TAMPA, Fla. — A federal Transportation Security Administration agent, a school teacher's aide and a church treasurer were among the 48 men arrested in the latest statewide roundup of suspected online predators and child pornography traders, Florida law enforcement officials said Thursday.
The six-month investigation was the first since the Attorney General's Office cybercrime unit and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Computer Crime Center were merged in July to coordinate efforts to catch pedophiles. FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey said suspects were arrested in 17 Florida counties. Around 100 cases were investigated in total, and more arrests are expected.
"We have found child predators in chat rooms, we have found child predators utilizing instant messaging, texting, on dating sites, social networks and Craig's List," Bailey said. They ranged, he said, from a man living in a million-dollar house downloading child pornography to another who drove from Jacksonville to Tallahassee thinking he was going to have sex with a 13-year-old girl and her mother.
The suspects ranged in age from 15 to 55. Charges against them included possession of child pornography, unlawful use of a two-way communications device, attempted lewd and lascivious assault, sexual battery and sexual performance by a child.
Besides the state agencies joining forces, 700 local law enforcement officials were trained in the effort.
"Sexual predators are everywhere, and we had to make this a team effort," Attorney General Pam Bondi said. "It's a sad reality of the society we're living in throughout this country, but in Florida we are going to do everything in our power to put them out of business and lock them up, hopefully for the rest of their lives if possible."
Bondi advised parents to closely monitor what their children are doing on the Internet and their cell phones, because these "sickos" often appear first to be another child instigating an innocent instant message or text chat.
Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy, who represented Florida county sheriffs in the effort, said he was "sounding the alarm" to parents and others about the dangers kids can face online.
"This is the 800-pound gorilla that's coming after your little girls and little boys," Dawsy said.
And he said he had a message for child predators not arrested this time: "We're coming after you."