The headlines are all too common. Oklahoma, March 2023 “Extremely disturbing’: 5 men charged in child predator sting using decoys posing as 14 and 15 year olds”, Las Vegas, June 2023 “14 suspects arrested in undercover child sex predator sting”, San Francisco, June 2023 “ Seven men were arrested during a sting operation launched by the Contra Costa County Internet Crimes Against Children task force last week”, Oregon, April 2023 6 men arrested in Washington County child predator sting”, Scottsdale, AZ June 2023 “Dozens arrested in the Valley after online predator sting operation”, Hawaii, March 2023 “13 Sexual Predators in Hawaii Caught in Sting Operation”. The list could go on. And on.
Detectives find themselves knee-deep in a lot of places looking for clues to solve crimes. It could be a fugitive in the broom closet, a body buried in the backyard, or a receipt in the dumpster. Or it could be online playing the part of a 14-year-old girl being propositioned by a man somewhere who should know better than to think there are any secrets on the internet.
It isn’t very difficult to get hit on if you look like a girl in a chat or on social media. Boys are victims, too as well as female perpetrators, but men attempting to lure underage girls is the primary finding of investigators. Making a case for internet luring or attempted sexual assault of a minor is not quite so easy. As with any “sting” operation, law enforcement must ensure that the suspect is not lured into committing an offense that they might not otherwise commit. This would lead to a defense claim of entrapment that can result in a lost criminal case. The suspect must be fully aware and acknowledge that they believe their target is a minor, and must be the first to suggest sexual activity.
Internet predator investigations can be done with any size agency, although the time it takes to establish the connection with a suspect, establishing their criminal intent and a step in furtherance of their crime, setting up the capture, and documenting the digital evidence can be daunting. Larger agencies have dedicated units that deal with all sorts of internet investigations that include catching predators.
A frequent method is using a multi-agency team involving federal agencies. Task force operations with monikers like the San Francisco area’s Operation Spring Cleaning, Hawaii’s Operation Keiki Shield, Florida’s Operation C.A.K.E. (Cops Against Kid Exploitation), and Fresno, CA’s Operation H.O.O.K. (Hands Off Our Kids), and Salt Lake City’s All-Star Weekend predator roundup Operation Technical Foul are examples of reaching across boundaries.
In the recent Las Vegas arrests a joint task force included the FBI, Henderson Police, Homeland Security Investigations, North Las Vegas Police, U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigation, and the Nevada Attorney General’s office. Federal help can be essential because the internet knows no state boundaries. Predators can be more than willing to travel long distances when they have a chance to fulfill their fantasy of sex with a child. Some agencies use young-looking female officers to do real-time video with suspects or to be in the rendezvous location for the arrest. Others use the distribution of child porn or laws against internet luring to make a case even if a physical meeting is not attempted.
As with many criminal endeavors, particularly those associated with vice, the suspects range from exactly who one might picture, to a perfectly respectable person to the world outside of the presumed anonymity of the internet. One Oregon suspect was a U.S. Forest Service employee who showed up in an agency fire truck to meet an underage girl, another was a music director at a church. Some are already registered sex offenders, but most are not. Most also continue their conversations with undercover officers and include pornographic photos along with their sexually explicit chats.
Officers who work with exploited children in internet investigations and other child exploitation units need breaks and ongoing mental health support to deal with the deplorable things they see and hear. The work is challenging, but of course, vital. Agent Edward Arias of Hawaii’s Attorney General’s Office says “I want to say to all the predators and you think you’re talking to a child you’re probably talking to one of us. So I want to put the fear of God in them.” In addition to catching predators, these operations may make others decide the risk is not worth the cost.