Undercover impact: Officials laud success of sting operations | Western Colorado | #childpredator | #kidsaftey | #childsaftey

In early November, an undercover sting operation led to 10 arrests over a two-day span.

The investigation grabbed headlines with the sting operation and arrests linked to online sexual predators.

Mesa County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Travis Christensen, who oversees the Complex Crimes Unit, organized the sting. Christensen said he would like for those types of operations to occur more frequently.

”Unfortunately, every time we do one of these operations, especially the child predator operations, we’re highly successful in them, which I don’t know that that’s a good thing, to be real honest with you,” he said. “It shows me that we need to increase our efforts in targeting suspects who try to harm children. I think that it shows we need to up our frequency on them.

”I don’t know what that frequency should be.”

The Grand Junction Police Department, the Palisade Police Department, the Utah’s Grand County Sheriff’s Office, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, Colorado State Patrol, the 21st Judicial District Attorney’s Office and Homeland Security Investigations were also involved in the sting operation.

”Nobody in that arena is calling us to advise us of a crime that’s happening, and we know it’s happening, but how do you get into that? So this type of operation is one way to try to get into that field,” Grand Junction Police Department Deputy Chief Shawn Hasty said.

Several officials involved in the operation said they would like for them to happen more frequently.

”Any time we can do preventative crime-fighting instead of reactive crime-fighting, it builds a safer community,” said Kaitlyn Aschmann, a paralegal with the District Attorney’s Office who worked on the sting. “So being able to pull people off the street before they can create a real victim is always a benefit.”


”These particular stings are targeting individuals who are trying to have sex with underage children,” Christensen said. “We utilize undercover (officers) who pose for child prostitution. We have suspects make contact with us, and then at some point agree to meet, and then we’ll meet them somewhere and, generally speaking, take them into custody at that time.”

The most recent sting operation had more than 40 people assigned to it, Christensen said. These types of operations generally take 90-120 days to set up.

Christensen said the Department of Homeland Security can offer overtime money for officers working on the stings so the operations don’t affect a department’s day-to-day staffing.

The main partners right now for these operations are the Department of Homeland Security and Colorado Bureau of Investigation, Christensen said, and Grand Junction Police, Palisade Police, and the 21st Judicial District Attorney’s Office are also included

”The partnerships are really what make this happen,” Christensen said.

One issue with the complexity of the operation is keeping everything straight on the back end.

”If they’re all writing reports, they’re all pulling a case number from their own agency, and so you may have — as opposed to one or two witnesses that handle a case when a person calls 911 and they go out and investigate and make the arrest — you may have 20 or 30 different witnesses, in this almost assembly line sort of fashion,” Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein said.

Rubinstein continued, “So if they’re all pulling case numbers from their own agency, it’s on our staff to make sure that we’re properly gathering all the discovery and getting it out.”

Rubinstein also said he likes for law enforcement to involve his office early in the process for a sting so he can manage any staffing or workload concerns that arise from multiple felony sex crime cases landing at the same time.

”I think our staff actually gets excited about these kinds of cases because they only are doing stings on things that we think are very important, and so even though it’s additional work, I don’t think anybody minds,” he said.

Rubinstein said there is a component of the investigation in which officers try to find out if someone caught in a sting has created real victims.

“We’re rather fortunate here because all of our agencies work together really well. Even though it’s a huge operation with a lot of players, the way that they try to coordinate so that we get all the evidence and get all the information is really unique, actually, for our county,” Achmann said.


There is no quota or overarching policy detailing how often these sorts of sting operations can or should happen.

”I’d like to see them happen more frequently, but truthfully, I think manpower can be an issue, which reduces the frequency of the types of stings that we do,” Christensen said.

Christensen declined to say how frequently these types of operations are conducted, but did say the Sheriff’s Office tries to do at least one per year.

”I think the decision comes up just based on the fact that we want to make sure we are proactively seeking out these guys that look to harm children,” Christensen said.

Christensen also said there aren’t set circumstances that would trigger the planning of a sting operation.

”There’s nothing in policy that comes and says ‘hey, now’s the time to do this.’ It seems no matter when we conduct these operations we’re successful, wintertime, summertime, it doesn’t really matter. So there’s nothing really that initiates it other that the desire to proactively target people who are trying to harm children,” Christensen said.

Similarly, Grand Junction Police don’t have a set quota or overarching policy for stings either.

”I don’t think there’s anything specific to it,” Hasty said. “Sometimes, depending on if you looked at the predator operation, we’re working with multiple agencies to do that, so that may have something to do with the timing of that.”

Hasty said putting all the agencies needed to carry out such an operation can have an affect on the timing of an operation.

Hasty also said GJPD favors a balanced approach to investigating, and isn’t particularly aggressive with sting operations.

”In any type of investigation, we’re doing always looking for other opportunities that are there, some maybe less intrusive than others, some maybe more successful than others if you work in combination,” Hasty said.


”One of our most difficult challenges in prosecuting cases with actual victims is you have a person who is going through a lot personally, you have victims rights obligations to meet with them, go over the charges, go over the evidence, go over the offers,” Rubinstein said. “None of that exists here.”

Rubinstein also said sometimes juries react differently when there isn’t an actual child that has been harmed.

However, he said the law enforcement officer doing the chatting is a credible witness, and the chats are all recorded.

”It unfolded in front of the police, instead of us recreating what happened years later,” Rubinstein said.

In cases like sting operations, the prosecution has to make sure the plea offers being made match the level of aggravation in the case, and so if you change one plea offer to be higher or lower, you have to change all of them to maintain consistency.

Rubinstein has said his office is bullish on getting lifetime supervision for people in sex crime cases, in part because it can be difficult or even impossible to change who or what someone is sexually attracted to.

”We obviously can’t take the hard line on everything and have to decide what’s most important to this community, and it is very clear to me from all of the public presentations that I’ve done that violent crime and sex offenses are where they want us spending the bulk of our time and energy,” Rubinstein said.


Sting operations have been controversial because they create the chance to commit a crime. Many defense attorneys consider sting operations entrapment by coercing someone into committing a crime.

Christensen said Mesa County law enforcement agencies take steps to make sure they’re doing things by the book during these operations.

“First of all the guys who are doing the online chatting, they are experts at what they do,” Christensen said. “They know based on Colorado law what they can and can’t say in chats, but we also always partner with the District Attorney’s Office. They always have someone in the room with the chatters to try to make sure that we have checks and balances to make sure we don’t have any entrapment issues.”

Rubinstein said his office helps ensure the chatters are clear the person is underage, and officers don’t suspect too early, when they still might be deciding whether to go through with the act.

”We want to make sure that we’re not pushing somebody to something they weren’t intending to do or trying to do,” Rubinstein said. “Not just because we don’t want to have the defense of entrapment, we don’t actually want to entrap people.”

Kati Mountain, a paralegal with the DA’s Office who has worked on multiple sting operations, said a lot of times a person talking to a chatter will cut things off one they find out the person is underage.

”It shows the difference in the people that keep chatting thinking they’re going to meet up with children versus the people who are like, ‘no,’ “ Mountain said.

Lara Baker, a defense attorney and partner with Foster Graham Milstein & Calisher in Denver, said she doesn’t subscribe to the theory that sting operations are set-ups, but they do have to be put together correctly by people who know what they’re doing.

”There’s a balance there, there’s a line there and if they’re doing it right then the community is safer, and if they’re doing it wrong, that’s a problem,” Baker said.

There isn’t a one-size-fits all approach to stings, Baker said, whether a sting is good or not depends on the policies and processes of the organizations involved. Baker said she has had cases, although not in Mesa County, in which someone merely indicated interest in committing a crime, but didn’t take the final step.

”You’ve got to make sure you’re right,” Baker said.

Baker noted it isn’t always the case that the device registered to someone is the actual device being used, and criminals who operate in online spaces are very adept at hiding their identities, or stealing someone else’s.

”That’s the first thing they would do,” Baker said.

”If we weren’t there, the same suspects that we’re arresting would be finding other people that are offering the same services that we’re offering, and then they would solicit those through that system,” Christensen said. “So I don’t think there’s any ethical, I think the only ethical dilemma is if we didn’t do them. I think that would be wrong.”

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