It’s the kind of headline that grabs attention.
“115 People Arrested in Tarrant County Human Trafficking Sting,” one October news story read. Several publications, including the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, posted similar headlines that likely misled readers to assume that Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn and his posse had snagged 115 kingpins who were smuggling sex workers through North Texas.
Far from it. The 115 randomly targeted men were lured by decoys posing as prostitutes. None of the arrested offenders had kidnapped children or women, but that didn’t stop Waybourn from boasting about the felony arrests.
“We will be out there looking for these people,” Waybourn said, following the conclusion of operation Buyer Beware.
Like many Christian Nationalists who disdain this country’s separation of church and state, Waybourn has something of an obsession with human trafficking, which is related to but not the same thing as forced prostitution. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”
Finding accurate data on the scope of the problem is difficult in Tarrant County and Texas, partly because politicians and elected officials have an interest in inflating figures to pander to right-wing voters who believe a Deep State-led cabal drives the criminal acts.
The nomination process of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court was a recent example. Republican leader Sen. Ted “Cancun” Cruz fixated on her scant rulings in child pornography cases in a perverse attempt to tie her to online lies about Democrats and Hollywood elites running child sex rings.
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the state group that investigates allegations of child and elder abuse, combines suspected and confirmed cases of child trafficking incidents, meaning that it’s impossible to determine whether the incidents (12 for Tarrant County last year) actually happened or not.
The U.S. State Department estimates that, globally, there are around 25 million victims of the crime every year. The DOJ hasn’t released national figures on human trafficking in recent years, but the department estimated in 2014 that upwards of 200,000 youths were caught in some form of forced sex work each year.
In 2017, Waybourn created the Human Trafficking Unit, which is composed of a supervisor and three investigators, according to the county’s website. Based on our open records requests, the unit has completed 561 investigations and submitted 414 cases for prosecutions. We’ve requested data on how many cases were accepted by the district attorney’s office, and one Tarrant County insider recently alleged to us that DA Sharen Wilson and the human trafficking unit’s commander have abused their positions to block our requests for government information and documents related to Waybourn’s human trafficking unit and possibly other areas of our media inquiries.
The confidential source allegedly heard a conversation between the human trafficking unit’s commander and a county employee who oversees the unit’s grant funds. The commander described in detail the DA’s efforts to block open records requests from Weekly reporter Edward Brown. The trafficking unit head allegedly described his department’s concurrent efforts to obstruct and block the release of information to our news magazine by any means possible. We notified a sheriff department spokesperson about this breach of the public trust, but the spokesperson declined to comment other than to say that the allegations are serious.
The human trafficking unit numbers mean little without context, which is why our open records requests matter. If the DA’s office and sheriff’s department stop meddling in our open records submissions, we hope to answer these questions.
What alleged crimes were committed? Were the offenders active human traffickers or just some horny dudes who were honeypotted by a professional decoy?
Waybourn undermines any good work being done by the human trafficking unit through his close connections to Landon Schott and wife Heather Schott. The two are pastors at Mercy Culture Church, a charismatic Christian place of worship on the North Side.
According to the Washington Post, Waybourn told a Mercy Culture prayer group last year that human trafficking is the “demonic battle of our lifetime.” Waybourn is also a leading supporter of a large-scale grift that Heather is peddling — the Justice Residences, which aim to shelter and rehabilitate up to 100 victims of sex trafficking.
“Through the relationships we have made with other restoration homes in our city,” the Justice Residences website reads, “we have had the opportunity to build community with survivors, learn their stories, and teach them how to connect with the voice of God. The [shelter] hosts groups for survivors to have the opportunity to receive healing in a safe space with trained advocates and leaders.”
The project’s founder, and the only staff listed on the project’s website, is Heather — a sign that Landon’s wife is positioned to be the project’s highest-paid staffer. For someone tasked with potentially handling millions in funding to shelter victims of trafficking, Heather is clueless about the extent of the problem in the United States. For two years, based on her social media posts, she maintained that 29 million Americans have been trafficked. It was only after we recently noted through our reporting how far off her figures were that Mercy Culture staffers revised their Instagram page to purge the false information.
Fort Worth’s zoning commission recently recommended denying Mercy Culture’s request for variances related to the proposed project. Nearby Oakhurst neighborhood members overwhelmingly oppose the project that appears stalled for now due to public backlash.
Waybourn’s invocation of a “demonic battle” reflects his belief that the plight of human trafficking victims is akin to a literal hell on Earth. For Waybourn to take up the cause shows the hypocrisy of the Republican elected official who manages the most hellish shithole in North Texas — Tarrant County Jail. The decrepit building too frequently destroys the lives of nonviolent men and women who can’t afford to post bail because they are impoverished. Ya know, the kind of people Jesus helped? The deaths of homeless Black men and women in Waybourn’s jail have never been mentioned during sermons by Landon or Heather as far as we know.
Sheriff Bill Waybourn may bristle at our reporting, but the Fort Worth Society of Professional Journalists recently nominated the Weekly’s Brown for a First Amendment Award for his investigation into the inhumane treatment of prisoners in Tarrant County Jail (“Treated ‘Like Animals,’ ” Aug. 2021).
The Justice Residences’ website lists transparency as a core value, and donors should reasonably request disclosures of Landon’s salary at Mercy Culture and his wife’s projected salary as the head of the 100-bed facility. Human trafficking is a real and serious crime that should be addressed by law enforcement and nonprofits that aren’t in the business of grifting congregations.
This column reflects the opinions of the editorial board and not the Fort Worth Weekly. To submit a column, please email Editor Anthony Mariani at Anthony@FWWeekly.com. Submissions will be edited for factuality and clarity.