Staff Report

Three Fresno men were arrested in Santa Barbara County on charges of pimping and pandering as part of a statewide crackdown on human trafficking in late January, according to the county Sheriff’s Department.

In conjunction with Human Trafficking Awareness Month, more than 80 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies participated in Operation Reclaim and Rebuild from Jan. 25 to 27.

Results announced Jan. 30 at a press conference in downtown Los Angeles included the recovery of 56 adult and minor victims, arrests of 178 men for solicitation, and arrests of another 30 men for pimping. Statewide, 510 people were arrested and all of the victims were directed toward services that could help them.

In Santa Barbara County, undercover investigators contacted people advertising on an online escort page and negotiated a sex act in exchange for money.

Investigators then contacted the individuals who were advertising and tried to determine if they were being exploited.  Four women were contacted for prostitution and then were offered help from Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office advocates who are specially trained in human trafficking issues.

Two other people from Las Vegas and one from San Gabriel who were contacted during the operation were also offered services from the trained advocates.

Arrested in Santa Barbara County were Ernest McDowell III, 29, Keilon Ernest Palms Sr., 30, and Tavari Devon Evans, 28, all of Fresno, for allegedly pimping and pandering. Evans was also booked on charges of possession of a controlled substance, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

Local agencies participating in addition to the Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office were the Santa Barbara and Santa Maria police departments.

“Members of law enforcement in Santa Barbara County will continue to conduct proactive operations in order to rescue victims of human trafficking and arrest the suspects who are preying on the vulnerable population within our communities,” said Lt. Brian Olmstead, who supervised the operation locally. “We hope the public will be vigilant in reporting any suspicious activity that could be related to human trafficking. (Some) … victims of human trafficking have been rescued solely by citizens who reported seeing suspicious behavior.”

In September 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded $1.34 million to Santa Barbara County to help fund its Human Trafficking Task Force. The grant funding is intended to help provide investigative resources but also to support victim and rape crisis advocates in providing services for trafficking victims.

The Santa Barbara County Human Trafficking Task Force includes participants from local and federal law enforcement, behavioral wellness, faith organizations, child welfare services, and health care providers.

During the grant’s first year, the task force has identified more than 45 victims, arrested 15 pimps and arrested 35 people in Santa Barbara County for arranging to purchase sex, according to the Sheriff’s Department.