Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today
Seven men arrested during a sex-trafficking sting in northern Minnesota have been charged with solicitation, including two workers for an Enbridge pipeline contractor.
The arrests brought renewed calls for fighting sex trafficking along the Canadian company’s Line 3 project, which stretches through northern Minnesota on its route from Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wisconsin.
“Those arrests aren’t surprising but it’s very sad when what you’ve been warning about for years actually comes to light,” said Sheila Lamb of the Minnesota Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Task Force.
The two pipeline workers – one from Texas and one from Missouri – were employed at the time of their arrests by Precision Pipeline, an Enbridge contractor based in Wisconsin.
In a statement sent to Indian Country Today, Precision wrote, “The two workers were terminated immediately when the company learned they had violated our zero tolerance for illegal behavior.”
Enbridge also confirmed that two workers were among those arrested.
“Enbridge has zero tolerance for illegal and exploitive behavior,” the company said in a statement emailed to Indian Country Today. “Such behaviors from anyone associated with this project will not be tolerated and are immediate grounds for dismissal.”
The sting was conducted Feb. 17-19 in Itasca County by a Human Trafficking Investigators Task Force led by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehensions in coordination with the Tribes United Against Sex Trafficking Task Force, known as TRUST, and the Itasca County Sheriff’s Office.
Pipeline opponents have long warned that the Line 3 project would increase incidents of sex trafficking, citing reports that show correlations between extractive industries such as mining and pipeline construction and sex trafficking.
A 2019 report by First Peoples Worldwide at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a report by the U.S. State Department have shown that areas in which extractive industries operate experience higher rates of sex trafficking.
“We testified in 2016 during the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission hearings that the Line 3 project would absolutely increase sex trafficking,” Lamb told Indian Country Today.
The men were arrested during the three-day sting after talking with undercover agents on what law enforcement officials described as “sex advertisement websites.” The men were arrested when they arrived at an arranged meeting place for sex, according to officials.
Six men were charged with solicitation of a person believed to be a minor. Another was charged with solicitation to engage in prostitution and with carrying a pistol without a permit, officials said.
They were booked into the Itasca or Pennington county jails.
The Duluth News Tribune reviewed the criminal complaints and identified two men as workers for Precision Pipeline: Matthew Ty Hall, 32, of Mount Pleasant, Texas, and Michael Kelly West, 53, of Rolla, Missouri
Hall was charged with solicitation of a person believed to be a minor. West was charged with solicitation to engage in prostitution and with carrying a pistol without a permit, according to law enforcement officials.
According to the Duluth News Tribune, West said in a statement given at the Itasca County Jail that he worked for Precision Pipeline and had arranged to buy sex because he was 1,000 miles from home.
The complaint said that West told officers he learned about the website from rumors at work and began texting an undercover officer posing as an underage girl named “Jasmine.” When he said he did not want to have sex with a minor, the undercover officer arranged for a fictitious older sister to meet him for sex for $100, the newspaper reported.
He was arrested when he arrived for the meet-up. Officers found a loaded handgun in his vehicle for which he did not have a permit, the paper reported.
Hall also responded to an advertisement, and expressed concerns that Jasmine was reportedly 16 years old, the Duluth News Tribune reported, citing the complaint. He told the undercover officer that he was worried the advertisement was part of a sting, but agreed to meet up anyway.
He was arrested after driving several times by the meeting house.
Awareness training falls short, critics say
When Lamb and other advocates again raised concerns about sex trafficking and Line 3 earlier this year, Enbridge spokespersons rejected their concerns.
“Enbridge absolutely rejects the allegation that human trafficking will increase in Minnesota as a result of the Line 3 replacement project; Enbridge will not tolerate this exploitation by anyone associated with our company or its projects,” the company wrote in a statement to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
While seeking permits for the pipeline route, Enbridge developed and implemented a Human Trafficking Prevention Plan in cooperation with several tribal and state entities. In addition to requiring that all workers receive human trafficking awareness training prior to beginning work on the project, the plan also included development of an awareness campaign called Your Call Minnesota (yourcallmn.org).”
Jason Goward, of the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe and a former employee of Precision working on Line 3, told Indian Country Today that his sex-trafficking awareness training consisted mainly of watching a 20-minute film, “Our State. Their Lives. Your Call,” and a short presentation presented by Truckers Against Trafficking, a nonprofit organization that provides sex trafficking awareness training for the trucking, bus and energy industries.
“Our State. Their Lives. Your Call,” was created through a collaboration with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Minnesota Human Trafficking Investigators Task Force and Tribes United Against Sex Trafficking (TRUST).
Lamb said that Minnesota’s proactive work on sex-trafficking work and legislation, such as the creation of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Task Force, contributed to the success of sting.
Lamb lauded the work of law enforcement in the sting, but she questioned Enbridge’s commitment to combatting sex trafficking.
“These trainings are great but you’re not going to change the perpetrator’s behavior by having them watch a video,” she said.
“Enbridge needs to overcome their disconnect and denial over sex trafficking.”
Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.