The men come from any number of backgrounds and range from young to old.
In the end, Pensacola police said, they were united by a common goal: having sex with minors.
During a five-day stretch that ended Sunday, all 22 of the men — including a pastor from a Florida church — were dragged down by “Operation Undertow,” an Internet sting in which undercover agents lured suspected child predators via computer to an undisclosed Florida location, police said.
The men were snagged after they responded to ads for sex with teenage males and females created by agents on “various websites,” police said. Once the men initiated conversations with investigators, police said, warrants were issued for their arrest.
When the suspects showed up at the designated location, they were taken into custody and charged with traveling to meet after using a computer to lure a child.
Police called the effort “the largest multi-jurisdictional Internet sting” since the department arrested 25 men during a one-week-long sting in 2011.
“It is through the collaborating, partnering and building relationships that we protect our children and make the Internet a safer place,” Pensacola Police Chief David Alexander III said in a statement. “This effort of arresting and prosecuting these individuals helps to stop future abuse. This was five days of hard work for our officers, dispatchers, support personnel and personnel from other agencies, in addition to the planning of this operation.”
The men who showed up at the home brought with them drugs, sex toys and plans for illegal activity, police said. Four of the men arrested traveled from nearby Alabama, police said. The youngest suspect is 18 and the oldest — Alfred Foster of Mobile, Ala. — is 71.
Police said Calvin James Pearson, 31, and David Oloms, 24, both of Pensacola, arrived together to have sex with a 14-year-old girl, according to NBC affiliate WXIA.
When investigators searched Oloms’s vehicle, they found “a luggage bag full of various sex equipment, bondage and sadomasochistic equipment,” the station reported, citing arrest records.
Police said Bradly Davis Jones, 46, showed up at the residence with methamphetamine and a glass smoking pipe, WXIA reported.
“I’m the only one who could potentially do anything illegal, but I’m not ashamed of anything I do, and I’m willing to suffer any consequences I deserve,” he wrote to undercover investigators while he arranged his visit.
His alleged intention: To have sex with a 14-year-old girl.
Also arrested was David Donald Hoppenjan, 52, who has served as senior pastor at the First United Methodist Church of Pace, just outside Pensacola, since last year.
Police said Hoppenjan traveled to two locations in an effort to have sex with a 14-year-old boy.
Hoppenjan spent nine years as executive pastor at Shalimar United Methodist Church in Florida, according to AL.com. He also served as the youth pastor at Wetumpka First United Methodist Church in Alabama, AL.com reported.
The pastor’s biography has been scrubbed from the church’s website, but screen shots of his profile reveal that Hoppenjan has five children, grew up in Wisconsin and has a degree in agriculture education with an emphasis on business.
“As a second-career pastor, I received my call to ministry in my mid-30s,” he said in his church bio. “At that time, we moved from Wetumpka, Ala., to Wilmore, Ky., where I graduated from Asbury Theological Seminary in May 2006. I have served as executive pastor at Shalimar UMC since January of 2006.
“Recently, I returned from Panajachel, Guatemala, where I worked with the ministry of Porch de’Salomon. … This trip reinforced my heart for missions and outreach and my desire to support the work of missions from outside our back door to all around the world. While in Shalimar, I was involved in YMCA, Covenant Hospice, Children in Crisis, Habitat for Humanity, as well as local schools as a parent, a volunteer and a church member helping out in any way possible.”
The Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church confirmed that Hoppenjan no longer works at First United Methodist Church.
“As a church, we take any allegation of clergy misconduct very seriously,” the Alabama-West Florida Conference said in a written statement. “The United Methodist Church requires clergy to live by the highest ethical and moral standards. Conduct that violates these standards is a very serious matter and is not tolerated.”
“The safety of all children in our communities is a priority,” the statement added. “This is a painful and difficult situation for members of the congregation that (Hoppenjan) served and we will keep all of those affected in our prayers.”
Authorities said the Pensacola sting involved four sheriff’s offices, six police departments and multiple state and federal agencies — a collaborative effort that Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward said “demonstrates the cooperative spirit needed to keep our children safe.
“As a father, I am at ease knowing our law enforcement personnel are successful in dealing with this issue.”
In announcing the results of the sting, the Pensacola Police Department said on Facebook: “This post will not be entertaining. It will not be funny, humorous, or elicit a slight chuckle. This post will not be the one you read to your spouse on the couch tonight. This post will concern you, trouble you, and make you ask, ‘What is wrong with this world?'”
The department added: “These people are out there. You need to watch your kids. Monitor their online behavior. You need to snoop. Be the Parent.”
In May, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said 32 men and women were arrested in an undercover operation — among them, two church pastors who responded to online ads for what they thought were for girls under the age of 18.
A similar series of stings in Florida’s Polk County — where undercover detectives lure suspected child predators to an undisclosed location using fictitious online ads — has become well-known for netting suspects who work at Disney World, Sea World and other theme parks.
“You would think that these child predators would learn the risk they are taking, but they don’t,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd told The Washington Post earlier this year, after announcing the results of another undercover operation. “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.”
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 Florida sheriff said, is vulnerability.
“They used to have to hang out in parks and coach Little League or teach Sunday school in the past,” Judd said in April. “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, and officials in other jurisdictions seeing similar results, an obvious question arises: Do the undercover investigations deter would-be predators?
Judd said the answer is yes. He said his operations are netting fewer predators now than they did five years ago. Back then, he estimated, authorities would arrest “40 or 50″ suspected predators during a week-long investigation. His April sting netted 18, including a football coach from a Christian academy.
“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.”