Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Pinellas child predator sting nets 18 men

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri looks over laminated posters of suspects apprehended in Operation Guardian, a four-day undercover operation in which a joint force of officers arrested 18 men from across the Tampa Bay area who were allegedly seeking sex with minors.


Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri looks over laminated posters of suspects apprehended in Operation Guardian, a four-day undercover operation in which a joint force of officers arrested 18 men from across the Tampa Bay area who were allegedly seeking sex with minors.

CLEARWATER — Miguel Angel Garcia of Tampa thought he was traveling to Clearwater to meet with a 14-year-old girl he messaged online for sex. Instead, he was arrested and charged with traveling to meet a minor.

But just hours after being released on $5,000 bail from the Pinellas County Jail, Garcia, 33, was seeking sex from girls in chat rooms again, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said. He is among the "plethora" of predators seeking sex from minors online, he said.

"This, unfortunately and sadly, but realistically, occurs every single day over the Internet," Gualtieri said Monday during a news conference. "These people don't get it, and this is the problem that we face."

Garcia was one of 18 men arrested during a four-day child predator investigation called "Operation Guardian" that targeted people seeking to have sex with girls between the ages of 12 and 15, the sheriff said.

Organized by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the Clearwater Police Department, the investigation also involved other agencies, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

During the sting, which started Thursday and ended Monday, investigators working out of the Clearwater police station posed as preteen and teenage girls on dozens of websites and chat rooms, including Craigslist and They set up meetings with suspects in three undisclosed Pinellas locations.

Most of the men, between 22 and 70 years old, live in Pinellas County, but some traveled to Pinellas from outside the county, including from Tampa and Holiday.

Charges included traveling to meet a minor, possession of child pornography and unauthorized use of a computer.

Among those arrested was Alex Wheeler, 26, who is on active military duty, the Sheriff's Office said. He will face charges through the U.S. Air Force.

During the third day, deputies arrested Christopher Stephens, 31, of Largo, who thought he was meeting a 12-year-old girl. Investigators also found child pornography on his cellphone, as well as a rape video game on his computer, Gualtieri said.

Operation Guardian was the second sting of its kind conducted by the Sheriff's Office and Clearwater police. From Jan. 23 to Jan. 26, another investigation netted 36 arrests.

Gualtieri said this month's sting didn't lead to as many arrests because investigators were working 10-hour days instead of 12-hour days, Internet access in the conference room where the "chatters" were stationed was down for several hours during one day of the operation, and some investigators were receiving training.

"We'll continue to do these," Gualtieri said, "until we make a dent in this."

Contact Laura C. Morel at or (727) 445-4157. On Twitter: @lauracmorel.

Pinellas child predator sting nets 18 men 04/14/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 15, 2014 12:20am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Bullpen melts down as Rays lose to Orioles (w/video)

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Jacob Faria allowed his first two big-league home runs and was touched for a career-high three runs Saturday by the Orioles. Other than that, the rookie making his fourth major-league start did okay against the Baltimore bats.

    The bullpen, not so much.

    Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Jumbo Diaz wipes his face as he walks off the mound after the Baltimore Orioles scored four runs during the eighth inning of a baseball game Saturday, June 24, 2017, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) SPD118
  2. Lightning shifts search for defense to free agency

    Lightning Strikes

    CHICAGO — As much as he tried, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman left the weekend's draft without acquiring another top-four defenseman.

    Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman gestures as he speaks to the media about recent trades during a news conference before an NHL hockey game against the Carolina Hurricanes Wednesday, March 1, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. The Lightning, over the past few days, have traded goaltender Ben Bishop to the Los Angeles Kings, forward Brian Boyle to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and forward Valtteri Filppula to the Philadelphia Flyers. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) TPA101
  3. Half of Florida lawmakers fail or nearly fail review of support for public records

    State Roundup

    WEST PALM BEACH — Half of Florida's legislators failed or nearly failed in a review of their support for public records and meetings given by Florida newspapers and an open-government group after this year's legislative sessions.

    State Senator Bill Galvano, R- Bradenton (left) and Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran ranked on opposite sides of the spectrum in an analysis of support for open records. Galvano scored a B-minus and Corcoran scored a D-plus.
[Times file photo]
  4. Yale dean on leave over offensive Yelp reviews leaves post

    Bizarre News

    NEW HAVEN, Conn. — A Yale University dean who was placed on leave over offensive reviews she posted on Yelp has left her position at the Ivy League institution, school officials said Tuesday.

  5. Federal agencies demand records from SeaWorld theme park


    ORLANDO — Two federal agencies are reportedly demanding financial records from SeaWorld.

    Killer whales Ikaika and Corky participate in behaviors commonly done in the wild during SeaWorld's Killer Whale educational presentation in this photo from Jan. 9. SeaWorld has been subpoenaed by two federal agencies for comments that executives and the company made in August 2014 about the impact from the "Blackfish" documentary. 
[Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS]