The FBI has cut in half the time its human trafficking agent in Montana will spend on the crime.
FBI Special Agent Brandon Walter has been reassigned to now work 50% of his time on human trafficking, and 50% on Indian Country cases, according to Penny Ronning.
Ronning, co-founder of the Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force, called the change “a blow” to anti-trafficking efforts in Montana.
“This decision made our state more dangerous for our children who live here and our visitors, and it made for greater opportunities for traffickers,” Ronning said.
It was not immediately clear when the decision took effect. The FBI did not respond to a request for clarification.
Asked to explain the decision, FBI spokeswoman Sandra Barker said only that it's not uncommon for agents to work on different focus areas over the course of their career.
Walter has worked full-time on trafficking since 2016, when the local task force was formed. Until now, Walter has been the only federal agent in Montana to be assigned full time to human trafficking cases.
His partial reassignment comes as the state brings on board two new Division of Criminal Investigation agents dedicated full-time to human trafficking.
The Department of Justice has hired Andrew Yedinak, a DCI agent already assisting with human trafficking investigations, for one of the positions, according to a Department of Justice spokesman. The other has yet to be announced. It’s the first time the state has had agents working full-time on human trafficking.
The change also comes amid increasing scrutiny of the FBI and other federal entities over their handling of missing and murdered indigenous people cases. Critics say the government fails to dedicate sufficient resources to the problem.
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Ronning said no matter the reasoning, the move will hamper efforts to crack down on the problem statewide.
Trafficking is better tackled on a federal level, Ronning said, because there are more resources for victims early on in the criminal investigation than in state or local investigations. Penalties also tend to be stiffer in federal court than state court, she said. And some crimes simply fall to federal jurisdiction because they cross state lines.
“It’s just going to water down the ability to get these crimes prosecuted, get the bad players, the traffickers the buyers, get legal action against them, and most importantly, provide any type of service to victims,” Ronning said.
Since 2016, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Montana has seen multiple human trafficking-related prosecutions after FBI investigations.
That includes a 44-year-old California man sentenced to five years in prison in 2016 for transporting women to Montana for prostitution.
In 2017, a 22-year-old Bozeman man was sentenced to a decade in prison for prostituting teenage girls in Missoula.
Also that year, a 24-year-old Washington man was sentenced to five years in prison for bringing women to Montana for prostitution and making thousands of dollars off of them.
In 2018, a 41-year-old Billings man received six months of probation after admitting to buying sex from a teenager.
Also in 2018, a 35-year-old Missoula man was sentenced to 30 years in prison for trafficking several people, including minors, to Montana for sex.
In 2019, the operator of a Billings spa awaits sentencing on charges of transporting a woman to Montana to work in his commercial sex business.