Nine people were taken into custody at in Oconee County Thursday, charged with pandering and prostitution following an undercover investigation by the and Barrow County Sheriff's Office. A 34-year-old Monroe man was one of the men arrested.
Undercover deputies placed multiple ads for solicitation on the free classified ads website Backpage.com. and also responded to existing ads, Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry said. Plans for the operation had been in the works for about two months, he said.
"Backpage has come to our attention lately on a couple of different cases, so we decided we'd take a look at it and see if we had an issue here in Oconee County," Berry explained. "As you can see, in a very short period of time, we made nine arrests."
"At one point, there were six people in custody in the adjoining hotel room. They just started coming in back to back to back."
The Sheriff's Office was already aware of Backpage to a limited degree, but after a recent incident where a Jefferson by a woman he met on the website, deputies "refocused efforts on it," Berry said.
A into the Gwinnett County Jail earlier in the month, accused of using the website for prostitution, as was former Gwinnett County public information.
"The sex trade industry has gone online, and that makes it difficult to track in the traditional way, so you've got to be more and more creative about how you work these types of cases," Berry explained.
The sting began around noon and wrapped by 7 p.m., he said.
"SpringHill Suites cooperated with us," he said. "They wanted to make sure they got the word out that they were not going to tolerate this in their hotel."
Berry said he was surprised by the frequency of the calls and the number of arrests. Within five minutes of placing the ads, there were responses, he said.
"At one point, there were six people in custody in the adjoining hotel room," he said. "They just started coming in back to back to back."
The operation had to be shut down for a few minutes in order to transport those six prisoners to the truck, Berry said.
The district's attorney's office was consulted ahead of time, and in all of the cases where an arrest was made, there was an item of value exchanged for an agreed-upon sex act, he said. One man who showed up wasn't charged because his actions didn't meet the elements of the crime, Berry said.
Arrested on charges of pandering were: Matthew Lee Becker, 27, of Athens; Myron Linwerd Harbell, 33, of Winder ; Kenneth Matthew Dean, 22, of Athens; Michael Jason Warner, 34, of Monroe; Micah D. Thorp, 26, of Athens; Rodney J. Packard, 42, of Covington; UGA employee Bobby James Stanton, 51, of Athens; and William Ashley Barnett, 39, of Washington. Megan A. Beeman, 23, of Lawrenceville, was charged with prostitution. Bonds were set at $1,000 each.
Undercover deputies are often shared between counties on a variety of cases, he said, but using deputies from out of town was especially necessary in this case so they wouldn't be recognized.
"The safety of the undercover deputy is paramount," Berry said. "Some people tend to get really upset when they realize they're going to go to jail, so we make it as safe as we can."