A four-day child predator investigation in Pinellas County that involved local, state and federal investigators resulted in 35 arrests.
The sting, dubbed “Operation Home Alone,” targeted people seeking minors online for sexual relations.
The suspects, ranging between 19 and 65 years of age, are from Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Manatee counties. Police claim one suspect drove his bike to Clearwater from Kenneth City. Another is accused of driving from Miami, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
The investigation was organized by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and the Clearwater Police Department and also involved the St. Petersburg Police Department, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The sting started at 2 p.m. Thursday and ended at 2 a.m. Monday. The undercover operation used 12 investigators posing as minors to chat online with suspects. Reports indicate that detectives worked from 2 a.m. to 2 p.m. for the entire four days at computers set up in a training room at Clearwater police headquarters.
Investigators posted ads and chatted with people on more than a dozen websites, including backpage.com and Craig’s List. According to police, once a suspect arranged to meet with a minor, officers out on patrol were notified to arrive at the meeting locations and arrest those that showed up. Officials said that four meeting places in north Pinellas County were used.
Those arrested were brought to the Clearwater Police Department where they were interviewed and shown the transcripts of their online conversations before being transferred to the Pinellas County jail.
Those arrested will likely face charges related to traveling to meet a minor, sexual battery and procuring a person under the age of 18 for prostitution, according to police.
Ever since “To Catch A Predator” aired on NBC’s Dateline, local, state and federal law enforcement officers have stepped their game up in regards to catching those suspected of committing sex crimes via the Internet. By conducting undercover sex stings, police work around the clock for a certain time frame posing as minors or the parents or guardians of minors looking to arrange sexual encounters. Once arrests are made, the media often paints the worst picture possible regarding the suspects involved and fails to acknowledge whether those detained were the possible victims of police entrapment – when an officer’s behavior induces a person to commit a crime they otherwise would not have committed.
The entrapment defense requires thorough investigation and must be constructed carefully if used as a successful defense strategy. A Pinellas County Criminal Defense Lawyer at Whittel & Melton can review the events leading up to your arrest and determine if this is a viable defense option.
Unfortunately, those accused of sex crimes are usually marked as guilty by the public before they have a chance to defend themselves against the allegations. An arrest stemming from an undercover Internet child sex sting can have devastating consequences to one’s reputation and life. Fortunately, the criminal justice system views the accused as innocent until proven guilty. If you have been arrested for a sex crime following an undercover operation, it is best to explore your legal options right away. Do not let police fool you into thinking there is nothing you can do to clear your name. Call a Pinellas County Criminal Defense Attorney at Whittel & Melton today at 727-823-0000 to find out how we can help you.