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Schnepf declined to comment on the Chapman case but said a 10-year sentence in these situations is appropriate. She said that the people rounded up in Net Nanny stings were just as dangerous as the ones charged with assaulting children; they just hadn’t been caught yet. Children may be afraid to speak up, she said, and when they do, adults often don’t believe them. “When you look at the criminal history, it really doesn’t give a full picture of who these people are.” A State Patrol spokesman said in an email that Operation Net Nanny represents the work of serious professionals: “Our undercover personnel must pretend to be a part of a dangerous, reckless and uncaring community of sexual exploitation to affect legally grounded, ethically executed, and morally imperative arrests.”

Rodriguez, a 27-year veteran of the Washington State Patrol, brought the idea for Operation Net Nanny to state-police officials in 2015. He wrote many of the texts used to “chat the guys in” to sting houses, scheduled stings, organized logistics and coordinated with local law enforcement. In court, he was often the main prosecution witness. He was repeatedly featured in the media and invited to speak at law-enforcement symposiums. When interviewed by reporters, Rodriguez often struck a somber tone. In July 2016, after 13 people were arrested on charges related to attempted sex crimes in stings in Spokane County, Rodriguez told a reporter, “There’s really only one way to say it: They’re raping children.”

One of the reasons many of the men were arrested in sting operations in and around Tacoma was because Rodriguez had his office there. “It’s easy for them to do operations here,” Schnepf says. The state-police officials may have approved Operation Net Nanny, but they did not initially allocate a lot of resources to it. At first, Rodriguez was one of just two or three full-time detectives involved. Washington law, however, permits the state police to solicit donations to underwrite sting operations, and Rodriguez, in addition to running them, was a fund-raiser. Most donations came from local residents and were in the $25 to $100 range. But one donor stands out. In 2015, Rodriguez approached Operation Underground Railroad, a nonprofit group based in Utah and California. O.U.R. describes itself as an anti-child-trafficking organization made up of former “C.I.A., Navy SEALs and Special Ops operatives” who travel the globe rescuing young victims and assisting local authorities in prosecuting predators. O.U.R. has a full-time staff of 17 and claims 4,122 rescues since it was founded in 2013. Critics have described it as a cowboy rescue operation that often takes along media, as well as celebrities — Tony Robbins, the “Walking Dead” star Laurie Holden, Chelsie Hightower of “Dancing With the Stars” — on international rescue missions. Much of the O.U.R. website is devoted to fund-raising activities: invitations to join the Abolitionist Club (a minimum of $5 a month); a clothing line; news of the annual golf tournament and of celebrity galas.

Between 2015 and 2018, O.U.R. donated more than $170,000 to Washington State Patrol’s Net Nanny operations, according to the most recent public tax records. The Washington State Patrol is the only state-police agency in the country that O.U.R. has given to. The O.U.R. donations paid for additional detectives, hotels, food and overtime. Rodriguez helped arrange positive media coverage for the organization. Yet O.U.R.’s strong religious and political bent make it an odd partner for a public agency like the Washington State Patrol. The founder, Tim Ballard, who earned more than $343,000 in 2018, is a former special agent for the Department of Homeland Security and a practicing Mormon. He once told a reporter that he started O.U.R. after God told him, “Find the lost children.”

If someone isn’t “comfortable praying,” he said in a 2015 interview with Foreign Policy, “they’re not going to be comfortable working with us.” In early 2019, when Democrats in Congress were fighting President Trump’s plans for a border wall, Ballard repeatedly appeared on Fox News, including shows hosted by Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, to defend the wall as a way to reduce sex trafficking, citing his experience as a former federal agent. And at a February 2019 White House conference aimed at shoring up political support for the wall, Ballard was seated beside Trump.

In February 2016, according to a court filing, a Justice Department official cautioned members of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, or I.C.A.C., a national network of federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies, against “being involved in, assisting or supporting operations with” Ballard’s group. Capt. Michael Edwards, the commander of the Washington branch of the task force, relayed the message to state and local police in an email. According to Edwards, the Justice Department official stressed that O.U.R. had no affiliation with the task force and that no task-force group should partner with O.U.R. or provide O.U.R. with “any resources, equipment, personnel, training.”

Ballard’s representatives repeatedly pressed Rodriguez for news coverage. In a 2016 email, one asked for “a more firm commitment that we will be able to do joint news releases and media appearances.” Rodriguez replied, “I do not see there being a problem whatsoever with the media.” A few weeks later, in an interview with The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, he urged the public to donate to O.U.R. A Justice Department official cautioned Rodriguez’s superiors, according to the court filing, but he told them he had been misquoted. If so, he never requested a correction, says Chad Sokol, the reporter who wrote the story. In August 2019, Rodriguez was transferred to one of the State Patrol’s elite units, running the personal security detail for Gov. Jay Inslee. “Sgt. Rodriguez has performed honorably, admirably and legally in his development coordination and support of Operation Net Nanny,” a patrol spokesman said in an email, adding that he gave “27 years of exemplary service to the state of Washington and to the cause of justice.”

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