They called the operation “April’s Fools,” and not just because it took place during the first week of the month.
The Polk County Sheriff Office’s latest sting operation — in which undercover detectives lured suspected child predators to an undisclosed Florida location using fictitious online ads — was a not-so-subtle reference to the 18 men police netted.
They were young and old, ranging in age from 19 to 60. Some had lengthy criminal histories, and others were encountering the criminal justice system for the first time.
Five of the men told police they were married, and one had a newborn baby back home. Most were from the area, but one man who showed up at a Cracker Barrel to have sex with a 13-year-old boy — his wallet packed with cocaine and a hallucinogen — was in town from Alaska.
They included men who would otherwise blend in: A mechanic, an airline customer service manager, a hospital technician, a former firefighter, a football coach at a Christian academy, an employee at a Sea World theme park and another at Walt Disney World who allegedly told a detective posing as a 14-year-old girl that he wanted to do “everything” sexual to her.
“Now I got to tell my work and family that I got arrested for soliciting a 14-year-old for sex,” Jeffrey Erich Binder, a 26-year-old security guard at Walt Disney World, told detectives after his arrest.
It is the second year in a row that a man with Disney World ties has been arrested in a sexual predator sting operation. A spokesperson for Disney, which employs 74,000 people, told The Washington Post that Binder “has been placed on unpaid leave pending the outcome of the charges.”
During a news conference Tuesday, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd didn’t hold back, referring to the arrested men as “freaks” and “deviants.”
“You would think that these child predators would learn the risk they are taking, but they don’t,” Judd told The Post. “They’re so fixated on these children, they simply throw caution to the wind, and then we go round up another group of them. They can’t resist taking the chance, and I can’t resist arresting these freaks.”
According to police, the men face total of 103 charges.
Among them: attempted lewd battery, use of a computer to seduce a child, transmission of harmful material to a minor, use of a two-way communication device to commit a felony, traveling to meet a minor, possession of a firearm during commission of a felony, drug possession, and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Judd said more charges are expected as detectives dig deeper into the histories of the suspects.
— Deneige Broom (@DBroomWFTV) April 5, 2016
Judd said he’s been targeting child predators in undercover sting operations for close to a decade. During a single week last May, a total of 22 men were arrested after they showed up at a sparsely furnished house in Clermont, Fla., expecting to find a 10- or 12- or 14-year-old girl.
This time around, the suspects solicited children as young as 13. Two men solicited a detective posing as the father of a 10-year-old girl they were hoping to have sex with, police said.
Some of the men sent explicit photos of themselves to their potential victims, and others asked for photos of the children in return.
Some men offered to pick the children up, and others asked to meet in public. A handful of the suspects went as far as driving to a home to have sex with children, bringing candy, condoms and drugs with them, police said. One man showed up at a house with a gun, Judd said.
According to authorities, Howard Bishop III told an undercover investigator posing as the father of a 10-year-old girl that he was “very much into nudism and quality family fun.” Implying that he’d done sexual things with a previous 10-year-old girl, the 60-year-old Bishop described himself as “open minded” and “up for anything” and noted that he’d brought along a bag of candy in his car for the victim, police said.
During a conversation with an undercover detective he thought was a 13-year-old girl, Pedro Emilio Portillo, 24, asked the “teen” if he could sneak into her room and promised to bring condoms, police said.
On the way to the undercover location, Portillo picked up condoms and Skittles at a store, police said. He told detectives that he works as a manager at a Ford dealership.
Sting operations have migrated from chat rooms to apps and social media, places where young people socialize and predators can establish contact, Judd said. What they’re looking for, the sheriff told The Post, is vulnerability.
“They used to have to hang out in parks and coach Little League or teach Sunday school in the past,” Judd said. “Now they can download an app and look for kids that are in need of attention — boys and girls. When a 60-year-old man wants to have sex with a 10-year-old child, those are the most dangerous of the dangerous.”
Judd recounted how a undercover officer — posing as a 14-year-old girl on spring break — posted a photo of a beach chair on a beach and said she had “nothing to do.” Within minutes, Judd said, eight different “freaks” had posted photos of their “body parts” on the app.
With dozens of men being arrested during each operation, an obvious question arises: Do the undercover investigations deter would-be predators?
Judd claims the answer is yes. He told The Post that his operations are netting fewer predators now than they did five years ago. Back then, he estimated, authorities would arrest “40 or 5o” suspected predators during a week-long investigation.
“There’s just not that many people relative to the general population that are that disturbed and deviant,” he said. “I believe there is a bottom to this barrel. Having said that, they are so focused on finding children.”
The sheriff added: “These guys aren’t just talking nasty on their computer for sexual gratification. They actually travel and come to a location expecting to be successful in taking advantage of children.”