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A sex trafficking ring that operated in Ohio and Indiana targeted vulnerable teenage girls and exploited them, federal investigators say.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation said the operation ran from late 2015 to 2016. The case began in December 2015, when the Lima Police Department investigated allegations of human trafficking and forced prostitution.

One of the officers investigating the case was also a member of the FBI-led Child Exploitation Task Force and referred the case to federal jurisdiction, which typically means additional investigative resources and tougher penalties.

The resulting federal probe identified Lorenzo Young of Lima, Ohio, as the ringleader of the group. His friend, Aundre Davis, also emerged as a key figure, investigators said. His girlfriend, mother and three acquaintances were also complicit.

The FBI said the group pursued “vulnerable and trusting” young girls, often runaways or those estranged from their families, and promised them money to pose for sexually explicit photos. They would then post the photos in the classified section of adult entertainment websites; when someone showed interest in one of the girls, they would meet them at motel rooms in Fort Wayne, Indiana, or apartments in Lima.

Young and his co-conspirators pocketed the money from those transactions, investigators said.

The FBI talked to some of the victims, tracked motel records and receipts, reviewed surveillance video and conducted physical surveillance and court-authorized electronic surveillance of Young and the other suspects.

When Young suspected he was under investigation, the FBI said, he instructed his mother to delete compromising text messages and emails related to the operation. He ordered others in the group to post threatening messages on social media warning the victims not to talk to investigators.

By June 2016, investigators had collected enough evidence to pursue federal charges against Young and six other people. Five were indicted on human trafficking charges while two others were charged for obstructing the investigation.

Five of the suspects pleaded guilty, but Young and Davis opted for trials. They were convicted in May 2017; in December, Young was sentenced to life in prison and Davis got 30 years.