RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Dating back to the beginning of 2021, more than 200 suspects have been arrested across Chesterfield and Henrico Counties in undercover VICE operations or sex stings. But how successful are these investigations?
8News dug through hundreds of cases to find out.
Cutting down on crime
In many of these operations, detectives worked to intercept suspects believed to be soliciting sex from minors through the internet on websites and social media. As seen in an October 2021 sting in Chesterfield County, authorities posed as a prostitute under the age of 18 and communicated with suspects directly, arranging requests for services, costs and meeting locations. But when the suspects arrived to the planned location, they were met with handcuffs.
In other instances though, there was an actual minor involved. In February of 2021, for example, Chesterfield Police arrested Robert Joseph Scianna, Jr., 25, for soliciting sex from a juvenile online through a social media platform. Scianna was charged with electronic solicitation of a minor for sex, and pled no contest, resulting in a guilty verdict, jail time, and a fine. He was also charged with attempted indecent liberties, but that charge was dropped.
Additionally, authorities conducted these undercover operations to crack down on actual prostitution, and even human trafficking.
“It seems to come in waves,” 8News Legal Analyst Russ Stone said. “I have actually handled cases and spoke with defendants who were charged with these kinds of offenses who have indicated, for instance, in Henrico County, that they have gotten the message and they’re trying to ply their trade in other places.”
Stone noted that there appear to have been concerted efforts in recent years to increase the frequency with which such operations are conducted and minimize these offenses in Central Virginia, but successfully stopping crimes may require additional multijurisdictional coordination.
“When they know that this sort of thing is [something] that the police are taking seriously in one area, they will try to move it to some other area,” Stone said. “That doesn’t necessarily put an end to it. It just kind of moves it around. It’s like playing a game of Whac-A-Mole.”
Chesterfield County results
A Chesterfield County Police Department (CCPD) spokesperson provided a list of defendants who were arrested across seven undercover operations where detectives posed as minors from 2021 to 2022.
In total, there were 60 arrests made, with 43 of those cases currently closed. Of those 43 closed cases, 36 resulted in at least one guilty finding, whether through a jury trial, agreement or plea of no contest — that is approximately 84%. Additional cases are ongoing, with several having been certified to a grand jury or having had a trial date set, meaning prosecutorial actions have moved forward.
In addition to facing a solicitation of prostitution charge in some form, the majority of defendants also faced an additional charge. Using vehicles to promote prostitution or unlawful sexual intercourse, for example, is a Class 1 misdemeanor under the Code of Virginia. However, in several cases where a defendant was found guilty on a solicitation charge, the vehicle usage charge was nolle prossed or dropped.
“Over the last several years, different departments and cities have decided that they’re going to be more aggressive in their prosecution of prostitution-related offenses,” Stone said. “If a jurisdiction has decided, ‘We’re going to be more aggressive in pursuing them,’ then it’s kind of like throwing the kitchen sink at somebody. You’re going to place every charge you can think of, and then, down the road, you may work out some kind of a deal where they plead guilty to certain offenses.”
That prosecutorial aggression has been called into question by local leaders in recent months, following the Chesterfield County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office’s decision to drop similar charges against a Virginia Beach pastor who was arrested in October 2021 along with 16 other men. Of those defendants, 13 cases resulted in a guilty finding, with one cases still playing out in court. Six defendants were also sentenced to serve time behind bars, not including those who were granted suspended sentences that equated to the duration of the sentencing length.
“The internet and technology have both made crimes easier to commit and easier to prove,” Stone said, referencing text messages that were released by police between Rock Church International Pastor John Blanchard and undercover detectives posing as a 17-year-old prostitute. “People say things online that, obviously, get them into a lot of trouble.”
Stone previously noted that there appeared to be enough evidence in the case against Blanchard to move forward with prosecution, though it would be up to a judge and jury to determine the defendant’s guilt or innocence. However, almost exactly one year after Blanchard’s arrest, the Chesterfield County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office moved to drop the charges against him, citing a “lack of evidence;” something state Del. Tim Anderson and Chief of Police Col. Jeff Katz have contested.
On Thursday, Commonwealth’s Attorney Stacey Davenport announced that, due to new information provided to her office with the 48 hours prior to the announcement, she would be asking for the appointment of a special prosecutor to review the case against Blanchard and determine whether to move forward with prosecution.
Henrico County results
From January 2021 through December 2022, the Henrico County Police Division (HCPD) reported 193 arrests from undercover VICE operations and sex stings. Dozens of the defendants arrested in 2022 have their cases still playing out in the court system.
Of the 84 suspects arrested in the 2021 investigations, though, 73 cases are now closed, with 44 of those resulting in a guilty verdict on at least one charge. In addition to the offense of using vehicles to promote prostitution or unlawful sexual intercourse, as seen in Chesterfield County, a number of the suspects also faced drug charges.
“There is a tremendous amount of drug use that’s involved with the victimization, whether that drug use, that initial addiction, is a product of recruiting or getting control over that person into this industry; if it’s being used as a coping mechanism to kind of deal with the trauma as a result of being in this industry,” an undercover officer who works on these types of operations told 8News back in November.
Similar to Chesterfield County, a number of the cases that have not yet concluded have a trial date or plea hearing set, meaning the percentage of defendants who were prosecuted has the potential to increase.
Some suspects also had firearm charges filed against them, while others had no prior record.
“Henrico really was very aggressive for the last few years. They’ve been particularly aggressive in pursuing human trafficking offenses,” Stone said. “People get involved in this until they actually get stopped and arrested, and then, you know, hopefully, that is the trigger that makes them stop doing it.”
A shift in the system
In recent years, Stone noted that there have been efforts by law enforcement to cut down on these crimes before they happen, using undercover operations and intercepting communications.
“There are some jurisdictions that have always pursued the prostitute,” Stone said. “There’s a movement to try to get the people that are actually making the money — from the pimps, the ones that are organizing this. I’m not sure that anybody’s figured out the real cure to the situation, but that’s sort of what guides the various departments as they pursue that sort of thing.”