19 suspects charged following Utah’s Operation Digital Siege undercover sting targeting online predators – St George News | #childpredator | #onlinepredator | #sextrafficing

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ST. GEORGE — Charges have been filed against 19 suspects following a five-day sting operation across the state targeting those who prey upon children online.

Stock image | Photo by Bondarilla/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

The operation, which involved multiple agencies that worked in cooperation with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, was weeks in the making and spearheaded by the Utah Attorney General’s Office.

Four Southern Utah task force affiliate agencies that participated include the St. George and Washington City police departments and Washington and Iron County sheriff’s offices.

The Child Crime Prevention and Safety Center estimates that daily, some 500,000 online predators are active and hover in the background seeking to communicate with children across the country. The minors are 12-15 years old and especially susceptible to being groomed or manipulated by adults they meet online, the center reports

In the most serious cases, this can lead to real-life encounters, as was the case in a sting operation conducted in Utah last week.

Sting proves effective

Operation Digital Siege was conducted over a five-day period last week involving multiple agencies across the state that resulted in numerous felony charges filed against 19 defendants.

Those charges include enticement and sexual exploitation of a minor, dealing in harmful materials to a minor and sexual extortion. 

Additionally, the operation involved executing residential search warrants at the homes of those who distributed and possessed the illicit images which resulted in multiple investigations, a number of which are ongoing so the names of the defendants charged have yet to be released.  

Officers working undercover were deployed “to expose adults seeking to harm children and perpetuate child sexual abuse material,” according to a press release issued by the Utah Attorney General’s Office.

Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes was on site at the command center and worked with teams into the night during the operation. He said that the sting operations including the most recent, was a success, though bittersweet.

“On one hand, I am elated we are prosecuting suspected predators, pornographers, and pedophiles,” Reyes said in the statement, adding that while 19 alleged perpetrators are off the street and off the internet, cases like these also serve as a reminder of how pervasive these dangers are in Utah.

File photo of Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes | Photo courtesy of Sean Reyes for Attorney General, St. George News

Reyes added that these task force agents are additionally motivated by the fact they have children too.

“I won’t rest and neither will my teams until we have done everything possible to protect our children online,” Reyes said in the statement.

St. George News contacted Cpl. Tom Bird with the Iron County Sheriff’s Office, and he said the agency has four detectives assigned to the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and participated in the statewide sting operation conducted last week.

Bird, who has worked with the internet crimes task force for nearly eight years, said several suspects identified during the operation were communicating from out of state with children in Utah — and more than one took it even further. 

“With this particular operation, several people actually traveled to Utah with the intent to engage in sexual contact with these children,” he added. 

Bird said it takes a unique individual to endure what they encounter when communicating with the suspects involved, as well as the ability to handle what agents are exposed to while working these cases.

“There is definitely a vetting process since you can’t just put anybody in that role,” he said.

Bird added that in addition to participating in statewide sting operations, these officers follow up on tips from the Utah Attorney General’s Office or from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Cyber Tip Line.

As advances in technology move at a rapid pace, so do the number of internet crimes involving sexual abuse of children. These advances have fueled the need for coordinated police operations focused on identifying and arresting those responsible and getting them off the streets.

Bird said online crimes against children are not victimless crimes, even if it’s confined to communication over the internet. It still exposes the child to harmful images and conversations they would have little or no access to without the internet, he said.

“So even if there’s not actual physical contact made between the perpetrator and the victim, it changes the child’s world,” he said.

The victims, he added, are children — typically online to either game with their friends or converse with their peers — who are exposed to an increasing number of adults seeking to harm them.

An Iron County Sheriff’s Office patrol vehicle in Cedar City on May 14, 2022 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

“And it’s happening more often than not to real live children – which is why we do these operations,” Bird said.

In April, the AG’s office deployed a two-week statewide sting, Operation Cyber Spear, that resulted in more than 10 arrests and several search warrants that resulted in multiple investigations.

The St. George Police Department also has four detectives assigned to the task force that covers the entire state, St. George Police Sgt. Adam Olmstead told St. George News during an interview in April. He said the importance of participating in multi-jurisdictional sting operations that involve internet crimes against children cannot be overstated — the focus is simple.

“We are targeting people that are targeting children,” he said.

Three Utah legislators were onsite to observe the sting operation conducted in August, including House Minority Leader Angela Romero, Rep.Jay Cobb and House Majority Assistant Whip Karianne Lisonbee, who emphasized the professionalism and productivity demonstrated by the task force teams.

“Utahns need to know how fortunate we are to have such capable and effective law enforcement personnel protecting us and our children,” Lisonbee said.

Operation Digital Siege involved more than 100 agents from more than 20 local law enforcement agencies across Utah, along with several state and federal agencies, including the Homeland Security Investigations, Adult Probation and Parole, the Regional Computer Forensic Lab and the Department of Natural Resources.

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