State officials announce arrest of 48 suspected child predators

Attorney General Pam Bondi and FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey announce the operation in a news conference Thursday.

TYLER TJOMSLAND | Times

Attorney General Pam Bondi and FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey announce the operation in a news conference Thursday.

UPDATE: Sherif El-Refai, originally charged with traveling to meet a minor after using a computer, pleaded no contest in April to the lesser charge of disorderly conduct, according to the State Attorney's office. Other charges against him, use of computer services or devices to solicit and lewd or lascivious conduct, were dropped. (Sept. 19, 2012)

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TAMPA — A 15-year-old boy hacked into several Google e-mail accounts. One caught his eye.

A teenage girl had sent a partly naked photo of herself to her boyfriend. Now, Karl Edwin Belledent had it too, authorities say.

Belledent ran the girl's name through Facebook and sent her a message. Send me more photos, authorities say he told her, or I'll release this one to the world.

So she did.

State authorities on Thursday released details of this case — the first its kind they've seen.

Hacking crimes are not new, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said. And for several years, people have victimized others by releasing sexual photographs, said FDLE Special Agent in Charge Mark Perez. It's all part of the "sexting" craze, he said.

"But the combination of these two issues is new to us," he said. "Leave it up to people, and they'll find very ingenious ways to victimize people."

Belledent was arrested Dec. 2 in Miami and was one of 48 suspected child predators highlighted Thursday, all arrested during a six-month investigation by the FDLE and Florida Attorney General's Office.

Belledent of Miami was charged with extortion because authorities say he didn't quit after getting the additional photos in October.

Soon after, he demanded the girl perform sexual acts on a webcam, according to the FDLE. She declined, but he hacked into her Facebook account and posted the photos.

She agreed to get on her webcam in the hopes he'd take them down, state authorities say.

The teen, who didn't know Belledent, eventually told her parents, who called authorities. The girl's name is being withheld due to the nature of the crime.

Investigators continued to chat with Belledent using the girl's account and set up a meeting in Miami.

He was charged with sexual battery, promoting a sexual performance by a child and extortion.

On Thursday, officials described the six-month investigation — the first time the Florida Attorney General's office and the FDLE worked as one unit to investigate suspected predators on the Internet.

They looked for people with child pornography, as well as those using chat rooms, Craigslist, Facebook and Twitter to meet children, said FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey.

Most of those arrested were charged with possession of child pornography or soliciting a child for sex. But most of the time, those "children" were really investigators posing as minors.

In two cases, the accused predators contacted children online — and Belledent's case was one of them.

Attorney General Pam Bondi urged parents to monitor their children's phone and Internet use.

"Sexual predators are everywhere," she said. "And we have to make this a team effort."

In Hillsborough, Christopher M. Barnes, 24; Sherif El-Refai, 24; and Dean Shelley, 52, were each arrested, accused of using computers to try to contact children for sex.

In Pasco, Cristy Brandstedter, 62, and Kevin Stowell, 53, were each charged with possessing child pornography, and Donald William Fochs Jr., 38, was charged with soliciting a minor for sex.

A Sarasota man, Stephen Mizner, 41, was charged with possessing child pornography and attempted sexual battery.

State officials give presentations at middle schools and high schools, warning children about dangers lurking online. They also warn about sexting and tell teens that once a photo is sent, they can't take it back, Perez said.

Another new issue is "geotagging," he said.

Certain computer applications attach GPS coordinates to photographs. When posted online, they broadcast a person's location.

Authorities have seen stalkers use geotagging to find their victims, and Perez said they're concerned that children may unintentionally lead predators to their homes.

"You have to be very careful and mindful of the decision you're making," he said.

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com.

State officials announce arrest of 48 suspected child predators 12/15/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 11:18am]

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