Teen recovered, 5 taken into custody in Georgia ‘human smuggling’ investigation

Five people, including a pregnant woman, were taken into custody after Haralson County deputies found the teenager at a welcome center in Cleveland, Alabama.
Five people, including a pregnant woman, were taken into custody after Haralson County deputies found the teenager at a welcome center in Cleveland, Alabama.

A 911 call from a frantic mother set off a search for a missing 18-year-old boy Monday morning and uncovered what Georgia authorities believe to be a human smuggling operation that is now being investigated by Homeland Security.

Five people, including a pregnant woman, were taken into custody after Haralson County deputies found them with the teenager at a welcome center in Cleveland, Alabama, located just across the state border along I-20. The teen was said to be safe, according to Haralson Sheriff Stacy Williams.

The boy had traveled thousands of miles from Central America to be with his mother in Gwinnett County, but a meetup planned in Haralson went awry, Williams said. It thrust his small west Georgia community into the center of what was likely to be a far-reaching trafficking investigation.

“It really opens your eyes, and it makes you wonder what else has been going on,” the sheriff said.

According to Williams, the boy’s mother agreed to pay “a large sum” to the alleged smugglers to bring her son into the country, but she did not have all the cash when they met at the Georgia Welcome Center on I-20 early Monday morning.

She reported him abducted at 1:17 a.m., after the alleged smugglers put her son back into a van and headed for Alabama, Williams said. The woman provided the van’s description and tag number, and the boy had already been recovered at the Cleburne Welcome Center by the time an Amber alert pinged cellphones and flashed across message boards statewide, shortly before 6 a.m.

The teenager was taken to the Haralson County Sheriff’s Office. Through the GBI, local authorities were put in touch with Homeland Security, which is now in charge of the investigation.

The five others remain detained in Cleburne County, Alabama. None is believed to be a victim, but the extent of their involvement is unknown, according to the sheriff.

“There’s definitely a kidnapping case here, but there’s also a trafficking and smuggling case,” he said. “There’s just a whole host of violations here, and most of it is going to fall under the federal investigation.”

The sheriff said few details could be released while the case remains under investigation. He is concerned there could be others being smuggled through Haralson County.

“What if there are other people out here in the pipeline? I’d like to see them go back to where they came from. And if we could try to get somebody else, to rescue somebody else, I’d like to see that, too.”

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