COLUMBUS — Seven months ago, Gov. John Kasich lauded the quick thinking of an I-75 rest-stop travel counselor in Bowling Green who was in the right place at the right time to help in the apprehension of a Kentucky man suspected of kidnapping two teenaged girls.
“Without you, we have two girls who may have lost their lives,” the governor told him at the time.
But will there be anyone behind that counter the next time to respond to a similar situation if the Ohio Department of Transportation moves forward with a restructuring plan that eliminates that position and 33 others like it at 11 interstate rest stops?
That information counselor, Enrique Vento of Bowling Green, has since moved on to a new job at ODOT’s Wood County Garage. But his old position at the rest stop would be eliminated. He could not be reached for comment Monday.
“The travel counselors take a lot of pride in serving in every capacity,” said Sally Meckling, spokesman for the Ohio Civil Services Employees Association that represents these workers. “They’re like first responders. They’re not just about maps and brochures.
“We have this employee who saved a girl’s life, saved a victim of human trafficking,” Ms. Meckling said. “He got an award from the governor for it. Now his position’s being eliminated. There will be no one to help those who might be in danger.”
The interstate rest stops are not always manned.
Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols stressed no final decision about the jobs has been made and that there could be a maintenance crew or others at the facilities at times. Mr. Nichols said the tourism information space inside the centers could be offered to local tourism agencies at free or reduced rent, so there may yet be someone behind that counter.
Last June, while a counselor providing directions and tourism information to travelers, Mr. Vento was approached by a 17-year-old Kentucky girl carrying her clothes in a plastic bag. She said she’d been kidnapped and then forced out of a commercial truck at the rest stop. Another girl, 16, was still in the truck.
Mr. Vento alerted the highway patrol, who, banking that the southbound truck was returning to Kentucky, waited along I-75 in Shelby County for the rig to roll by. The second girl was rescued.
The Louisville trucker, Darien Lakeith McKinley, 30, tentatively faces trial on April 8 in Wood County Common Pleas Court for sexually motivated kidnapping. The charge relates to the 17-year-old.
On the same day that he praised Mr. Vento, Mr. Kasich also presented certificates of recognition to Trooper Scott Aker of the Piqua patrol post and Trooper Tommy Vaculick of the Bowling Green post.
Mr. Aker stressed at the time that Mr. Vento’s “quick timing was critical” because the truck passed just 10 to 15 minutes after the patrol car parked along the highway.
Mr. Nichols stressed that the administration has worked to decrease trafficking as an issue in the state, including the hiring of the state’s first full-time anti-trafficking coordinator.
“We might not have [counselors] at rest stops, but we have empowered and trained literally tens of thousands of additional Ohioans to be on the alert for signs of trafficking, to report it,” he said. “There’s a hot line, a public service announcement. …”
Last year Mr. Kasich created a trafficking task force to make recommendations on how to improve the state’s response.
He also signed the Safe Harbor Act, sponsored by Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), into law to toughen penalties on those who prostitute children and buy their services and to shift the state’s focus to treat minors forced to work as prostitutes as victims rather than criminals.
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-221-0496.
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