Illustration — San Bernardino Police Department is conducting an online sting in July in which officers will pose as children in an attempt to arrest predators. San Bernardino Police are working with LAPD’s International Crimes Against Children, (ICAC) unit to catch predators using the internet to meet with children for sex in San Bernardino on Friday, July 14, 2023. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
Clint Walton sounded crestfallen.
The San Bernardino police detective had been posing as a 12-year-old girl in a text chat with a man who said he wanted to meet her in San Bernardino for sex. But the man had gone silent for more than a month when on June 21 he texted what sounded like a goodbye:
“I’ll always love you. I miss you,” he wrote.
Walton, maintaining his cover, responded: “You just left me all alone.”
“I panicked,” the man texted back.
“He legitimately broke my heart,” Walton joked after showing the texts to a reporter. “I thought he was going to be my first.”
Nevertheless, Walton said it was a victory. The “breakup” meant there was one less man coming in to San Bernardino to sexually assault a child.
Walton and other San Bernardino police officers arrested four other men during a two-week sting in July dubbed Operation Online Guardian that was overseen by the Los Angeles Regional Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
For related, see: Southern California authorities arrest 139 people for internet crimes against children
The LAPD scheduled a news conference for Wednesday, July 26, when it will announce other arrests by other members of the task force, which includes officers from law enforcement agencies in San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties.
Riverside and San Diego counties combine on their own team to snare predators.
Three of the San Bernardino arrests were men booked on suspicion of traveling and soliciting a minor for sex when they showed up at a public place in the city that Walton declined to identify to protect future investigations. Those men, in their late 20s and early 30s, came from the San Bernardino Mountains. Indio and LA, Walton said.
“(The reaction was) very shocked, but it was really defeated almost,” Walton said.
The fourth was a man who Walton said groomed children online for several years and persuaded them to molest a family member.
Walton said he hopes the arrests act as a deterrent.
“We’d consider it a success if we got zero,” Walton said. “To start spreading this awareness and trying to go after these guys who were regularly victimizing kids, I think it was a huge success.”
The San Bernardino Police Department’s Specialized Investigation Bureau began engaging with sexual predators four years ago after officers noticed that the task force was receiving tips about men contacting girls who live in the city.
The problem worsened during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when minors had to spend more time at home and online, Walton said.
“It’s just taken off exponentially,” he said. “They feel so much more emboldened to contact these kids.”
Lt. Jennifer Kohrell likened the situation to an unguarded sandbox.
“There’s nobody monitoring the playground. And that’s the scary part,” she said.
Walton encourages parents to regularly monitor their children’s electronic devices. And children should alert their parents if they are contacted by a suspicious person.
The men generally do not attempt to hide the fact that they are adults, Walton said. He noted that the case of the “Catfishing cop,” Austin Lee Edwards, is unusual. Riverside police say Edwards, who was a sheriff’s deputy in Virginia, posed as a 17-year-old boy online before killing three members of his teen love interest’s family.
Predators contact minors through some two dozen apps such as MocoSpace, Whisper and MeetMe.
“They just start messaging you out of nowhere,” Walton said.
The men are aware that a police officer could be on the other end of a text. They sometimes will ask for a voice message or video, mindful that anyone could produce a phony picture.
Walton is ready for them.
So his cover story remains consistent, Walton prepares a dossier on his alter egos, giving them names, a list of what they like to do for fun and the type of clothes they wear, the name of the school they attend, a date of birth and even background on their sexual experience.
It’s illegal entrapment if an undercover officer suggests they meet for sex. But if the man does it, it’s game on. Walton will try to arrange a meeting place, time and date and get a description of the man and his car. When that happens — it could take hours or weeks — officers will stake out the area and swoop in when the man arrives.
“We are taking one off the streets to prevent it from happening to another kid,” Walton said.
People can learn more about internet safety for their children or report suspicious people by contacting Walton at 909-384-5644 or Walton_Cl@sbcity.org.