In the past two weeks, sexual predators in neighborhoods throughout the Washington area went trolling for children without fear of being spotted, authorities said yesterday.
But someone was watching -- 13 undercover police officers, to be exact, who police said witnessed the men soliciting sex from illuminated computer screens in front of them.
David L. Chapman, 41, is from Fredericksburg.
During the 10-day operation, the officers assumed the role of children, using fictitious names and identities in chat rooms online. Nine men -- including a youth minister, a teaching assistant and an engineer -- were arrested as they arrived at prearranged meeting spots, police said.
"In nine times out of 10, the officers waited just a few minutes before an adult solicited them for an encounter" online, Col. W. Steve Flaherty, Virginia State Police superintendent, said yesterday at a news conference about the arrests.
The operation, which ended Thursday, was part of a newly formed Northern Virginia-D.C. Internet Crimes Against Children task force, which has trained officers from the District and Alexandria and Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties. The Internet, with its unfettered access, has resulted in a "rapid explosion" of online sexual predators, Flaherty said.
Because the officers weren't targeting a specific person, the 10-day operation was likened to a fishing expedition. From an unidentified room in Northern Virginia, the officers logged onto the Internet and "sat back and waited," Flaherty said.
The youth minister was identified as Michael D. Barber, 52, of Arlington, who authorities said is affiliated with the Community of Christ Church. Barber was arrested in Stafford County and charged with attempting to take indecent liberties with a juvenile, police said. He was released from the Rappahanock Regional Jail on $25,000 bond, a jail spokeswoman said.
The other suspects were Joseph R. Steele, 31, a security guard from Dale City; George Buie, 37, an auto painter from Upper Marlboro; Teteri D. Dejene, 33, a teaching assistant from Charlottesville; Christopher Phelps, a volunteer firefighter from Williamsburg; Jose A. Pena, 19, a student from Annandale; Cory A. Cleveland, 21, a Navy employee from Norfolk; David L. Chapman, 41, an engineer from Fredericksburg; and David Lee Trout, 38, who is self-employed and lives in Staunton.
Each faces at least one count of the felony charges of attempting to take indecent liberties with a juvenile and using an electronic communications device to solicit a minor.
"There is no standard profile," Flaherty said, adding that online sexual predators are "our neighbors, our co-workers, our teachers, our businessmen, our students and our law enforcement officers, and they are searching the Internet for your son or daughter."
The arrests came after the men allegedly drove from their homes to parking lots to meet what they thought were girls ages 11 to 14, Flaherty said.
The locations were arranged online, Flaherty said at the news conference, which was at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Old Town Alexandria.
In some cases, Flaherty said, the men drove far from their homes and into other jurisdictions, making their cases eligible for federal prosecution.
Six arrests were made during the operation, and three occurred in January, during the task force's two 40-hour training sessions.
The task force was established through a $300,000 federal grant and will operate for at least 18 months, officials said. So far, 37 officers from throughout the region have been trained.
Sexual predators troll among an estimated 25 million children who are online everyday, said Ernie Allen, president and chief executive of the missing children's group. One in five of those children, he said, is "regularly solicited for sex."
"This crime transcends jurisdictional boundaries. It transcends state lines and nations," Allen said. "For millions of parents, there is a false sense of security, but when you're online, you're in public."