Two of the men charged in last week’s Itasca County human trafficking bust were working on Enbridge's Line 3 project, fueling concern that construction of the oil pipeline is bringing a higher risk of sex crimes to the area.
Michael Kelly West, 53, of Rolla, Missouri, was charged with one count of carrying a pistol without a permit and one count of solicitation to engage in prostitution.
Matthew Ty Hall, 33, of Mount Pleasant, Texas, was charged with one count of solicitation of a person believed to be a minor.
An Enbridge spokesperson Tuesday confirmed both men were employed by a contractor working on Line 3 and that the men were arrested as part of the Itasca County sting.
In a separate statement to the News Tribune, the contractor, Eau Claire, Wisconsin-based Precision Pipeline, LLC, said the workers were fired.
"The two workers were terminated immediately when the company learned that they had violated our zero tolerance for illegal behavior," the company said. "We remain steadfast in our commitment to compliance with all anti-trafficking and anti-exploitation laws and our zero tolerance for those who seek to deprive others of their fundamental freedoms and human rights is at the core of our organization."
During a three-day investigation conducted by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Human Trafficking Investigators Task Force, the Tribes United Against Sex Trafficking Task Force and the Itasca County Sheriff’s Office, authorities created advertisements on a website to bait and engage in conversation with the suspects, offering them sexual acts in exchange for money. Suspects were all initially told they were chatting with a minor.
The investigation resulted in the arrests and charges of seven men, including pipeline workers West and Hall.
Taysha Martineau — founder of Camp Migizi, a protest camp opposed to Line 3 on the Fond du Lac Reservation, and Gitchigumi Scouts, which patrols and searches for missing and murdered Indigenous women and relatives — has long said the influx of Line 3 construction workers would increase sex trafficking along the pipeline’s route, especially in Indigenous communities.
“This comes as no surprise,” Martineau told the News Tribune on Tuesday. “It’s heartbreaking nonetheless and we hope that it’s addressed quickly and taken seriously.”
Such concerns were brought up in Line 3’s environmental impact statement, which cited a 2016 report from the National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center connecting an influx of temporary workers to an increase in sex trafficking of Indigenous people.
“The addition of a temporary, cash-rich workforce increases the likelihood that sex trafficking or sexual abuse will occur,” the environmental impact statement said. “Additionally, rural areas often do not have the resources necessary to detect and prevent these activities.”
Approximately 5,200 construction workers are working on the 340-mile-long pipeline across northern Minnesota.
As a condition of the pipeline’s approval by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, Enbridge was required to create a Human Trafficking Prevention Plan.
On Tuesday, Enbridge said each worker goes through “human trafficking awareness training” prior to starting work on Line 3.
"Enbridge will continue to work with the state, tribes and our contractors on actions to combat trafficking in our society," Enbridge spokesperson Juli Kellner said in a statement. "We support all efforts by law enforcement to arrest perpetrators as well as the prosecution of anyone participating in trafficking to the maximum extent of the law."
According to West's criminal complaint, West said in a Miranda rights statement given at the Itasca County Jail that he worked for Precision Pipeline and had arranged to buy sex because he was a thousand miles away from home.
He said he heard about a website where he found the advertisement from rumors at work, continuing on to say that he was a “horrible example” and that he would “teach all these young men what not to do.”
The complaint said West originally began texting with an undercover officer posing as an underaged girl named “Jasmine.” But upon learning she was a minor looking to exchange sex for money, “West said that he did not want to engage in sex acts with a minor,” the complaint said.
Four hours later, however, the undercover officer posing as Jasmine texted West again to say her 19- or 20-year-old sister was available.
He then arranged to meet the fictitious older sister for sex in exchange for $100 per hour.
When he arrived at the meeting place, an “undercover house,” officers arrested him. Officers also found a loaded handgun in West's vehicle. West does not have a permit to carry, the complaint said.
According to Hall's criminal complaint, Hall responded to the ad, and upon learning Jasmine was 16 years old, said he was concerned it was a sting. But he continued to text the undercover officer posing as Jasmine for "hardcore proof" that it wasn't a sting and that she was real.
After a female officer sent him photos of herself and spoke with him on the phone, Hall said he wanted to meet up with her.
He drove by the meeting spot, and undercover house, several times before officers blocked and arrested him on the road.
"Hall gave a mirandized statement and told officers that he knew that he responded to an online advertisement and knew the person offering sexual acts for money was under the age of 16," the complaint said. "He said that he wanted to have sex with the person and was going to pay between $80-$100."
Seven men were arrested and brought up on human trafficking-related charges following the three-day investigation.
Itasca County officials have yet to confirm the occupations of the other men involved.