Twenty-one men who thought they were going to meet children for sex wound up meeting with a bunch of grown folks instead.
The Florida Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which is headquartered at the Gainesville Police Department, conducted a child predator sting titled “Operation Panther” in the last week.
During the sting, which spanned Aug. 26-31, 11 agents posed as both male and female teenagers. Each contacted an average of 100 to 200 people on the Internet, or 2,200 people in five days, according to GPD.
Of those 2,200, around 90 offenders showed interest in meeting the children in person, while 21 of those traveled to meet a child for sex.
The men who were arrested prearranged a place to meet the disguised agents, and many of them brought condoms and other sexual paraphernalia with them, according to GPD.
No children greeted them, though. Police officers did.
The men range in age from 19 to 56 with an average age of about 30, which is typical for this type of operation, said Detective John Madsen, commander of the task force.
One of the men attempted to lure his victim into the woods to meet, Madsen said. Another man had a bat, pair of rubber gloves, a rope and a tarp in his car.
One offender was on federal probation for a weapons charge, one had a molestation conviction, and one served 10 years for an attempted murder charge.
Two of those arrested, 22-year-old Andres Ortiz-Gomez and 21-year-old Kaelan Beddoe, are students at the University of Florida, according to Steve Orlando, UF media relations senior director.
GPD Chief Tony Jones said that of the 21 arrests, 13 live in Gainesville, but all arrests took place in Gainesville. Currently, they face state charges, but some will be reviewed for federal prosecution.
Madsen said he cannot reveal more details because this is an ongoing investigation, and other jurisdictions are conducting similar operations.
“Folks, we may not want to believe it, but there are bad people in our own city that want to sexually exploit our children” Jones said. “It is our duty as police to ensure that we get these folks away from our community.”
He conducts operations such as “Panther” four to six times per year, but the last one in Gainesville, “Operation Pegasus,” was two years ago. Operations such as this take a couple of months to organize, he said.
“It’s tough,” he said. “We do it when there’s funding. We do it when the local host agency has the manpower and the staffing to do it.”
The undercover agents came from multiple places, including Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, the FBI, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, GPD, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, St. John’s County Sheriff’s Office, Tallahassee Police Department, Volusia County Sheriff’s Office and U.S. Marshals Florida Regional Fugitive Task Force.
“This type of endeavor is only possible through the cooperation of all the north Florida ICAC Task Force affiliates, and this operation is no different,” Madsen said.
Captain Jorge Campos, commander of GPD’s Investigations Bureau, said it is important for parents to supervise their children’s online activities.
“We live in a technologically advanced and progressive society here in Gainesville,” Campos said. “There are now 21 less predators on the Internet, but there are many more still out there. We can’t let our guard down.”
“The Internet is just another place,” Madsen said. “Consider it another town. You wouldn’t send your child to another city without supervision, so why would you let them hang out on the Internet or use social media without supervision?”
Updated 9/3/15: This story was changed to reflect updated information from the Gainesville Police Department and University of Florida media relations senior director Steve Orlando.