WASHINGTON The FBI has rescued more than 45 suspected teenage prostitutes, some as young as 13, in a nationwide sweep to remove kids from the illegal sex trade and punish their accused pimps.
Over a three-night initiative called Operation Cross Country, federal agents working with local law enforcement also arrested more than 50 alleged pimps, according to preliminary bureau data.
The teenage prostitutes found in the investigation ranged in age from 13 to 17. In Ohio, about 18 adults were arrested in Toledo and Lima, said FBI spokesman Scott Wilson in Cleveland.
Historically, federal authorities rarely play a role in anti-prostitution crackdowns, but the FBI is becoming more involved as it tries to rescue children caught up in the business.
"The goal is to recover kids. We consider them the child victims of prostitution," said FBI Deputy Assistant Director Daniel Roberts.
"Unfortunately, the vast majority of these kids are what they term 'throwaway kids,' with no family support, no friends. They're kids that nobody wants, they're loners. Many are runaways," Roberts said.
Most of the children are put into the custody of local child protection agencies.
Agents in cities from Miami to Chicago to Anchorage, Alaska took part in the operation.
Special Agent Melissa Morrow of the FBI's Washington office said the operation has put them on the trail of a particular 16-year-old prostitute they still haven't found.
Adult prostitutes arrested during the operation provided key tips about the girl, the agent said.
"She is currently 16 and started when she was 13. Now she is out there recruiting other juveniles as well," said Morrow, adding that finding the girl is "at the top of our list."
The federal effort is also designed to hit pimps with much tougher prison sentences than they would likely get in state criminal courts.
Government prosecutors look to bring racketeering charges or conspiracy charges that can result in decades of jail time.
"Some of these networks of pimps and their organizations are very sophisticated, they're interstate," said Roberts, requiring wiretaps and undercover sting operations to bring charges.
The weekend's roundup marked the third such Operation Cross Country, and is part of a broader federal program launched in 2003 to crack down on the sexual exploitation of children.
Investigators over the past three years have been focusing on child prostitution rings operated by Toledo residents who have recruited teens and taken them out of state for prostitution
In January, a Toledo man who helped operate a prostitution and money laundering ring that reached at least 15 states was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison.
A federal investigation into a child prostitution ring in Harrisburg, Pa., found that nine girls from the Toledo area had been sold as sex slaves as part of the ring.
Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland last month signed into law a bill that increases prison sentences for crimes such as kidnapping that aid human trafficking. It also mandates jail time for convictions on promoting prostitution, illegally using a minor in pornography and endangering children.