operation, vague on details but full of loaded terms, led to weeks of social media misinformation about the breakup of a massive child sex trafficking ring in Georgia. “39 kids were just recovered from traffickers in Georgia,” went a common Twitter trope.
However, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution examined the criminal charges stemming from the operation and found that, by combining a variety of cases, federal authorities had fostered a false perception that confused the public and may have harmed some people who were swept into the narrative. Some experts on child exploitation say such an oversimplification hurts the effort to combat sex trafficking and question whether the presidential election factored into the announcement.
While the operation was described as a two-week effort, more than half of those arrested had been in jail for months before the U.S. Marshals’ public announcement. The charges involved six unrelated cases. Of the nine people charged, five are accused of sex trafficking or sexual crimes against children.
Shareef faces two misdemeanor charges related to the raid, neither of them sex-related. But his jail booking photo spread around the world under headlines such as “U.S. Marshals Find 39 Missing Children During Massive Sex Trafficking Bust In Georgia — 9 Suspects Arrested.” He and his mother told the AJC that angry people have been pulling up to their house, accusing him of sex trafficking or sexually abusing a 3-year-old. One group brandished guns and challenged Shareef to step outside and fight, he said.
“They’re calling me a sex offender,” Shareef said. “They’re calling me a child molester. It just hurts.”
The circumstances of the located children also call into question information from the Marshals Service that stressed the sex trafficking angle.
“These missing children were considered to be some of the most at-risk and challenging recovery cases in the area,” a news releasesaid, “based on indications of high-risk factors such as victimization of child sex trafficking, child exploitation, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and medical or mental health conditions. Other children were located at the request of law enforcement to ensure their wellbeing.”
About nine children, including the 17-year-old, appear to be connected to the arrests. According to the state Attorney General’s Office, which took part in the operation, 15 children were suspected to be victims of sex trafficking.
But two of the other juveniles were wanted on homicide warrants, and another is a person of interest in a murder investigation. Eleven children are thought to have gang affiliations.
Dave Oney, the U.S. Marshals public affairs specialist who wrote the release, said the language about child sex trafficking might have contributed to the story being misconstrued, but it’s an accurate description of some factors that put children at risk.
“People read headlines, and the headlines are written sensationally,” he said, “so they don’t read into the last three or four paragraphs of the story anymore.”
The U.S. Marshals has since followed up Operation Not Forgotten with announcements of “Operation Safety Net,” which reportedly recovered 35 children in the Cleveland, Ohio, area; “Operation Homecoming Indy,” which reportedly recovered eight children in the Indianapolis area; and, last week, “Operation Summer Rescue,”involving 11 recovered runaways around New Orleans.
“People read headlines, and the headlines are written sensationally, so they don’t read into the last three or four paragraphs of the story anymore.”
– Dave Oney, the U.S. Marshals public affairs specialist
Experts on child exploitation have complained that the chest thumping on one of President Trump’s hot-button issues may be leaving the public misinformed about the real issues that lead to sexual exploitation, such as poverty and desperation.
“Using the terms ‘human trafficking’ and ‘sex trafficking’ is what gets attention, and it’s been an emphasis of this administration to claim progress,” Jean Bruggeman, executive director of Freedom Network USA, said. “But what I know, as the executive director of a coalition of service providers across the country working with actual human trafficking survivors, is that the efforts of this administration have pushed people further into the shadows and have made it harder to get services and support for trafficking survivors.”
One of the Atlanta-based coordinators of Operation Not Forgotten, U.S. Marshals Senior Inspector Josue Rivera, said it had nothing to do with election-year politics, but rather the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act. The 2015 law gave federal marshals authority to assist state and local police in the search for missing children, regardless of whether an adult fugitive was involved.
“It’s a new mission for us, so it’s something we’ve been trying to get going for a while, ever since Congress gave us that authority to do that,” Rivera said. “These are things you’re going to keep seeing.”
The senior marshal said Operation Not Forgotten was never meant to be portrayed as one big human trafficking ring. What ties the cases together, Rivera said, is a list of 78 names of missing children from the Atlanta and Macon metro areas, compiled by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and handed over to U.S. Marshals in January.
Working with the GBI and FBI, the agency set out to find as many as possible, with two weeks of intensive searches planned for March. The coronavirus pandemic delayed those plans until August.
Meanwhile, some children on the list returned on their own or turned out to already be in safe locations. In other cases, the agency moved forward early, Rivera said.
For example, marshals learned that a 3-year-old girl had been taken to Florida by her noncustodial father, who had been accused of sexually abusing his older daughter. In late June, marshals and local police found the toddler at a Red Roof Inn in the Tampa Bay area with James Garcia, who was charged with aggravated child molestation and incest involving the older daughter.
Also arrested with Garcia at the hotel in June were Sally Garcia, charged with interference with child custody, and a second woman, Faye Smith, charged with child custody interference and a parole violation. All three made the Operation Not Forgotten arrest list.
“Using the terms ‘human trafficking’ and ‘sex trafficking’ is what gets attention, and it’s been an emphasis of this administration to claim progress. But … the efforts of this administration have pushed people further into the shadows and have made it harder to get services and support for trafficking survivors.”
– Jean Bruggeman, executive director of Freedom Network USA
In early August, during the two-week timespan of the operation, Columbus police charged three men with sex trafficking two runaway teenage girls. Only Zachary Bailey, accused of paying for hotel rooms and serving as the lookout while sex acts took place, made the list of arrests because he was present when U.S. Marshals found one of the girls, Rivera said.
In at least one case, though, an arrest became part of the story without the victims being on the GBI’s list of 78.
In February, Conyers police responded to a domestic dispute at an apartment complex and found a barefooted 16-year-old girl, partially clothed, who said she’d been raped by a man named “Mo,” identified as Moradeyo Bandele, according to police records. Investigators linked him to three other sex crime victims who were also runaways, said Conyers Police Capt. Kim Lucas.
Lucas said the department sought U.S. Marshals’ help in apprehending Bandele in Florida, locating two other victims in metro Atlanta and locating another in South Carolina.
Rivera said since those searches happened in March, when the operation was originally scheduled before the pandemic delay, Bandele’s arrest was included.
Judith Miller, an associate history professor at Emory University who teaches a class on “fake news,” tracked Operation Not Forgotten’s course on social media and in news coverage as it evolved into descriptions of a “criminal enterprise” on cable TV news shows, then became a subject of the false mythology of QAnon.
QAnon, a cult-like network of far-right conspiracy theorists, asserts that Satan-worshipping pedophiles secretly control the media and are locked in an existential battle with President Trump. Miller and a student researcher found many social media posts about Operation Not Forgotten containing “#savethechildren” or “#saveourchildren” — some of the same hashtags used when QAnon promoters spread false tales about a home goods company using high-priced storage cabinets as a front for child trafficking.
ExploreSupercharged conspiracy theory takes root in Georgia
One of the early steps in the Marshals story’s online evolution, Miller found, was Gov. Brian Kemp’s retweet of a Channel 2 Action News story on the operation. “We’ll continue to work around the clock to bring an end to human trafficking and ensure the perpetrators of this evil industry know they have no place in our state,” the governor tweeted.
Three days later, a Republican congressional candidate in New York tweeted, “The media Won’t tell you what Happened with U.S. Marshall’s saving 39 kids & that Q Supporters are right POTUS is putting a END TO THE CABAL!”
That message has been retweeted 5,000 times and liked 10,000 times. A tweet by conservative activist Charlie Kirk asking, “How is this not the biggest story in America right now?” was shared 18,500 times and liked 52,700 times. When Trump retweeted former Boston Red Sox pitcher and BlazeTV commentator Curt Schilling thanking him for the rescue of nearly 200 children across three states from a “child traffic ring,” Trump was liked and retweeted almost 60,000 times.
Miller noted the announcement of 39 located children came toward the end of a tumultuous summer amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and as Trump, behind in the polls, postured himself as a “law and order” president.
“This is PR in the midst of other kinds of chaos,” Miller said. “The way that people are receiving this, in the comments, are, ‘See, there isn’t any good news. Everybody is dumping on Trump about Covid, the Covid hoax.’”
‘I was on the run’
A news account of the raid on the Shareefs’ home had a dramatic touch about the discovery of the 17-year-old. Rivera, the U.S. Marshal senior inspector, was quoted by Channel 2 saying her case stuck out the most to him, that she had been trafficked since she was 12 years old, and that she didn’t know the two men arrested “except as her traffickers.”
“She told us she didn’t realize anyone cared enough to look for her,” Rivera told the TV station. “She was thinking we were there to arrest someone else. We told her, ‘We’re here for you.’”
Almost two months after their arrests, neither of the two men faces any charges of sex crimes. Asked if he would still characterize the two men as traffickers, Rivera told the AJC he’s not sure because the state Attorney General’s office is still investigating.
But the 17-year-old has stuck up for the two and offered a different account of the raid. “None of this is true y’all,” she wrote in an Instagram post. “They never pimped anyone out or sex trafficked anyone. I was living there Bc I was on the run … ”
She also described marshals and FBI agents storming into the house that day, slamming her against a wall and leaving cuts and bruises on her arms and legs. “Now I’m homeless,” she wrote on Instagram. She did not respond to a message from the AJC.
Shareef and his mother, Eugena, said they did not know the girl was wanted by police.
Shareef told the AJC that he considered their relationship serious and that they had talked about getting their own place together.
He’s facing misdemeanor charges of interference with custody and obstruction. Because police found a handgun in an upstairs bedroom, his mother’s fiancé faces a charge of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and remains in the Newton County jail.
“This is a mess,” Eugena Shareef said. “You got people thinking that they’re sex traffickers and messing with underage kids and stuff like that. We don’t do stuff like that.”
Operation Not Forgotten, by the numbers
Missing child cases: 78
Missing children recovered: 39
Cases closed for other reasons, such as self returns, found by other agencies, or never missing to begin with: 26
Cases still active: 13
Recovered children who are suspected sex trafficking victims: 15
Recovered children with gang affiliations: 11
Recovered children with active homicide warrants: 2
Dates of intensive searches: Aug. 3 to Aug. 14
The nine arrests:
Moradeyo Bandele — Arrested Feb. 25 in Port St. Lucie, Fla., on a warrant for rape out of Conyers
Trayon Moore — Arrested April 14 in DeKalb County on warrants for sex trafficking and pimping
James Garcia — Arrested June 22 in Clearwater, Fla., on warrants for aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy and incest
Sally Garcia — Arrested June 22 in Clearwater, Fla., on a charge of interstate interference with child custody
Faye Smith — Arrested June 22 in Clearwater, Fla., on charges of interstate interference with child custody and a parole violation
Stanson Causey — Registered sex offender arrested Aug. 6 in Jasper on a probation violation warrant
Trevontae Shareef — Arrested Aug. 6 in Newton County on charges of interference with custody and obstruction
Zachary Bailey — Arrested Aug. 7 in Columbus on charges including sex trafficking, pimping and enticing a child for indecent purposes
Kirk Waters — Arrested Aug. 14 in Newton County on a charge of felon in possession of a firearm
Source: Georgia Attorney General’s Office, U.S. Marshals Service, police and court records