Sheriff Mike Boudreaux held a press conference on August 11, revealing that an ongoing undercover investigation, called Operation Baby Face, had culminated with multiple arrests that morning involving human trafficking. The investigation began in May and more than 70 deputies served 15 search and arrest warrants early on the morning of the eleventh.
Boudreaux described human trafficking as a type of modern-day slavery that involves the use of force, fraud or coercion for some type of labor or sex act.
Boudreaux was joined at the press conference by Dr. Cheryl Duerksen, director of Health & Human Services Agency, Anita Ortiz, Division Manager for Child Welfare Services, and Caity Meader, executive director of Family Services of Tulare County.
“Safety for our children is an absolute must and priority each and every day,” the sheriff said. “Crimes against children can easily shock the senses and this case is no exception. What detectives recently uncovered will be upsetting to people in Tulare County and the information provided will be limited to protect the victims, some of whom are as young as 14.”
Using the newly created Cyber Crimes Unit, detectives issued search warrants with various social media sites and cell phone numbers and combed through 50,000 pages of messages to identify victims. The Sheriff’s Office ultimately identified more than 23 juveniles and 29 adults, including two males who were sexually exploited for monetary gain.
Boudreaux created the Cyber Crimes Unit with a vision to combat crimes committed via the internet.
“We could not wait any longer to take down this operation,” he said. “This is definitely a human trafficking case. Because of the safety and welfare of the victims involved the department had to take action immediately.”
Three men, including the ring leader, were arrested. Antonio Alvarez, 34, of Visalia was charged with 30 felonies, including 12 counts of human trafficking. Other charges include child molestation, pandering, solicitation, pimping, and possession of child pornography.
Anthony Raya, 19, of Dinuba, was identified as the traffic ring’s driver. Joel Mancini, 40, of Visalia, is considered Alvarez’ personal assistant. Each were charged with two felony counts of human trafficking and one felony count of pimping.
Also arrested on the eleventh were 11 co-conspirators. Co-conspirator is the term used to identify the ring’s clients or “johns.”
Deputies were on the lookout for a twelfth co-conspirator, Jose Manzo, 23, of Visalia, who had a 16-year-old female victim with him. Manzo was captured by Tulare County sheriff’s detectives around 5pm the following day. Manzo is being charged with unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. His bail has been set at $145,000.
The family of the victim, Cyara Hodson, pleaded on Facebook for help in finding the girl, who they knew was with Manzo.
The co-conspirators have been charged with misdemeanor counts of engaging and agreeing to engage in prostitution. They are: Jesus Aguirre, 40 of Tulare, Gary Coffman, 45 of Tulare, Jackie Coffman, 40 of Tulare, Kary Collins, 29 of Visalia, Scott Kroner, 57 of Visalia, Jeremy Reis, 31 of Visalia, Jose Reynoso, 34 of Culter, Louis Soto, 43 of Visalia and Billy Turner, 23 of Farmersville.
One unidentified john was discovered to be a correctional deputy who was put on administrative leave pending an investigation into his exact involvement in the ring. Because this is a personnel matter, Boudreaux said his name will only be revealed if and when criminal charges have been filed. It was reported that the deputy announced his retirement when walked off the job.
Gary Coffman, 45 of Tulare, recently resigned as Tulare Police Department’s evidence technician after allegations of misconduct. His wife, Jackie Coffman, was also arrested in connection with the case.
Scott Kroner, Kaweah Delta Medical Center’s head chef, was also among those arrested. Scott Kroner joined Kaweah Delta earlier this year as the new executive chef after having been a chef in big cities such as New York and Los Angeles. According to the Kaweah Delta website, “He was ready for a small time feel and an opportunity arose at Kaweah Delta. ‘I came up and looked at the area and fell in love with the possibility of using farm-to-table fresh produce to take away the stigma of frozen boring food at hospitals and turn it into restaurant quality cuisine.”’
Alvarez started his human trafficking ring through a fraudulent webpage called DreamGirls Visalia and DreamGirls Fresno. To create the webpage he stole an out-of-state woman’s image and called her Rebecca. Alvarez created an exciting, glamorous life and career for “Rebecca” that lured his victims into messaging him on a fake facebook page.
Once a young person indicated any kind of vulnerability Alvarez lured his victims into being exploited.
“It seems he was targeting teenage girls at risk,” Lt. Jim Franks said.
After establishing a trusting relationship with the victim, Alvarez coached them to tell their parents that they were going to a friend’s house or they were going out to play Pokémon Go. Presumably the driver, Raya, would take the victim to the john and collect the fee.
Community contacts alerted sheriff detectives about the suspicious DreamGirls Visalia and DreamGirls Fresno web pages. Through their investigation, the sheriff’s department discovered that Alvarez also tried to use a facebook page with a male identity close to his own but was unsuccessful in recruiting victims.
Although none of the victims were held against their will, if they wanted to leave the ring, Alvarez threatened to expose the sex acts they were forced to perform and threatened to post naked pictures of them on the internet, at their high school and give them to their parents.
It also appears the victims’ parents were completely unaware that their child was involved in the trafficking ring. Boudreaux said that Child Welfare Services can remove a juvenile from his or her home if it’s discovered the parents were aware of the situation and did nothing to stop it.
“This case is by no means finished,” Boudreaux said. “The number of victims, unfortunately, is expected to increase along with the suspects who preyed on them. The investigation will continue until the sheriff’s department is satisfied they have identified all of the victims and suspects.”
To help the victims recover and heal, the sheriff’s department has partnered with Child Welfare Services, Family Services of Tulare County and the District Attorney’s Victim Witness program. This is to provide the necessary support to help turn the lives around for victims of human trafficking in Tulare County.
“To the victims and their families, our hearts go out to you,” the sheriff said. “We are here for you.”
Today, victims are being contacted by the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office, interviewed by detectives and offered counseling through Family Services of Tulare County. This nonprofit helps both juvenile and adult victims of human trafficking with crisis response, advocacy, case management, and emergency assistance.
Child Welfare Services (CWS) provides training throughout the county about how to recognize human trafficking victims and how to respond to them. Before the arrests were made, and contact established with the victims, CWS offered training to detectives involved in Operation Baby Face.
At the end of the press conference Boudreaux encouraged parents to talk with their children about what they are doing online and how it could possibly lead to victimization. “Unfortunately, it’s unlikely the group arrested today are the only ones involved in human trafficking in Tulare County,” he said.
“Talk to your children. You are the parents. Look at what your children are doing online. Be a concerned and protective parent.”
He also encouraged anyone to please contact law enforcement if you discover something suspicious. Tulare County Sheriff’s Office: (559) 733-6218 or anonymously through TipNow at (559) 725-4194 or [email protected].
Help is available to human trafficking victims 24/7 in Tulare County thanks to the staff and volunteers at Family Services of Tulare County. Family Services’ Sexual Assault and Human Trafficking Hotline: (559) 732-7273. National Human Trafficking Resource Center: (888) 373-7888. Tulare County District Attorney’s Office Victim/Witness Assistance Division (559) 636-5471.