By Richard Rourk
A joint effort by regional law enforcement has yielded several arrests in Unicoi County.
The two-day undercover operation by special agents with the TBI Human Trafficking Unit, the Erwin Police Department, the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Office, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, the Jonesborough Police Department, and the office of 1st District Attorney General Ken Baldwin resulted in the arrest of several men accused of seeking illicit sex from minors.
“I asked the TBI to come and run the operation here as it hadn’t been done in Erwin and we had been getting calls about older males reaching out to underage females on social media,” Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson told The Erwin Record.
“I think you will see more regional cooperation in the future,” Tilson said. “We were able to use two investigators from each agency and team them up with the TBI agents without depleting anyone’s resources for patrol and run a complex operation we otherwise wouldn’t have had the resources to do.”
Over two days beginning June 9, as part of an undercover investigation aimed at addressing human trafficking in East Tennessee, authorities placed several decoy advertisements on websites linked to prostitution and commercial sex cases.
“This was an operation that was computer-based and focused on Unicoi County, but that’s all I can elaborate on at this time,” said Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley. “These joint operations work, and we will continue to work with neighboring law enforcement agencies in the future.”
The focus of the operation was to identify individuals seeking to engage in commercial sex acts with minors. As a result of the operation, authorities arrested seven men and booked them into the Unicoi County Jail. Mark Daniel Higgins, 59, Asheville, North Carolina, was booked on solicitation of a minor by electronic means and solicitation of a minor charges.
Jeffrey Lynn Rhoney, 61, Arden, North Carolina, was booked on two counts of trafficking for a commercial sex act, two counts of solicitation of a minor and purchase of alcohol for someone under 21 charges.
Steven Charles Mayes, 47, Morristown, was booked on trafficking for a commercial sex act and solicitation of a minor charges.
Benjamin Bouchot Moreno, 51, Asheville, was booked on two counts of trafficking for a commercial sex act and two counts of solicitation of a minor.
Jose Raul Delgado Andrade, 41, Johnson City, was booked on trafficking for a commercial sex act and solicitation of a minor.
Alberto Vazquez Gonzalez, 46, Bristol, Virginia, was booked on trafficking for a commercial sex act and solicitation of a minor charges.
Randall Dale Staton, 54, Bakersville, North Carolina, was booked on trafficking for a commercial sex act and solicitation of a minor charges.
Tilson said he was pleased by the success of the joint operation. “I was impressed with the level of commitment from the officers and agents working 12 to 14 hours a day and their ability to integrate for this operation,” Tilson said. “The TBI team, some from as far away as Memphis, were extremely knowledgeable and professional and our neighboring agencies are always great to work with and jumped at offering assistance.”
Information about human trafficking and TBI’s efforts to address such crimes can be found online at www.ITHasToStop.com.