A large task force from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, St. Petersburg police department, Clearwater police, the FBI and others worked for months in planning the sting. Reminiscent of the old MSNBC show “To Catch a Predator”, authorities began Pinellas County’s largest child predator sting in years.
Between last Thursday and this Monday (January 27), investigators posted adds on dozens of websites and chatrooms such as AOL, craigslist, and yahoo chatrooms. The officers posed as underage boys and girls between 13 and 15 years old as well as parents offering their children up for sex! They reported that within minutes of opening a chat, they would recive five to eight instant messages.
Eventually photos and text messages were exchanged with dozens of men. Meetings were set up in an attempt to have the men travel in what they hoped was sex with underage children. Once the meeting was arranged, the officers would contact patrolmen to make the arrest, meeting the suspects at various places in north Pinellas.
Travel they did. Suspects soon swooped in from all over the state. One man came to Clearwater from Kenneth City on a bicycle. Fathers, husbands, students. Professionals, homeless and even one man studying to be an elementary school teacher!
The men range in age from teenagers to 65 years old. Most are from Pinellas county, Hillsborough and Manatee with one man coming from Miami.
The arrested men had various stories. Some broke down and confessed, some denied and others had horrible stories. One man admitted to “urges” he could no longer control. One man from Tampa, who had traveled in the hopes of meeting a mother who was selling her underage daughter for sex, claimed to have previously slept with a four year old child!
Another man had left his 10 and 12 year-old daughters at home in the hopes of meeting what he thought was a 14-year-old girl for sex. His wife was called at work to pick up their daughters from home!
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri gave a press conference Monday afternoon. He was pleased with the results but admitted that dozens more arrests might have been possible. He shared his views on those arrested. “They are predators. Nothing but predators. They really need to be eradicated from our county, I view this as the No. 1 public safety issue in Pinellas right now.”
A Clearwater criminal defense attorney should know the possible penalties on these charges. The traveling to meet a child charge and the seduction of a minor over the internet or electronic device are third and second degree felony charges. This means they are punishable by up to five years on the third degree and 15 years prison on the second degree.
More importantly to both the suspects and society as a whole is the requirement to register as a sex predator or sex offender. These requirements are quite extensive and include registration, updating their information with the Sheriff two to four times per year and exclusion from living in many areas where there may be children. The registration requirements/frequently asked questions are found in the above link.
Lastly, a conviction on many of these charges will include being subject to a potential Jimmy Ryce hearing. This may involve an involuntary civil commitment upon release from prison for treatment in a secured facility.