Nine charged in elaborate multi-agency sting targeting online predators at Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

Nine charged in elaborate multi-agency sting targeting online predators at Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

Content warning: This story discusses the sex trafficking of minors.

In the last two years, when we’ve thought of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, we’ve thought about it as a superspreader waiting to happen. Remember, this was one of many acts of incompetence by arguably the nation’s most incompetent governor, South Dakota’s Kristi Noem. Under her watch, at last report, there are over 127,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases—over 14% of a total population of 886,000. That kind of incompetence takes some effort.

Last year’s rally was linked to 649 cases in 29 states. While it may be a while before we find out if there’s a similar casualty count for this year’s rally, at least some of the attendees may have something more immediate to worry about than the prospect of COVID-19: they’re facing charges for allegedly enticing minors and child sex trafficking.

The Rapid City Journal has more details.

Six arrests have been made as a result of a sex trafficking operation targeting online predators during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which ran from Aug. 6-15.

At least three of the men live in the area and another is described as an Airman with the U.S. Air Force.

The joint sex trafficking operation involved the South Dakota Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce, the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation, U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, Pennington County Sheriff’s Office and Rapid City Police Department.

During the operation, law enforcement placed multiple advertisements on online websites and mobile applications to communicate with online predators.

By the close of business on Tuesday, an additional three men had been collared. Of the nine men who were arrested, seven are Black Hills residents, one lives in New York state, and one is stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base.

The investigation involved the standard playbook for investigating child sex trafficking, with agents posing as minors in order to smoke out predators. This made for some rather embarrassing moments, to say the least, when these suspected scumbags were arrested. One of them, Stephen Fontenot, claimed he was going to counsel the 12-year-old girl with whom he believed he was chatting. According to Homeland Security Investigations agent Robert Espinosa, this is “a common assertion” by people busted for this. Considering that Fontenot was busted in possession of condoms, one has to wonder about his idea of “counseling.”

Another suspect, Airman First Class James Hanapel, claimed to be concerned about getting into trouble when the “girl” with whom he thought was chatting revealed that she was 14. Apparently Hanapel’s  “concern” was so great that he continued to have sexually charged conversations with her. He subsequently admitted that he intended to have sex with the “girl”—and still had the cojones to plead not guilty.

Another suspect, Christopher Dahl, who made the trip from Wolcott, New York—west of Rochester—allegedly responded to an ad on FetLife that was laden with emojis frequently used to suggest sexual exploitation. He buzzed the person who posted the ad, and told him that he was okay with meeting a 14-year-old girl—as he put it, “the younger the better.” He ultimately agreed to pay $250 for sex with the girl. It was only after his arrest that he found out the ad had been posted by an investigator with the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office. Even in the face of his own messages, Dahl claimed he was trying to “save” the girl.

The nine suspects face some of the most draconian charges in the criminal justice system. Eight of them face charges of attempting to entice a minor via the Internet, which carries a minimum of 10 years in prison. Dahl is charged with attempted commercial sex trafficking of a minor, which carries a minimum of 15 years in prison.

According to Native Hope, if you add in this year’s arrest, this is at least the seventh year in a row that we’ve seen arrests around sex trafficking during Sturgis. Why “at least”? Well, it turns out South Dakota is a major center for sex trafficking. The two major highways that run through the state, I-90 and I-29, are major arteries of the “Midwest Pipeline” that ferries trafficking victims around the country. According to Native Hope, South Dakota’s “peaceful, homegrown mentality” makes a great cover for sex trafficking. It’s very likely that this investigation saved a number of Native American women and children; Native Americans are at higher risk for trafficking than any other ethnic group and account for a whopping 40% of trafficking victims in the state. 

So it looks like some good may have come out of Sturgis after all. Some of the worst people in the world are being brought to justice.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect final COVID-19 case numbers from the 2020 event per the CDC, and its headline has been changed.

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