An undercover operation in Fresno County uncovered 34 suspected child sex offenders.
Their faces were shown Friday at a press conference by Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, who announced the arrests made in the operation that began on July 20. The latest arrests are among about 90 more this year. So far, the number of arrests for allegedly similar acts has doubled compared to the same period last year.
Mims said a plausible reason was that children were more at home than usual during the coronavirus pandemic and adults online were taking the opportunity. The undercover sting was called “Operation COVID Chat Down”.
“As rewarding as it is to catch these criminals we’re talking about today, I can’t help but think about who we’re missing,” Mims said.
The operation involved several police departments in cities across Fresno County, as well as Homeland Security Investigations and the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Mims said detectives masqueraded as children online and lured suspected child molesters to a meeting place only for the suspects to be arrested.
She did not disclose the apps used to catch the suspects, all of them male. But Mims said the activity of online child molesters is spreading across the internet, and she encouraged parents to talk with their children and monitor their behavior online.
Although the arrested men allegedly intended to meet children, they never did. But Mims said, “We think there are real child victims out there.”
Two cases highlighted at the press conference included a man from Clovis who allegedly had images of child rape and bondage. Another man reportedly wanted to have unprotected sex with a minor – he later told detectives he was HIV positive.
Twelve of the men arrested in the latest operation, which is ongoing, have been brought to justice. The others have outstanding charges. The sheriff said alleged crimes do not qualify for early release under the zero dollar bail rule.
Some of the arrested men came from outside Fresno County in an attempt to meet children, Mims said. A few of them had visible injuries to their faces. Mims said suspects attempted to destroy evidence at the time of their arrest.
“Sometimes we had to use force,” she said.
Tatum King, a special agent for homeland security investigations, told the press conference that parents and guardians should be more aware of the issue of child abuse online. He said criminals were exposing the new reality of kids staying home and spending more time online.
“It’s not just a problem here in Fresno and the Central Valley,” King said. “It is an international scourge.”