A year ago, Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams announced the creation of a human trafficking task force to fight commercial sex exploitation.
And in that year, the task force made more than two-dozen arrests, focusing almost exclusively on men who buy sex.
In the task force’s first sting, more than 100 people responded to an online ad the task force created offering sex for money. It led to 14 arrests. Other stings resulted in five other prostitution-related charges.
Adams said she was surprised at how busy the task force was in its first year. It’s made up of police officers from municipal departments, state police, sheriff deputies and county detectives —- law enforcement officers with other duties as well.
“It's a good thing to see, but it also makes you realize that (sex trafficking) truly is an issue here in Lancaster County,” Adams said Monday.
Adams defended the strategy of going after buyers, saying any effort that could persuade people not to try to buy sex in Lancaster County has a direct impact on the problem.
And she acknowledged it’s more difficult to target traffickers, but said the task force is making arrests in cases involving higher-level offenses.
Three stings focused on people intent on having sex with minors.
“Those were essentially operations where an undercover detective is posing as a minor (online) and the suspects will reach out to that person specifically to engage in sexual acts with a minor. Age is discussed. It's not like they think they're coming to meet an adult,” Adams said.
Those three stings led to eight arrests; a ninth man who responded to an ad later died by suicide.
According to police, the man who died by suicide, Michael Robert Bascom, 54, of Lehigh County, responded to an online ad and agreed to pay $400 an hour to have sex with a 13-year-old girl.
Bascom drove to an East Lampeter Township hotel on June 3, the designated meeting spot. Bascom circled the parking lot before speeding off, hitting a police officer’s vehicle as he made his getaway, police said. It was not clear when Bascom died.
The eight men are all awaiting trial on felony charges related to sexual assault of children, including attempted child rape, attempted statutory sexual assault and unlawful contact with a minor.
One of the eight men drove here from Stafford, Virginia, about four hours away.
While the outcomes of the 19 cases that involved prostitution related offenses were not clear, LNP|LancasterOnline previously reported that of the 14 people charged in the first sting, one man was acquitted at trial, another pleaded guilty and the other 12 defendants entered a probationary program for first-time offenders that allows participants to have their criminal record upon completion.
Adams previously said the diversion program was appropriate for first-time offenders amenable to rehabilitation.
The task force isn’t completely focused on arresting men who buy sex or the individuals who sell it. For example, last March detectives came across an internet advertisement listing a female who was having sex for money in Lancaster. Detectives agreed to pay $260 to spend an hour with the female at a hotel in Lancaster city, according to law enforcement.
An undercover detective met the woman at a hotel in April, paid her and discussed the sex acts that would take place. Police then arrested her.
While interviewing her, she told them she met Louis Fountain online when she was 18 years old and that Fountain told her she could make money by having sex. The woman told police she was making more than $1,000 a day, but gave it all to Fountain.
Police said they corroborated the woman’s account — later dropping charges against her — and arrested Fountain on April 21, 2022.
Fountain, 33, of Delaware County, is charged with two counts of trafficking, four counts of promoting prostitution and one count of living off prostitutes.
He is being held in Lancaster County Prison unable to post $500,000 bail. Trial has not been scheduled.
Adams said the woman was offered social services, adding that providing services to trafficking victims is a task force main goal.
Adams declined to say how many victims the task force has helped, but she acknowledged that it can be difficult for a trafficking victim to change behavior.
“It's psychological. It's just like a victim of domestic violence,” Adams said.
“They might not want to leave because they don't know where they're going to sleep. They might not have their ID. They might not know where their next meal is. If they're addicted, where are they going to get their drugs? So there's a lot of things to consider,” Adams said.
Adams said the task force has partnered with Zoe International, an international nonprofit that combats child sex trafficking and provides trained advocates who can help victims.
“The advocate will act as a caseworker and assist the victim each step of the way toward a restorative plan and more importantly, give the victim 24/7 emotional support so the victim has the services and supports in place that they need,” according to Adams’ office.
YWCA Lancaster runs a 24-hour sexual assault hotline, 717-392-7273, that connects callers to free, confidential counseling and therapy services for community members impacted by sexual abuse, harassment or assault.
In forming the task force, Adams's office turned to other counties with existing task forces for guidance and Adams said that other counties have contacted Lancaster, including Berks and Jefferson, seeking information.