A teacher, police officer and minister were among 16 men arrested during a three-state sting operation to catch people seeking sexual encounters online with underage teenagers.
US police investigators created fake profiles on popular dating and chat platforms – such as Kik, MeetMe and Skout – and posed as teenagers. The officers identified themselves in online chats as 14 or 15-year-old boys and girls.
The undercover officers were contacted by the 16 men, who in some cases sent explicit photographs, according to prosecutors.
The men, who were attempting to arrange sexual encounters, then agreed to go to a house in Bergen County, New Jersey, where they expected to find the young people they had contacted at home alone.
The investigation was similar to an operation in September, during which a police sergeant, a firefighter and a nurse were apprehended.
“I hate to say this, but if we extended that op on a weekly basis, we’d pick up at least 16 defendants a week,” the New Jersey attorney general, Gurbir Grewal, said at a news conference on Wednesday.
The men arrested in the recent sting operation faced a range of charges in New Jersey, including attempted sexual assault on a minor, luring, possession of child pornography and attempted debauching the morals of a child.
Kevin Roth, a high school teacher in New York; Peter Tuchol Jr, a police officer from a suburban New Jersey town and Roger Arroyo, a travelling minister from Philadelphia, were among those arrested.
The other defendants ranged in age from 26 to 55 and included drivers for two ride-share companies, an executive for an internet service provider, a bank branch office manager, a barbershop owner, a dental hygienist and two takeaway food deliverymen.
The defendants were formally charged last week and all but one were released after detention hearings. They have been ordered to use the internet only for work purposes and are barred from unsupervised contact with minors.
Investigators said children can be susceptible to sexual predators online. Many gaming, chat and dating apps lack safeguards to keep children from being contacted surreptitiously by people seeking to lure them into sexual encounters, even while in the company of their parents.
“When we think back to the luring of subjects in playgrounds with a puppy or candy, it is a totally different ballgame now, with the advent of the internet and with these apps that make it so easy for predators to prey on our most vulnerable,” Colonel Patrick J Callahan, the superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, said.
The state police were helped in the sting by agents from the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations.
None of the apps used by investigators during this investigation have age verification features, the attorney general said. The officers also used popular games, such as “Fortnite” and “Minecraft,” and the gaming chat platform Discord.
“It’s incumbent on app developers to do more to ensure that those apps are used by age-appropriate customers,” Mr Grewal said.
One of the men arrested, Luis Gonzalez Palacio of Weehawken, New Jersey, had more than 13,000 files of child pornography on his computer when he was taken into custody, the state police said.
Investigators said they are examining electronic devices seized from the defendants, and more charges will be brought if they find illegal sexual content.
Another man caught during the operation, Jason Keizer of Garfield, New Jersey, was awaiting sentencing in Bergen County on an earlier charge of possession of child pornography. A judge ordered him detained on Wednesday pending trial, officials said.
Mr Keizer was one of the individuals who showed up to the house used by law enforcement to lure would-be predators.
Mr Tuchol, the police officer from Ridgewood, was arrested on 15 April at the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office in Hackensack, even though he had shown up to the sting location expecting to meet a 15-year-old girl, according to authorities.
In addition to child exploitation charges, Mr Tuchol was also charged with possession of anabolic steroids and drug paraphernalia. He has since been suspended from the Ridgewood Police Department.
The social media profiles he used that were uncovered during the investigation featured a photograph of himself in uniform.
“I’m deeply concerned and I’m deeply disappointed that people in positions of trust are part of the defendants in this case,” Mr Grewal said.
Mr Tuchol’s attorney, Richard Potter, said his client is “a man of great character” and a “terrific officer” who has been commended by the Ridgewood Police Department since becoming an officer four years ago.
He declined to comment on the allegations against his client, who he said has pleaded not guilty.
Mr Roth’s attorney, Samuel Braverman, declined to comment on the charges against his client, who has been suspended from his job as a teacher at the High School of Computers and Technology in the Bronx.
Mr Keizer and Mr Arroyo could not immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday and their lawyers did not respond to messages left by a reporter.
The purpose of these sting operations, Mr Callahan said, is to put fear and doubt into the minds of people who are tempted to use cyberspace to lure children into sexual encounters.
“If they think they’re talking to a 14-year-old girl or boy, I hope in the back of their mind they think they’re talking to a New Jersey state trooper or an investigator in a prosecutor’s office,” he said.
New York Times