One suspect told authorities he was a corrections officer; another was a local school board employee who groped an undercover detective, believing she was a prostitute, according to the Polk County sheriff in Florida.
Matthew Irvin, from Oakland, Fla., said he told his wife he was going Christmas shopping for their children when, instead, he went out to have paid sex, the sheriff said.
Michael Bonislawski of Davenport, Fla., said he left his pregnant wife at home for his illicit meetup, and added that she was due to deliver their baby that day, according to the sheriff.
All four were among 114 suspects, including prostitutes and those who intended to have sex with them, arrested during a six-day sex sting dubbed “Operation Not So Silent Night,” conducted by undercover detectives from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, with help from the Hardee County Sheriff’s Office. Two others were arrested through warrants.
“We are exceptionally pleased that we were able to potentially identify four victims of human trafficking, which is the goal of this operation,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said in a statement. “We are thrilled that we arrested two men who prey upon children, preventing them from doing so.”
As part of the operation, which ended Tuesday, undercover female detectives posted phony online advertisements offering sex and undercover male detectives responded to legitimate advertisements from suspected sex workers, authorities said.
The agents planned to meet the suspects at agreed-upon times and locations; when the suspects showed up, they were arrested and charged with sex crimes, authorities said.
Authorities said the suspects either came to have sex with prostitutes, or were the prostitutes themselves.
Michael Campanaro, 33, who was charged with offer to engage in lewdness, identified himself as a corrections officer with the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Coleman, Fla., authorities said.
Matthew Phillips, 42, director for elementary curriculum at the Osceola County School Board, was charged with offer to engage in lewdness as well as battery, for groping a detective, authorities said.
Judd told ABC affiliate WFTV that Phillips responded to an ad for two prostitutes.
“Not only did he come seeking the services of a prostitute, he came to seek the services of two prostitutes,” Judd told the station. “And when he came in, he said he needed to do a ‘cup check,’ and he reached up and grabbed one of our undercover detective’s breasts.”
An Osceola County district spokesman told WFTV that Phillips has been put on administrative leave during an investigation.
School policy states that employees report any misconduct immediately, which Phillips did. The policy also states that an employee who is alleged to have committed such misconduct shall be reassigned to a position not requiring direct contact with students pending the outcome of the investigation.
A spokesperson for the district said Phillips position is in the office and not directly involved with children, and that’s why parents did not receive a letter or phone call of his arrest.
In his statement announcing the results of the sting, Judd, the sheriff, noted that “we are extremely disappointed that we arrested a high-ranking official within the Osceola County School Board, whose occupation focuses on teaching and mentoring children.”
Irvin, who told his wife he was on a shopping trip, and Bonislawski, who admitted he’d left his pregnant wife at home, were also charged with offer to engage in lewdness, authorities said.
Authorities said the 114 suspects ranged in age from 17 to 64. Fifty were prostitutes, and 51 were “Johns” who intended to pay prostitutes for sex, the sheriff’s office said.
Twenty-eight of the suspects told detectives they were married, authorities said.
And two men admitted they intended to have sex with children, they said.
Thomas Davis, a 48-year-old man from Mashpee, Mass., had been sending messages and nude photos to an undercover agent he believed to be a 14-year-old girl, and asked the girl to send him nude photos in return, authorities said.
Authorities said Davis traveled to engage in sexual acts with the girl.
When Davis arrived, police said, he was arrested on five felony charges — use of a computer to seduce a child, use of a two-way communication device to commit a felony, traveling to meet a minor, lewd battery and transmission of harmful material to a minor.
Also arrested was 33-year-old Oscar Gonzalez, from Haines City, Fla., who authorities said had been communicating with a detective he believed to be a 14-year-old boy.
He was charged with use of a computer to seduce a child, use of a two-way communication device to commit a felony, traveling to meet a minor and lewd battery, as well as resisting arrest, which is a misdemeanor.
Gonzalez told authorities he and his family were living in Mexico. He is in the United States illegally, and police have informed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that he is in custody, authorities said.
Sex stings have been going on for decades. Earlier this year, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said 32 men and women were arrested in an undercover operation. Among them were two church pastors who responded to online ads for girls they thought were younger than 18.
Twenty-five men were arrested in a sting operation in Texas after they solicited who they thought were children between the ages of 11 and 15. One suspect brought alcohol and condoms to the rendezvous. Another brought his toddler.
A similar series of child sex stings in 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, SeaWorld and other area theme parks.
“You would think that these child predators would learn the risk they are taking, but they don’t,” Judd, the Polk County sheriff, told The Washington Post earlier this year. “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 earlier this year. “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.”
Polk County’s “Operation Not So Silent Night” did not focus on child sex predators, but the end game was the same.
“All we wanted for Christmas was to put bad guys and girls in jail,” the sheriff’s office said on Facebook.