25 Men Arrested in Online Child Sex Sting

Once again an online sting against child sexual predators netted a long list of predators. This time it was in Pensacola, Florida, but it could have been anywhere in the country. Once over-hyped as lurking behind every online contact, then dismissed as statistically insignificant, child sexual predators constitute a very real concern online, and they are constantly trolling for new victims.

To thwart their exploitation of minors, Child Predator, and Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) units continue to pose as underage minors online, and continue to reel in these predators with virtually every fly they cast.

According to news reports, 25 men were arrested yesterday on felony charges after an intensive undercover operation called “Operation Blue Shepherd”. The sting involved officers from local, state and federal agencies who determined the men were using the internet to arrange sexual encounters with minors.

Pensacola Police Capt. Paul Kelly said officers used various social networking and e-commerce sites to respond to advertisements of a sexual nature and to place similar advertisements. “We would get 10-15 hits on [an] ad even though it was only up two or three minutes. That tells you the volume of the people out there.”

Investigators say the suspects all solicited who they thought were young girls or boys ages 12 to 14 online, specifically describing various sexual acts they were going to do with the children whom they believed they were talking with. They then set a time to meet up in a house leased by law enforcement and rigged with audio and video surveillance.

“They pulled right up in the driveway, got out of the car and immediately … knocked on the door. There was no hesitation what so ever. That would tell me that they’ve either done this before or just completely at ease and comfortable with going to this house to have sex with a 12 to 14 year old,” Kelly said.  Upon arrival, they were arrested and questioned.

Officers were surprised to find so many eager participants from the immediate Pensacola area. “We expected to have more violators traveling from outside the area. What this tells me is that these violators do not have to travel far to find their victims. They are much closer to home than we imagined,” Kelly said.

Investigators said perhaps the more disturbing aspect of this investigation is that these are just the men who were caught.

“On any given day, in the county of Escambia, Fla., we could execute 80 warrants a day for those who are accessing child pornography sites. We are limited by man power and of course resources, the fiscal side of it, or we would make much harder presses against this crime because it is insidious,” Escambia Co. Sheriff David Morgan said.

Child sexual predators come in all ages and all walks of life

The men arrested in this sting ranged in age from 18 to 56. This is a critical point as it helps bust the myth that pedophiles are ‘dirty OLD men’. One third of those arrested were 25 or younger and over half were 30 or younger. Some look like dirty old men, others look like someone you know would want to date, and the youngest look like they still live at home with their mama.

Like all child sexual exploitation stings these men’s occupations ranged from laborers, to professionals and active military personnel.

Unfortunately, the most common scenario cases are also the one group of predators who use the internet to facilitate child sexual exploitation is never caught in these stings. These are the cases where the offender knows the victim; the family member, family friend, priest, teacher or other trusted adult. Many of these abusers – even fathers – leverage the internet to hide most of their grooming activities from those who would otherwise notice the inappropriate behavior.

Why this matters to you

While the media’s focus on internet safety has shifted almost exclusively to cyberbullying and sexting, other forms of predation continue to pose a threat.

More kids get harmed by schoolyard bullies than get hit by cars – but we still go to great lengths to teach youth how to look both ways and follow traffic safety rules. This same pragmatism must be applied to online safety issues as well, we cannot fail to address in a careful and thoughtful way the full scope of potential online issues youth may face.

Some internet safety “experts” have all but dismissed the threat of sexual predators online as a rarity that essentially only involves troubled youth, and have advised that efforts should instead focus on areas that impact a larger number of victims. This is shockingly poor guidance.  This is not an either/or scenario.

While successful sexual exploitation of a minor met through the internet is far less common than many other forms of abuse, it is not a rare outcome. The potentially horrific and life-long consequences of sexual exploitation demand that focus, education and prevention efforts remain a priority for families, schools, and others who teach youth about online safety.

Another common, though unfortunate, observation is that most of the youth who were solicited online were already experiencing trouble in other aspects of their lives. While this is true, it doesn’t present the larger more accurate picture.

Some youth who have fallen victim to online sexual predators were shockingly ‘normal’ with great grades, strong friendships, and popular. Others have been in trouble at home, at school or with the law multiple times. Some are lonely, vulnerable, questioning their own sexuality, unsupervised, or have already been victims of sexual exploitation.

All youth are more vulnerable at some points than they are at others, and predators, including child sexual predators, are constantly probing online and offline for youth who are in one of those vulnerable moments.

It is essential for parents, teachers and caregivers to candidly discuss with kids and teens how to appropriately engage with others, how to reject inappropriate contact, and how to seek help when needed whether the contact is online or offline.

As you discuss online safety with kids and teens, talk about the full breadth of potential threats, teach what youth can do to stay safer and avoid harm, and assure your children that you will give them your total support if problems arise.

This does not mean scaring children, nor does it mean banning youth from using the internet. In fact, banning youth from social networking or other online activities is likely to backfire and lead to deception. It also places youth at an extremely high level of vulnerability as youth who have been told they can’t use these online tools, can’t turn to you if things go wrong.

Actively engage with your child online, understand who they are interacting with, teach social responsibility, family safety and privacy, and be in tune to changes in their behavior that could indicate issues.

We need the ongoing discussions about cyberbullying and self-exploitation through sexting, but we cannot set aside teaching youth about online sexual exploitation, and other potential areas of risk.



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