A series of raids across metro Atlanta and Macon stoked fears that child sex trafficking is more prevalent than we thought. Johnny Edwards, an investigative reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, describes how the operation perpetuated a narrative of sex trafficking that doesn’t always square with the evidence.

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Johnny Edwards: There was tweets going around saying that 39 children were found in a trailer park or something to that effect. It was almost like the Telephone game. You know, “Why is this not the biggest story in America?” Well, the truth was it was a big story in America; it was certainly a big story in Georgia. And it spread all over the world.

Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. It's Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. In August of this year, federal and state law enforcement made a startling announcement: A series of raids across metro Atlanta and beyond had resulted in, quote, “the rescue of 26 children,” unquote — plus the safe location of 13 others. In announcing a series of arrests sprung from the raids, officials stressed that many of the children were in danger of becoming victims of sex trafficking. Today, Johnny Edwards, an investigative reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, on what he learned from doing a deep dove into the specific cases and how news of Operation Not Forgotten perpetuated a narrative of sex trafficking that doesn't always square with the evidence. Johnny, can you tell us exactly what Operation Not Forgotten was?

Johnny Edwards: Primarily, Operation Not Forgotten was a press release and a press conference. It was a press conference attended by VIPs and dignitaries, including U.S. Marshal Service Director Donald Washington.

Donald Washington: All right. Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for coming today. This is Operation Not Forgotten.

Johnny Edwards: And Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr.

Chris Carr: We're so proud of the work that we are doing with our partners like the U.S. Marshal Service, the GBI and those that are standing up on the podium today.

Johnny Edwards: It created [an] appearance that sex traffickers had been stopped in sex trafficking victims had been rescued across the state and in other states.

Chris Carr: Operation Not Forgotten was designed to locate and recover missing and endangered children in Georgia and beyond, including some who were known to be victims of sex trafficking.

Donald Washington: We've recovered 26 missing and endangered children and we safely located an additional 13. And we arrested nine criminals that are involved, or were involved, with — with these missing children.

Johnny Edwards: When you hear the word “operation” in a law enforcement context, typically you think of a — of a sting or — or an effort to bust one group of bad guys, like one criminal gang or one drug trafficking operation. But this was an operation in a very loose sense. I mean, it was dozens of different cases of missing children, endangered children, and criminal suspects that were cobbled together and packaged and wrapped up and made to appear like one operation.

Steve Fennessy: So it was called an operation, but it was a series of discrete and disconnected law enforcement efforts targeting different people who didn't know each other.

Johnny Edwards: Correct. It was a lot of different cases that ordinarily would not make headlines, would not make the news, would not be on any reporter's radar. And most of them, some of them were — they had embedded news crews with them on some of them. But most of them were not. But by being packaged together and announced in this way with this kind of loaded language like “sex trafficking,” “child exploitation,” it made big headlines and made headlines all around the world.


Newscast: We begin with an incredible story out of Georgia —

Newscast: This afternoon, developing at 5:00, more than two dozen children are now safe. They were all part of a sex trafficking bust involving state and federal agents.

Newscast: This was a two-week operation that netted a handful of arrests.

Newscast: The chief of the Missing Child Unit saying, quote, “When we track down fugitives, it's a good feeling to know that we're putting the bad guy behind bars. But that sense of accomplishment is nothing compared to finding a missing child.”


Steve Fennessy:  Let's first just talk a little bit more about the operation and — and sort of how it was presented. What were they telling us on that day at that press conference?

Johnny Edwards: Well, it's interesting. What they told us, you know, if you read the press release, it's technically accurate. It's just the words they used. It's the things they highlight. And I would assume they know how most reporters, particularly reporters working on deadline, operate. You know, they're going to zero in on — on the most alarming or notable words that are used. So they use words like “child exploitation,” “sex trafficking.” You know, some of these do appear to be legitimate sex trafficking cases. There was one out of Columbus like that, where it sounds like a really awful case. Two teenage girls being — being pimped and exploited by three and eventually four men who were arrested. It took off like wildfire on social media and it evolved into an entirely different narrative. We’ve talked to a professor at Emory who traced the evolution of this in social media and in news coverage. And it goes from being possibly sex traffic to a sex trafficking operation to a sex trafficking enterprise until by the time it gets in the hands of the QAnon set, it's — it's basically part of the whole Pizzagate operation. And it's — it's, you know, completely out of control. And it's inaccurate descriptions. There was tweets going around saying that 39 children were found in a trailer park or something to that effect. And it just — that was — just the way it was almost like the Telephone game. And it turned into being one operation or one location that goes to sort of this narrative that the media lies, this fake news narrative, that it was, you know — "Why is this not the biggest story in America?" Well, the truth was it was a big story in America, it was certainly a big story in Georgia, and it spread all over the world.

Steve Fennessy: What prompted you to look into this? Because the AJC, where you work, had a story after the press conference that was pretty straightforward about “this is what, you know, the authorities said happened. These were the arrests that were made.” And it seemed like, OK, that’s — the AJC had done the story. What made you decide to look into it more deeply?

Johnny Edwards: Well, there was a lot about that story in that press conference that just didn't add up. You know, a lot of people that heard it and read it and moved on still kind of thought, "You know, there's something about that that just seems odd." And then there was a story in the Huffington Post, sort of a deep dive into the statistics and what a lot of these kids who were recovered, what their situations really were, and that got our attention. So my co-writer Jennifer Peebles started pulling public records, pulling police records to look into those nine arrests. And then I joined her in that effort. And as we started to look at the different criminal cases, at first it just appeared these don't have anything to do with each other. For the longest time, we were just like scratching our heads, like, "Did they just take a bunch of different cases that have the sort of aura of sex trafficking and put them all together?" From what we could tell what the marshals told us, it was tied to this list of 78 names that were given to the U.S. Marshals by the GBI back in — back in January. But even that was still sort of loose because, you know, one case ended up being put in the mix that — where the child victims weren't even on that list of 78 names. Regardless, what they did was they took a lot of different cases that otherwise would not make the news, and they put them all together and put them in this press release with words like “child exploitation” and “child sex trafficking” and makes it into a big, big national news story.

Newscast: A massive planning operation behind the scenes was carried out over the course of two weeks in the Atlanta and Macon areas earlier this month. CBS 46 was granted access as the marshals and several partner agencies worked to track down critically missing children.

Steve Fennessy: You'd mentioned that there were some news crews embedded on some of the raids. How typical is that for news media to be invited along on criminal law enforcement operations?

Johnny Edwards: From my experience, it's not typical, but it can be typical when it's something that law enforcement wants to highlight. And in this case, they very much wanted to show officers wearing body armor, going into houses, pulling out children in distress. One of them being the 17-year-old who was found at the Shareef’s house and, you know, in the case of Trevontae Shareef and Kirk Waters, certainly was what the — what the pictures showed

Newscast: On this day, Kirby and her team found a 17-year-old girl who ran away from foster care. She was with a convicted felon who had a gun. They removed her from a potentially dangerous situation.

Steve Fennessy: Social media, and the messaging from authorities themselves, portrayed a simple narrative of sex trafficking in Georgia. But reporting by Johnny Edwards and his colleague Jennifer Peebles at the AJC revealed some complicated truths. That’s ahead. This is Georgia Today.


Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm talking with Johnny Edwards, an investigative reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Johnny, in your reporting, you met Trevontae Shareef. Who is he?

Johnny Edwards: He's a 21-year-old young man. He works for Federal Express. I think he's an aspiring musician. He seems to have some sort of a rap thing going. He lives with his mother in Covington.

Steve Fennessy: Okay.

Johnny Edwards: And he had a girlfriend that he met. He says that he met her through a mutual friend, another young lady that he knew. And this young lady that became his girlfriend lived with her. And he said he had picked her up there at the house before. He said they'd been going together about seven months. He—

Steve Fennessy: And she's how old?

Johnny Edwards: She's 17.

Steve Fennessy: OK.

Johnny Edwards: So both Trevontae and his mother, Eugena, had asked her a few times about her family and she would say, “My family lives far away. They live down in South Georgia. I grew up in foster care.” They knew she'd been in foster care at some point in her past. According to them, they did not know that she was still in the foster care system and was in fact, wanted by authorities.

Steve Fennessy: Wanted by authorities for — for what exactly?

Johnny Edwards: Being a runaway.

Steve Fennessy: OK

Johnny Edwards: So both Trevontae and Eugena told us repeatedly and adamantly that they did not know that Trevontae’s girlfriend was a runaway or that she was, much less, wanted by police.

Eugena Shareef: They was like, "Well, she's 14. She's 15, she’s 16." And I'm like, "Well, which one is how old is the girl?" I don’t know, you know what I’m saying? I don't know anything about this. So they’re like, well, it doesn't matter. She's underage and she's a runaway. I didn't know anything about that.

Steve Fennessy:  So Trevontae is there, his girl — 17-year-old girlfriend is there. Trevontae’s mother's there. It's her house and also her fiance is there. Is that right?

Johnny Edwards: Correct.

Steve Fennessy: And then so what happens?

Johnny Edwards: Well, piecing together the various accounts, it sounds like the marshals and the other officers that are part of the operation were doing surveillance for some amount of time. Trevontae said, he told me he was taking a nap and saw officers running around in his yard out the — out of the window and they came to the door. He says that he objected. He said, “Do you have a warrant? This is my mother's house." In a warrant for his charges, it says that they asked him if the young lady was home. And he said" I — I think she left. She might have gone out the back door." They apparently pushed their way past him. And that's the best thing I can figure out because he says he didn't ever give them consent to come in. So with their guns drawn, federal agents and police officers searched Eugena Shareef’s house for the 17-year-old. Eugena told my co-writer, Jennifer Peebles, that she was questioned by the police about where the girl was.

Eugena Shareef: Yes, they was making it like I was lying and telling them I didn't know where she was. I didn’t; I’m in the room asleep. I don’t know where she’s at. You know what I’m saying? If she ran and hid, you guys are searching the house, my house is not that big.

Jennifer Peebles: Yeah.

Eugena Shareef: You know, so, you’re searching the house, so if you can’t find her maybe she ran out of the back door, I don’t know where she went.

Johnny Edwards: They found the 17-year-old in the garage. You know, Trevontae said, told me, you know, "I really thought she had run out cause I mean, apparently she bolted when she saw the authorities there." So he was charged with obstructing an arrest, presumably because he told them she — she had left the house.

Steve Fennessy: OK. And so when authorities held the press conference and issued a press release about the operation and the number of people who were arrested, Trevontae’s name was among them,

Johnny Edwards: Trevontae’s name and his mother's fiance, Kirk Waters, his name as well.

Donald Washington: One, Kirk Waters, as an example, he was arrested for being in the — while in the company of one of our recovered children. He was charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. He's incarcerated. His bond has been denied.

Johnny Edwards: According to a warrant, they asked him if there was any firearms in the house, and he said yes. One, there's one upstairs under the dresser, I believe, he said, and they went upstairs and found it. And he is a convicted felon. Something in his past. But then they came back about a week later and arrested him then.

Steve Fennessy: OK. So none of the charges surrounding them have anything to do with child sex trafficking or trafficking of any kind, right? In terms of Trevontae and Kirk Waters.

Johnny Edwards: No they are not charged with anything remotely involving sexual crimes or sex trafficking.

Steve Fennessy: OK. In the days and weeks after this operation was made public, what was the impact on the lives of Trevontae?

Johnny Edwards: Well, Trevontae’s and Kirk Waters' mugshots ended up on several stories that I saw around — around the world and on the web. Their mug shots were at the top of the story, like the banner photos. And, you know, the Shareefs told me they had family from out of state calling them up. You know, "What's going on here?" And they had, you know, both acquaintances and strangers from the neighborhood pulling up into the yard and, you know, demanding that Trevontae come outside and fight, or faces these accusations. Trevontae said one guy that was an acquaintance of his said, you know, "I had you around my sister."

Trevontae Shareef: So many people asking me like if I was really doing that. Like, there was some guy telling me I was a molester, I did something with a 3-year-old. They was like "How could you do that?" You know what I’m saying, they painted a real bad picture, for real. It just — it was just traumatizing.

Johnny Edwards: So it was you know, they dealt with stuff like that, just being sort of harassed, threatened, you know, all because of someone living in their house who they just apparently didn't know very well.

Steve Fennessy: So you'd mentioned that there were a couple TV news crews that accompanied the law enforcement officers when they went about some of these raids. What did their coverage and those, you know, hours and days after those raids look like?

Johnny Edwards: Well, if you — if you look at it, it's exactly I think, what the — what the marshals and the federal authorities wanted to put out there, that the police are rescuing these children. These children are at risk. And there was a common thread in a lot of the different stories of a — of them locating a child and the child saying, "I thought you were here to arrest someone else." And the marshals say, "No, we're here for you." And the child, you know, becomes all emotional. “I didn't know anyone was looking for me.” I mean, in at least two different cases there was that similar account. One of them being the 17-year-old who was found at the — at the Shareef’s. Now, if you look at what she posted on Instagram later, it's a totally different account. She — she says she was roughed up and left with bruises and cuts and —

Steve Fennessy: By the authorities.

Johnny Edwards: Exactly. And that — she stated that Trevontae and Kirk were not sex trafficking her. They were, you know — she was living there because she was on the run. She said — and I don't know what's become of her — but in one of those Instagram posts, she wrote, “Now I'm homeless.” So, and then that would lead you to believe she's back out on the street somewhere now.

Steve Fennessy: In reporting your story, did you speak about sort of the potential for misleading the public with authorities who were involved with this?

Johnny Edwards: I did. I actually spoke to the public affairs specialist with the U.S. Marshals who wrote the press release that went with Operation Not Forgotten. And he defended his work. And at the same time, he did concede that some of the language in there might have contributed to this — to this — this Telephone game that happened. But he you know, he said what — what was written in there was technically accurate. This is what these children are at risk for. And I'll say this. I mean, to the U.S. Marshals’ credit, when — when reporters have gone back and tried to fact check and — and verify and contextualize this, they have been cooperative. They have spoken to the reporters and tried to do this. And it's hard to say what they were — if they kind of realized on the back end what — what this created or if that was their intention to begin with. You know, I — I just — I don't know, I can't look inside their heads. It's what they create on the front end. Certainly, you know, the Shareefs would tell you that this did a lot of damage.

Steve Fennessy: I'm just looking at the story that ran in the AJC right after the press conference where it says, “In metro Atlanta alone, authorities estimate 300 young girls are lured into sex trafficking each month,” which that's an astounding figure. But then, you know, I'm also looking at the word estimate. Where do these figures come from?

Johnny Edwards: Well, every time we try to look into those figures and verify them, they turn out to be grossly exaggerated. I don't know where that particular figure came from, but in the past, we've looked at figures for sex trafficking associated with the Super Bowl and they turned out to be exaggerated. We looked into figures back in, you know, a decade ago that were used by Atlanta to apply for a $450,000 grant and found that the U.S. Justice Department's auditors found that where they had stated there were hundreds of victims, that they could only locate four. So this — this has been going on for quite a while. And I think it has to do with Atlanta being a transportation hub. It always has been since its days as Terminus and also all the strip clubs, the conventions that come here. You know, back during the Shirley Franklin administration, there would be signs going up and in bathrooms around conventions. You know, if you see something, say something. And it perpetuated this idea that Atlanta has a serious sex trafficking problem. Well, I mean, in one case we looked at their estimate for how many Asian women were in sex trafficking in Atlanta and that it turned out that if you looked into that figure, it would mean that 1 in every 8 Asian women were victims of sex trafficking. It just — it just defied logic.

Steve Fennessy: Right. Yeah. I'm just — I'm curious about sort of the methodology, because authorities, of course, will say, accurately, that this is a crime that occurs in the shadows. You can't go out and just, you know, count them. So you need to do some extrapolating, I guess, based upon known cases. And so I guess my question for you is: To what degree is it in the interest of authorities to kind of perpetuate this notion because there's a lot of funding attached to it?

Johnny Edwards: Well, I think you answered your own question: There's a lot of funding attached to it. That's — that's the motivation. That was certainly the motivation back in the — in the 2000s. And it's still the motivation now. And you heard William Barr and Ivanka Trump come here and announce the the huge amount of money going into this.

Ivanka Trump: With over a hundred million dollars being announced today in new grants, it's the administration's largest ever investment in Department of Justice grants to combat the scourge of human trafficking — arguably the gravest of human rights violations.

Johnny Edwards: And also, it's just — it's something that it's a clear black-and-white issue.

Steve Fennessy: Sure. How do you argue against fighting human trafficking?

Johnny Edwards: Right. Without appearing to be just, you know, almost as bad as them yourself.

Steve Fennessy: How do big stings like this — or operations when they announced — how do they impact efforts that are already afoot to combat real sex trafficking, like — like real cases of it?

Johnny Edwards: One of the people I interviewed for the story was the executive director of Freedom Network USA, Jean Bruggeman, and she works with survivors of sex trafficking. And she was very frustrated about things like this. She said it actually hinders her efforts.

Steve Fennessy: How?

Johnny Edwards: Well, she said that she finds it sort of disingenuous that the — that the Trump administration would be announcing all of these these efforts to combat sex trafficking when in reality their policies have made it more difficult for sex trafficking victims to come forward, such as maligning immigrants, maligning people who cross the border. And that's a lot of the people that end up in this situation through poverty and desperation and — or people of color. You know, with these, you know, “rioters and looters need to be stopped” rhetoric. It's made people like that afraid to come forward to law enforcement. And I asked her at one point, you know, what does sex trafficking really look like and what does it look like in the South and in America? And she said what it really looks like is people who are pushed into positions of vulnerability by policies that leave people unprotected and unsupported. She said, primarily, it's poor people. It's LGBTQI kids who are running away from home. It's immigrants who don't have access to legal status, and so employers are able to abuse and exploit them. She said that's what it is. It's people who are desperate for housing, desperate for medical care, who will take on any job or try anything to be able to feed their families. And in her opinion, the way to combat this problem is to — is to — is to create lifelines for people like that. The heavy hand of law enforcement, while important, is not the biggest tool in the toolbox.

Steve Fennessy: Right. Regarding the Shareefs, are they still hearing from — from neighbors, from strangers? Are they still having people show up on their doorstep?

Johnny Edwards: I don't think it's happened for a few weeks. I mean, their big problem now is that just their — their legal predicament, from speaking to them. I don't think these folks have a lot of money. They're dealing with court-appointed attorneys. You know, Kirk is still in jail. He's got some kind of hold on him out of Chicago, according to Eugena, and she can't figure out how to get him bond. You know, Trevontae is going to have these criminal charges on his record, not to mention anyone who — who Googles his name is going to see headlines like 39 children rescued from sex trafficking ring. So, you know, they're in a world of hurt. You know, I have been able to tell their story for the newspaper and shed light on what happened. But I was speaking to Eugena and I just, you know — she was just telling me how they're just still really swimming in a lot of problems right now and they don't know what to do.

Steve Fennessy: Our thanks to Johnny Edwards, an investigative reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. As of now, Trevontae Shareef still works at FedEx and Kirk Waters remains in jail. I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show at GPB.org/GeorgiaToday, or anywhere you get podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcast. Have a story idea? Connect with us at GeorgiaToday@GPB.org. Our producers are Sean Powers and Pria Mahadevan. Our intern is Eva Rothenberg. Thanks for listening and we'll see you next week.

Transcript by Eva Rothenberg