Undercover sex-trafficking operation results in 9 arrests

By Justin Wier

jwier@vindy.com

YOUNGSTOWN

An undercover operation led by the Ohio Attorney General and Mahoning County Sheriff’s offices resulted in the arrests of nine men, including one accused of arranging a sexual encounter with a person he believed was a juvenile.

Jamie Webb, 31, of Salem, was arrested Thursday on charges of attempted unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, importuning, possession of criminal tools and attempted sexual imposition. Webb exchanged text messages with an undercover officer he believed was a 15-year-old girl, the attorney general’s office said.

Police also arrested Sohail Awan, 31, of Youngs-town; Michael Canaday, 53, of East Palestine; Joseph Geraci, 61, of Verona, Pa.; Ryan Grossman, 42, of Aliquippa, Pa.; Gary Harmon, 46, of New Castle, Pa.; Charles Hart, 63, of Cochranton, Pa.; Christopher Jones, 42, of Berlin Center; and Paul McHugh, 32, of Salem, on charges of soliciting.

Hart and Canaday also face charges of possessing criminal tools, and Awan faces charges of possession of a controlled substance and drug paraphernalia.

“The demand for the sex trade is a major driving force behind human trafficking, and that is why undercover operations like this are so important,” Attorney General Mike DeWine said in a news release. “We want would-be purchasers of sex to remember that they could be arranging to meet with law enforcement.”

The suspects responded to ads posted online by law enforcement and met undercover officers in North Lima.

Many earlier undercover operations in the county targeting sex crimes involved undercover officers setting up appointments with women who posted ads online.

Susan Laird, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition Against Human Trafficking, said targeting men and reducing demand is a better tactic.

“This is more than [prostitution],” she said. “This is trafficking, and the only way to make a real difference is to go after the men, and not the victims, who are the women.”

Parents raised concerns because the meetings took place at Memorial Park, which abuts a field where children were practicing football.

A spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General’s office said a significant number of these types of crimes occur at public parks.

“That’s something the public should be aware of every day,” the spokesman said.

He added that with more than two dozen law-enforcement officers present Thursday, the park likely was safer than it is on a typical day.

In addition to the sheriff’s and attorney general’s offices, the Austintown Police Department, Beaver Township Police Department, Ohio Adult Parole Authority, Mahoning County Emergency Management Administration, Mahoning County Prosecutor’s Office, New Middletown Police Department, Ohio Investigative Unit and Ohio State Highway Patrol also participated.

The attorney general’s office plans to conduct additional undercover operations in the future.

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