CROWN POINT | The Lake and Cook County sheriffs announced a joint initiative Friday to end cross border trafficking of prostitutes between Chicago and Gary.
Sheriff John Buncich and Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart said Friday morning they have formed a task force to arrest pimps who shuttle sex workers among clients in the Indiana-Illinois border.
"We have serious problems, not only here in Lake County but in Cook County and across the border adjacent to each other," Buncich said. "(Dart) and I have discussed on several occasions, the serious situation of human trafficking occurring more and more often."
Buncich said the Lake County Sheriff's Department formed a specialized unit and is forming a partnership with both Cook County and the FBI.
Buncich said there are several investigations ongoing, including a Chicago woman who was lured to Gary by "social media, kept captive and forced into prostitution for several weeks."
Dart singled out Backpage for allowing its classified advertising website, which includes explicit listings for escort and dating services, to be used in Indiana and Illinois for illegal activity.
He said human traffickers use the Internet to lure women into prostitution and force them to set up Facebook pages to lure their friends as well.
He said the traffickers cover up their involvement by requiring the women to take out their own Internet ads and require customers to pay for sex services to bank accounts through automatic teller machines.
Dart said that although many prostitutes live in Illinois, they travel to Indiana for customers who make contact through the Internet.
Buncich said there was a human trafficking connection to accused serial killer Darren Vann, but declined further comment, saying he is under a court order not to comment about the Vann case.
Vann, 44, of Gary, is charged with strangling Afrika Hardy, 19, and Anith Jones, 35, of Merrillville, in late 2014. Police say he also has confessed to killing five other women found in vacant properties across Gary, but has not yet been charged in their deaths.
Vann met Afrika Hardy, 19, through an advertisement she placed on Backpage.com, according to court records. Hardy's friend told Hammond detectives a group of friends, including Hardy, decided to start an escort service using the website. They would meet clients in hotel rooms in Hammond and Lansing.
Vann told detectives he considered Jones a prostitute and contacted her to have sex with her. A friend of Jones told detectives she used an online website to meet clients for prostitution, according to court records.
The symposium took place Friday. Investigators from Sauk Village, Portage, LaPorte County and East Chicago were among those attending training from expert investigators, prosecutors and judges in both jurisdictions.
Staff Writer Elvia Malagon contributed to this story.