Human trafficking is a problem in Tennessee and across the country, and the TBI has shown a strong commitment to fighting it.
Over the past year they've conducted about a dozen undercover stings and charged more than 200 men. But what happens to some of those men once they get to court?
"I don't think it's enough of a deterrent. After a little while, they're back at it," said Cathy Gurly, CEO of the victim advocacy group You Have the Power.
News 4 examined a sting conducted in Nashville in 2016. The TBI charged 34 men. We're told the men attempted to pay for sex with women and, in some cases, children. One of the suspects was a former Vanderbilt football player. Another was a former Metro teacher.
What we found is that 27 of them had their cases dismissed and, for the vast majority, there's no public record of the crimes.
"Having all these charges expunged sends a very, very clear message that we're not serious," Gurly said.
The TBI told News 4 they hope the charges alone are enough to deter future offenses.
"We would like to think that any time an individual shows up and puts money on the table and doesn't get to have sex with an individual, but instead gets to meet a TBI agent, that that would send the message that they need to think twice before doing this again," said Josh DeVine, a spokesman for the TBI.
Additionally, News 4 is told most of the men who had their charges dismissed and expunged had to attend John School first. It's a diversion program designed to teach men about the dangers of human trafficking.
"I don't think that nothing happened in these cases. The individuals, as you've learned, learned. They went through the process and had these cases adjudicated. It's not like these charges absolutely disappeared," DeVine said.
The TBI's human trafficking enforcement is evolving. These days, they're solely focusing on suspects who target children. During their most recent sting in Brentwood, they charged all the suspects with felonies, not misdemeanors.
As far as why most of the charges in Nashville were ultimately dismissed, "well, that's a question for the district attorney general," DeVine said.
Assistant District Attorney Tammy Meade chose not to do an on-camera interview. However, when New 4 spoke to her by phone, Meade said that the John school is extremely effective.
She also said these cases are difficult to prosecute because the victims aren't real, they're actually undercover agents posing as victims.
Some of those charged in this 2016 sting were repeat offenders.
David Shepard was busted by the TBI during another sting in 2008. At the time he was a teacher in the Wilson County school district.
He lost his teaching license for six months but got it back. He then went on to teach in Maury County then in Nashville.
Shepard lost his job with Metro after this latest sting and began teaching in Cannon County.
New 4 asked the Tennessee Board of Education why Shepard still has his teaching license after being charged twice. This was their response:Following Mr. Shepard’s arrest in 2008, the State Board of Education sought to suspend his license for one year. Mr. Shepard requested a hearing before an administrative law judge who ruled that a one-year suspension was disproportionately harsh for the patronizing prostitution charges he had faced. The criminal charges against Mr. Shepard were dismissed following his payment of court costs and completing a required class pertaining to prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases. The administrative law judge ruled that Mr. Shepard’s license would be suspended from the time of his arrest on February 13, 2008 until August 13, 2008.
In 2016, Mr. Shepard was identified in a TBI prostitution sting. The State Board of Education staff notified Mr. Shepard of a proposed action to revoke his license and Mr. Shepard requested a hearing to contest the proposed revocation. During the time of the State Board’s review of Mr. Shepard’s case, the charges against Mr. Shepard were dismissed and the record expunged. General counsel for the State Board of Education reached out to the TBI and the District Attorney seeking any relevant investigative material from the case to use as evidence to support the proposed revocation of Mr. Shepard’s license. However, because Mr. Shepard’s charge was expunged, the State Board of Education was unable to obtain any investigative material to use in a licensure disciplinary hearing. Without evidence, the State Board of Education was unable to pursue a licensure action against Mr. Shepard.Shepard told News 4 he is not currently teaching, but beyond that he did not want to comment.
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