Sunday, September 23, 2018
Public safety

Authorities arrest 35 in Pinellas child predator sting

CLEARWATER

Some are husbands or fathers. One is in college studying to be an elementary school teacher. Another, a maintenance worker at Countryside Mall, was employed by a private contractor.

Their mug shots were displayed publicly Monday as authorities released the results of a four-day child predator investigation called "Operation Home Alone." It targeted people police say lurk online, seeking sex with minors.

Thirty-five men were arrested.

"They are predators. Nothing but predators. They really need to be eradicated from our county," Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said during a news conference Monday. "I view this as the No. 1 public safety issue in Pinellas right now."

Gualtieri called the operation the largest of its kind ever in Pinellas.

Organized by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the Clearwater Police Department, the investigation also involved other agencies, including the St. Petersburg Police Department, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.

During the sting, which started at 2 p.m. Thursday and ended at 2 a.m. Monday, 12 investigators posed online as girls and boys between the ages of 13 and 15, as well as parents offering their children up for sex. They worked from 2 a.m. to 2 p.m. each day at computers set up at Clearwater police headquarters.

One desktop screen on an investigator's computer read, "I hunt the evil you pretend doesn't exist."

Investigators posted ads and chatted on more than two dozen websites, including backpage.com, Craig's List and AOL chat rooms. They also exchanged text messages and emails with suspects, some of whom sent them explicit photographs.

Within five minutes of being online, each detective was receiving messages from five to eight people, Clearwater police Chief Anthony Holloway said. At one point, two detectives were in contact with more than 40 people.

"Every time we had one arrest," the chief said, "we had another one on deck."

Once a suspect arranged to meet with a minor, investigators contacted officers on patrol, who arrived at the location and made the arrest. Four meeting places in north Pinellas County were used.

Suspects were then brought back to the Clearwater police station, where they were interviewed and shown the transcripts of their online chats before being transferred to the Pinellas County Jail.

The suspects face several charges, including traveling to meet a minor, seduction of a child via the Internet or an electronic device, lewd and lascivious battery and sexual battery.

The suspects range from 19 to 65 years of age. Twenty-three are from Pinellas; others live in Hillsborough, Pasco and Manatee counties. One man drove from Miami to meet with a person he thought was a 15-year-old girl, while another rode his bike from Kenneth City to Clearwater.

Among those arrested is James Ronald King, 28, of Tampa. During his conversation with a detective posing as a mother with two daughters, ages 11 and 14, he said he'd had sex with a 4-year-old girl, authorities said.

After he emerged from a taxi at the prearranged meeting place, King was arrested. He is charged with seduction of a child using the Internet. The sheriff said Hills­borough authorities are investigating the sex claim.

Nicholas John Demasky, 28, drove from Hudson to have sex with a 14-year-old boy, police said. During an interview with detectives, Demasky said he had "urges" that he could not control, according to arrest affidavits. He was enrolled at the University of South Florida with plans to become an elementary school teacher, authorities said.

Michael Dempsey of Bradenton left his daughters, ages 10 and 12, unattended while he drove to Pinellas to meet with a 14-year-old girl, police said. Detectives had to call his wife, a nurse working the overnight shift, to tell her their daughters were home alone, the sheriff said.

Had there been more investigators available, Holloway said, the operation could have netted even more suspects.

Despite the arrests, other child predators linger online, Gualtieri said. He plans to conduct more stings in the future.

"All the activity that was on there two or three days ago is the same activity that was on there this morning," Gualtieri said. "We've got to make this stop."

Laura C. Morel can be reached at (727) 445-4157 or [email protected]

     
     
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