Montana hired two full-time agents to investigate human trafficking cases throughout the state. Montana has had law enforcement agents investigating human trafficking cases full-time on the local, and up and until recently, federal level. But this is the first time the state has employed full-time agents to look at human trafficking.
The agents, Andrew Yedinak from the Division of Criminal Investigation, and an unnamed partner who works undercover, started earlier this month. Their hiring comes as another human trafficking agent pulls back on his work in the state.
Billings Republican Daniel Zolnikov sponsored the State House bill that created the two-person human trafficking team. He pushed for the new hires because he says, unless you lived in Missoula or Billings, where local or federal agents were investigating human trafficking cases.
'The whole state was an 'open for business' state," Zolnikov said.
By that, he means sex traffickers could transport people around the state and coerce them into sex without oversight from the state level.
"There’s loops, and you’ve got to be able to interconnect them and identify where people tend to be, where they’re going," Zolnikiv said.
He says that’s what state-level agents are good for — connecting the dots and getting a bird’s eye view.
The state-level team was hired by the state Department of Justice and is based in Billings within the Division of Criminal Investigation.
Montana’s Attorney General, Republican Tim Fox, says the state Department of Justice doesn’t participate in many human trafficking investigations right now, unless approached by a task force.
"This will be a gamechanger for us to have a dedicated law enforcement officers whose primary responsibility will be to investigate human traffickers," Fox said.
He says this will go far on the local level, in communities too strapped for cash to fund human trafficking investigations on their own.
The two agents start as Brandon Walter, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigations, halves his time spent on human trafficking cases. He was previously the only full-time federal agent assigned to human trafficking cases in Montana. Now he divides his time between investigating human trafficking cases and crimes in Indian Country.
State House Representative Zolnikov says that makes the hiring of two new full-time agents like taking two steps forward, one step back.
Olivia Reingold is Yellowstone Public Radio’s Report for America Corps Member.