HUGO — After hearing an update from the Washington County Attorney and Assistant County Attorney, one thing is clear: violent crimes, drugs and sex trafficking are happening in Washington County, and they remain a top priority for the county attorney’s office.
Washington County Attorney Pete Orput and Assistant County Attorney Imran Ali were keynote speakers at the Hugo Business Association’s breakfast Sept. 10 at the Blue Heron Grill in Hugo.
“Part of my mission, and my office’s mission, is to do crime prevention — keep our seniors from getting ripped off by telemarketers, keep business owners protected when they are trying to run a business, (and preventing) fraud,” Orput said. “This is a great opportunity to share some highlights with you and what we are working on.”
Things have been going pretty well, Orput said, but there are a few trends his office is currently seeing in the county.
“There is a high degree of violent crime that we haven’t seen before. Currently I have five homicide cases in my office and that is a lot for Washington County,” Orput explained. “I have nine prosecutors handling a caseload of 200 felonies a year. We try around 50 trials a year, which for a county of our size and population, that’s a lot.”
In addition to an increase in violent crimes, the county is experiencing the opioid crisis firsthand. Orput said he currently has two opioid-related death cases sitting in his office. The county is trying to take a different approach when it comes to youth and drugs.
“I get 400 young people a year coming in who are charged with felony drugs. I realized several years ago that we can’t jail our way out of this problem,” he said. “We have revamped the way we approach it. I can’t make 400 young people a year felons. Once they get that, there are consequences ... they can’t get jobs. We are offering diversion and treatment to those we see coming in.”
Orput added that, “It has become a real issue. If we can get these people treatment, I have a strong feeling a lot of our property crimes are going to go way down because we are seeing a huge uptick in identity theft, mail theft, fraud. It is done mostly by those people who are trying to feed that monkey on their back.”
The opioid crisis is also causing an uptick in child protection cases. “When people get addicted to drugs, that becomes their number one, and their kids become second,” Orput said.
Ali, who is the director of the East Metro Human Trafficking Task Force, talked about sex trafficking. He said when he first moved to Woodbury, he didn’t think he would see human trafficking. After handling his first case, which involved a three-time convicted sex offender who was pimping out a 16-year-old girl, he knew the problem was here. “That was shocking,” he said.
A criminal analyst with the attorney’s office investigated a website, which is now shut down, where people could advertise for sex. “People could go on there, contact somebody and you could order pizza or a human being,” Ali said. The analyst wanted to find out how many ads were being posted to see if human trafficking was a small or big problem in the metro.
In two years, the criminal analyst looked at 196,000 ads in the Twin Cities metro area. “That is a staggering number, and we haven’t looked back since,” Ali said. “Those 196,000 ads were placed there for a reason, and that’s because there are people in our communities that purchase human beings for sex.”
Ali recalled one of the task force’s undercover operations in Redwood Falls, Minnesota. “The day of the operation, I was talking to the prosecutors and police officers and they seemed somber. I asked them about it, and they said, ‘When you post this ad in the Twin Cities, you have thousands of people texting you. Down here, I don’t want it to be my father, my brother, my uncle,’” he said.
During the bust, the town’s police chief was arrested for trying to purchase a 15-year-old girl.
“In the past four years, we have arrested, investigated and convicted 38 pimps in Washington County,” Ali said. “We take down small-scale traffickers trafficking their girlfriend; we have international trafficking cases, domestic trafficking cases, with as little as one victim to as many as 34 victims.”
Orput ended the presentation by inviting members of the public to share their ideas on public safety with his office. “I am all ears,” he said.
Editor Shannon Granholm can be reached at 651-407-1227 or