Montana’s first full-time human trafficking team will be based in Billings, state officials announced Tuesday.
The new two-person team is the result of a law passed during the 2019 Legislature setting up funds for the work and giving law enforcement new tools to crack down on sex trafficking.
Division of Criminal Investigation Agent Andrew Yedinak and an unnamed second agent comprise the team, according to a press release from the Attorney General Tim Fox’s office.
The Department of Justice said the second agent is an internal hire but has declined to name the person to protect future undercover work.
Fox celebrated the news in a press release.
“The addition of these new positions means that for the first time, Montana has state-level law enforcement dedicated exclusively to working human trafficking cases,” he said, in the statement.
The change comes as the FBI reduced by 50% the time its lead agent spends on human trafficking. Special Agent Brandon Walter, formerly the only federal-level law enforcement officer to work exclusively on human trafficking, now splits his time between it and Indian Country cases.
Speaking Tuesday, Yedinak said the team was based in Billings because, as the state’s largest city, it sees more trafficking than other Montana cities, although every city has the problem, he said.
Yedinak said a major part of the new team’s work would involve investigating sex trafficking carried out at hotels and motels.
To that end, Yedinak and the other agent will coordinate with Montana Highway Patrol to intercept pimps and their victims driving through the state, often en route to larger metropolitan areas. They’ll likely zero in on known venues, such as motels or truck stops, and use traffic stops to make contact, the agent said.
They’ll also continue to investigate massage businesses that sell sex or sex acts, Yedinak said, as well as any labor trafficking cases they can track.
The work will be housed under the Department of Justice’s Computer and Internet Crime Unit, which also investigates child pornography offenses, online scams and other internet-related crime. Yedinak will head the department.
Yedinak said their success would be measured by the number of cases they work, perpetrators they see criminally charged and victims they make contact with.
“We never want to investigate a case and just turn a girl back to the streets,” he said. “And if that means putting them on a bus or a plane, back to wherever is home for them, that’s something that we have the resources to do.”
The agents will work with victim advocates in county attorneys’ offices and the FBI. The department is pursuing a federal grant to land its own human trafficking victim specialist.
“At the end of the day, it all comes back to being able to help the individuals who are being placed in these situations and being able to pull them out of that situation,” Yedinak said.
The move is the result of a bill brought by Billings Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, a Republican, in spring 2019. HB 749 established the two-person team and provided $519,815 in funding to initiate the work.
A second bill signed into law this spring gives law enforcement new tools to combat sex trafficking, including allowing for stiffer penalties against traffickers that were previously available only in prosecuting customers. SB 147 was carried by Sen. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings.