AUGUSTA — Twenty-one men have been charged with engaging a prostitute as a result of multi-agency sting conducted at three hotels in Augusta and Waterville over the last six weeks.

All but one of the men is from Maine, and they range in age from 23 to 71.

The sting, which was conducted by Augusta and Waterville police departments and the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office, concluded Thursday night in Augusta.

“We suspected that prostitution was taking place throughout central Maine and highly suspected we would get high number of responses to Internet ads from potential ‘johns,’ ” said Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey on Friday. “A lot of people kind of view this as a victimless crime. We don’t. Prostitutes are very alienated and exploited.”

Kennebec Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Ryan Reardon said ads were placed on the Internet and on social media sites, and individuals came to one of the hotels expecting to pay for sex.

“The person they encountered, however, was an employee of the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office and the suspected johns were detained by teams comprised of members of our three agencies,” he said.

A probable cause affidavit by Kennebec Sheriff’s Deputy Todd Chilton, filed in an Augusta court in support of the arrest of Mark Conley, 61, of Raymond, says he responded to an online ad at 2 p.m. Thursday “by stating he wanted to barter and bring crack cocaine in exchange for a sexual act.”

Chilton said he searched Conley after he walked into the room and was taken into custody, finding what appeared to be crack cocaine.

In a release sent from all the agencies Friday, Augusta Police Chief Robert Gregoire said, “Individuals seeking to patronize prostitutes – and the money they spend – create the market for these crimes and the opportunity for the victimization of many trafficked individuals.”

Massey also said the cooperation can lead to other joint ventures because the officers talk and share information about other cases.

The men were charged with engaging a prostitute, a Class E misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Some men also face other charges as a result of the investigation, including: Conley, who was arrested at the same time on charges of unlawful trafficking in scheduled drugs, unlawful furnishing of a scheduled drug, unlawful possession of a scheduled drug, and sale and use of drug paraphernalia; Brandon Berry, 27, of West Forks, who was charged with violating conditions of release; and Jacob B. Vega, 26, of Corinna, who was also charged with possession of a scheduled drug.

This story will be updated.