Judging by his text messages, then-Quartermaster 3rd Class Kenneth Olaya had taken to the darker side of Navy life in Bahrain by December 2017.
He had arrived in country for a “hot fill” assignment on the patrol ship Typhoon in February of that year.
The Thai women were everywhere, just waiting to be bought.
“You go to clubs … you see those prostitutes, right there in the club in the corner, talking to people,” he later said at his court-martial. “It seemed normal.”
Olaya would later become one of at least 15 Navy members — including several officers and chiefs — charged or disciplined in connection to a rash of sex crimes against Thai women in Bahrain in 2017.
The Navy has slowly released court records in connection to the cases in response to Navy Times’ Freedom of Information Act requests, with Olaya’s file being the latest to be made public, further rounding out understanding of what went down on the tiny Middle Eastern island.
Olaya’s texts with sex workers, sent while he was crashing at the off-base residence of a petty officer buddy who was on holiday leave that month, would later be used as evidence against him at trial.
The texts initially revealed a young sailor coming up short when financing such rendezvouses, or at least professing as much.
“Today I don’t have cash, but I’ll have sex again with you tomorrow,” Olaya texted one woman on Dec. 13. “Can I pay you tomorrow? There’s no ATM around my room.”
“OMG,” the woman replied.
On another day that month, Olaya offered a woman $50 and an unopened bottle of Smirnoff vodka for sex.
The woman accepted and said she would sell it to someone looking to party on New Year’s Eve.
But a few minutes later, the petty officer, who was 25 at the time of his 2019 trial, texted her again.
“So there’s a problem,” he wrote. “I just checked my wallet and there’s not $50.”
“You always need f--- free,” she replied.
On Dec. 27, he texted with a woman and offered to pick her up if she would have sex with him for free instead of the already-discounted rate of 30 Bahraini dinar.
“I feel that you forget that I’m a sex worker and not public property working for the government,” the woman wrote back.
“How about a Christmas promotion of 20bd?”
“Haha, oh no,” she answered. “I never do 20. I take from Navy 40. Only you pay 30.”
Near the end of the month, he begged for another price break.
“Sorry baby, I can’t,” the woman replied, according to court records. “My boss her (sic) can’t accept.”
“Well don’t tell her,” Olaya suggested.
“Haha, she sit here,” the woman answered.
“Tell her you going somewhere else,” Olaya said.
“I don’t have freedom,” the woman told him, perhaps alluding to the debt bondage arrangement that controls the lives of many Thai women in Bahrain.
Then, two days after Christmas, Olaya was on Tinder and began chatting with a woman who offered an arrangement that would eventually end his Navy career and send him to the brig for 15 months.
It was a plan that stretched far beyond paying for sex, and the conversation soon moved over to the encrypted WhatsApp messenger.
According to court records, the woman on the other end of the WhatsApp conversation floated a proposition that many sailors had heard on the island: She would procure a trafficked Thai woman to live with Olaya. That woman would work as a prostitute, give him a cut of her nightly profits and the sailor could have sex with her whenever he wanted.
Such arrangements between trafficked women and U.S. sailors had existed for years on the island, home to the Navy’s U.S. 5th Fleet, in charge of overseeing the contentious waters of the Persian Gulf.
But the Navy had showed little inclination for cracking down on the illegal activity until it boiled over earlier in 2017, as Military Times revealed in an investigative series last year.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service believes that up to 90 percent of female sex workers in Bahrain were trafficked there.
“Some come over here willingly, the majority of them do not,” Special Agent Joe Minucci told incoming sailors in an anti-trafficking training video posted online last year. “Sometimes they know what the job is they’re coming here for, sometimes they do not.”
Several women are victim to “debt bondage,” and must pay off a certain amount to their trafficker before they are set free, he said.
On Dec. 27, 2017, Olaya received his offer.
“Want younger or older girl?” the woman asked Olaya.
“Younger,” Olaya said.
“Great, I have one 16 coming from Thai very soon,” the woman told him.
The girl’s name was Laya, according to court records.
The next day, Olaya sought more information on the deal, and the petty officer was told that Laya wasn’t 16 yet, but her birthday was around the time the petty officer would meet her.
He would have sex with Laya and then decide if he wanted to take her home or not, according to court records.
“U are present,” the woman wrote.
“Lol that’s good,” Olaya wrote back.
Olaya went to the Premier Hotel on the evening of Jan. 3, 2018, grabbed a key card from the front desk and headed up to room 1105 to meet Laya.
A five-minute drive from Naval Support Activity Bahrain, the hotel was well-known for bringing together women selling sex and Americans looking to pay for it.
But as he neared the hotel room door, NCIS agents swooped in and arrested him.
Olaya “tensed briefly” and then drooped, an agent said at his court-martial.
“A relatively new kind of operation”
Olaya was busted as part of a series of NCIS stings in 2017 and 2018, collectively known as “Operation High Tide,” an initiative that officials said aimed to stop wannabe sailor traffickers before they could do the real thing in Bahrain, according to court records.
The biggest secret every military member stationed in Bahrain has known for years is that sex workers and U.S. sailors regularly comingle in the fishbowl that is the Juffair section of the capital Manama, right outside the gates of NSA Bahrain.
Last year, Military Times reported on how a Thai woman working as a pimp and prostitute ran to NCIS in the summer of 2017 with allegations of a failed trafficking plot involving another sailor, unleashing a cascade of investigations and prosecutions.
Operation High Tide was launched soon after that.
All told, at least 15 Navy members — including several chiefs and officers — were charged or disciplined for patronizing, pimping or raping Thai women there in 2017.
Olahya, a young sailor with a solid Navy career before he arrived in Bahrain, wsas one.
The former petty officer could not be reached for comment. His civilian attorney, Phil Cave, also declined comment for this report.
Olaya was not the only one to fall for High Tide’s offerings.
“We essentially wanted to identify individuals with a Navy nexu,s that were either involved in sex trafficking or prostitution or expressed interest in those things,” the NCIS agent in charge of running the sting said during Olaya’s trial.
The agent would pose as a woman on Tinder to get the ball rolling.
“I specifically liked individuals that appeared to have a Navy or Marine Corps affiliation,” the agent said.
The name of that agent is redacted in the trial record provided to Military Times in response to a Freedom of Information Act.
But on the stand in early 2019, the agent explained that Operation High Tide was a “proactive undercover operation” that he stood up and ran for more than a year.
“The purpose of code name High Tide was to cut down on prostitution, and more importantly, sex trafficking and human trafficking in Bahrain,” the agent said.
Navy spokesman Lt. Andre DeGarmo told Military Times late last year that High Tide resulted in the “prosecution of 15 subjects.”
But Olaya’s Navy attorney, Lt. Ryan Mooney, said at trial that the agent would testify “to having conducted over 50 other similar investigative actions around this same time.”
“It seemed like that was his primary job,” Mooney said.
During Olaya’s case, his civilian defense attorney Cave raised questions about Operation High Tide, and whether the agency was completely above board with the operation.
Cave pointed to federal law enforcement guidelines for running such operations, and the agent said he “didn’t really have any training … in terms of messaging.”
The agent admitted that these kinds of cases were new to NCIS, a point echoed by Navy prosecutors in similar Bahrain cases previously reported on by Military Times.
“I didn’t receive training, but there really is no guidelines for sex trafficking operations overseas,” the agent replied. “This was a relatively new kind of operation. There are no standards.”
For reasons that remain unclear, that agent had at one point wiped his government cell phone and failed to keep screenshots of his initial Tinder conversations with the sailor, a misstep that appears to have raised eyebrows on both sides and on the bench during Olaya’s trial.
“This seems to be pretty straightforward investigative work,” military judge Capt. Arthur Gaston said during one hearing. “If you’re tracking down and catching suspected criminals via internet communications, your job is to save all those communications because that’s the primary evidence for the entire case.”
The agent told the court that nobody told him to preserve the phone’s contents before resetting the device.
“I was shocked to know that when I found that the phones had been wiped,” a Navy prosecutor whose name is redacted in the trial record said at one hearing. “That was not discussed with government counsel. I don’t know who else it was discussed with.”
On the stand, the agent said he got the photos he used for the bogus Tinder profiles from Google searches.
“Why did you choose those particular photos?” Cave asked.
“The woman appears to be from Southeast Asia,” the agent said. “In Bahrain, a lot of the sex workers happen to be Thai. So it kind of fit what someone would expect to see in Bahrain, based on my experience.”
“The people that you pulled off the internet, you didn’t get written permission for them to be put out to the world as prostitutes?” Cave asked.
“No, but I would say again, that this operation was approved by the NCIS Middle East field office, our headquarters, and also all our legal folks,” the agent replied. “So, it wasn’t a concern of mine.”
“What the hell happened in December of 2017?”
Potential missteps by NCIS didn’t alter Olaya’s legal fate.
In March 2019, a military jury found Olaya guilty of charges involving attempted child sex trafficking, attempted enforcement of child prostitution, attempted illicit sexual conduct in a foreign place, patronizing prostitutes and attempted sexual assault of a child.
He was sentenced to 15 months in the brig, a dishonorable discharge, a reduction to E-1 and total forfeitures.
Before sentencing, Olaya told the court that while he arrived in Bahrain in February 2017, he didn’t get mixed up with the sex trade until December of that year.
Ahead of Olaya’s sentencing, the petty officer’s defense team portrayed him as a promising young sailor corrupted by the vices of Bahrain.
“Kenny is a wonderful boy,” said his mother, whose name is redacted in the trial transcript provided to Military Times. “He grew up in a healthy environment, family, with strong religious beliefs.”
Cave pointed to Olaya’s numerous awards and “early promote” evaluations from his time in Japan.
“A person from a great family with a family that loves you, great Navy career, kicking butt everywhere you’ve been, succeeding and thriving, having no exposure to that and having no background in dealing with that,” Cave asked his client. “What the hell happened in December of 2017?”
“I thought, since it looks normal, I got caught up into it, into that world, and I lost temporarily my moral compass,” Olaya said. “That was a mistake, the biggest mistake of my life.”
Olaya was still listed as an “early promote” after getting busted and even got his second Navy Achievement Medal when he detached from the ship, several months after getting picked up by NCIS at the Palace Hotel, according to court records.
But during his closing argument, the prosecution argued that Olaya failed to see the gravity of his misdeeds.
“What you heard QM3 Olaya say was that he was a victim of circumstances,” a prosecutor, whose name is redacted in released trial records, told the jury. “What you heard was: ‘Well, a lot of sex workers everywhere, I’d been there a bunch of months, and I made some bad choices, things happened.’”
But Olaya made an “active decision” to continue such behavior, the prosecutor said.
“He seems to believe it’s someone else’s fault, or even just a whole country, Bahrain,” the prosecutor added. “He was there, and it happened.”
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at email@example.com.