An elementary school teacher and a health care worker were among 119 men arrested in a five-county cyber-predator sting.
The six-week initiative netted the highest number of suspected child predators in Florida to date, according to the Florida Sheriffs Task Force — including 32 in Sarasota County.
Florida Sheriffs worked with the North, Central and South Florida Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces in a series of stings to identify and arrest the suspected predators who allegedly engaged in sex offenses with minors.
The results by county are:
• Operation Intercept (Sarasota),
• Operation Cyber Child (Polk),
• Operation Southern Sentinel (Broward), 28 arrests (primarily child pornography and prostitution-related crimes, rather than traveling to meet minors for sex).
• Operation Riptide (Bay), 12 arrests.
• Operation Summer Knights (Citrus), nine arrests (operation cut short due to Tropical Storm Debby).
The stings resulted in the arrest of an elementary school teacher, a health care professional and a registered sex offender, among others. Most of the suspected predators brought condoms, as well as other items ranging from Barbie dolls to gallons of milk.
Sheriff Ben Johnson of Volusia County, president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, said the collaborative effort helps make Florida safer for the state’s youth.
“As evidenced by its recent successes across the state to target online sexual predators, this approach uses best practices and collaboration in an effort to keep Florida’s children safe,” Johnson said. “The Florida Sheriffs Task Force, in collaboration with our other Florida partners, continues our targeted efforts to address areas of concern across the state.”
During the operations, undercover detectives posted fictitious ads or profiles on various websites such as Craigslist, posing as children or as the caretakers and guardians of children. Detectives also posed as children in online chat rooms.
Numerous men responded to the ads and then proceeded to chat online, email, text and talk on the phone with the undercover detectives posing as children online. The suspects solicited for sex acts, sent pornographic pictures and live webcam images of themselves, and asked for nude photos of the children to be sent to them.
detectives also conducted a child-recovery operation, in conjunction with the FBI Minor Vice Task Force. During this two-day operation, undercover detectives solicited ads from Backpage.com, leading to the recovery of several children.
Florida Sheriffs announced its “Cyber Sexual Predator Initiative” to protect children and educate Floridians about the dangers of Internet predators in September 2011. Since then, local, state and federal law enforcement officers from the ICAC task forces and Florida Department of Law Enforcement have arrested more than 320 sex-crimes offenders in Florida.
“We are sending a clear message to predators everywhere that Florida Sheriffs and our law enforcement partners will not tolerate this type of despicable behavior,” said Florida Sheriffs Task Force Chairman and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd. “Protecting our children is our No. 1 priority, and as long as there are predators out there who want to victimize our children, we will commit our resources to arresting them.”