An undercover sting operation in Utah County over the last week netted 13 arrests of men accused of trying to lure minors on the internet to meet for sexual contact, officials of Utah’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force said Monday.
“The 13 people that we arrested were actively seeking to either rape or sodomize children,” said Jessica Farnsworth, commander of the ICAC task force, at a news conference at the Utah State Capitol.
Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes said no children were involved in catching these 13 suspects, who were in contact with some of the 200 ICAC officers working the case, including members of the Utah County Sheriff’s Office and the Provo and Orem police departments.
Officers are proactive in pursuing sexual predators online, Farnsworth said, because “we would rather get them before they get our children.”
Many of those arrested live in Utah County, though others hail from Taylorsville, Magna and Layton. One is 20 years old, one is 60, and most of the rest are within a few years of 30.
In probable cause statements, police say they struck up conversations with the suspects online, on sites and apps such as Grindr, Whisper and Craigslist.
The information gathered by the task force, Reyes said, “shows further evidence that there are adults in our communities who appear to be actively and aggressively trying to have sexual contact with Utah children.”
The statistics paint a grim picture. In the last three months, Farnsworth said, the ICAC has received 807 referrals from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, conducted 512 investigations and made 104 arrests. If those trends continue for the rest of 2019, the figures will dwarf 2018’s numbers, when the ICAC took 916 referrals, conducted 1,268 investigations and made 226 arrests.
The increase, Farnsworth said, “is nothing to be proud of.”
Some of the increase could be attributed to better reporting, Reyes said. But he also worries that technology makes it easier for sexual predators to thrive. In the pre-internet days, Reyes said, predators “had to be physically at a school or playground.… In the past, these predators took a great risk. Now they take almost no risk at all.”
Leo Lucey, chief of investigations in the Attorney General’s office, called the sites and apps the ICAC targets “a target-rich environment” for predators. “We don’t find them most of the time. They find us,” he said.
And Utah County, where this most recent sting took place, is not unique. “We could do it in any county and have the same results,” Farnsworth said.
Of the 13 suspects arrested, 11 were contacting minors between the ages of 11 and 13 years old. That changes the severity of the charges against them; a charge of enticing a minor is a second-degree felony if the child is under 14, and it’s a class-A misdemeanor if the child is between 14 and 18.
Eight suspects were charged with a felony enticement charge; two were charged with the misdemeanor version.
Among the other charges, there were eight counts of attempted rape of a child, 10 charges of attempted sodomy of a child, three counts of attempted aggravated sexual abuse of a child, and two counts of attempted forcible sexual abuse of a child. All are first-degree felonies.
A suspect typing his intentions online would warrant an enticement charge, said Christine Scott, deputy Utah County Attorney. The more severe felony counts come into play when the suspect shows up at a meeting place, indicating intent to perform a sexual act.
Most of the 13 arrested made their first court appearances Monday, Scott said.