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New Tampa unit hunts for online child predators

TAMPA — Christy Taylor, a young girl from the bay area, logged onto a Yahoo chat room Wednesday morning and, with not so much as uttering a word, began receiving messages.

"Hiya sweetie," one of them said. "Wanna play?"

When Taylor demurred, the person persisted, all while three others sent her their own notes. "Do you think I'm sexy?" one wrote. "You being good or bad today?" another said, winking via an emoticon.

Only the girl chatting in teenage shorthand was not young Christy Taylor, as her screen name said, but investigator Grettel Chavarria, a member of the Florida attorney general's child predator cybercrime unit.

Her startling demonstration came as Attorney General Bill McCollum on Wednesday opened a new office for the cybercrime unit in Tampa, swearing in nine local law enforcement officials to join the state's efforts to root out sexual predators on the Internet.

Hunched over a laptop, Chavarria showed reporters a danger that state officials say is particularly acute in Florida, where they think young people are solicited for sex on the Internet at a rate 40 percent higher than the national average.

One out of seven youths ages 10 to 17 will be solicited for sex at some point in their Internet travels, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and McCollum said state officials think that figure is more like one in five in Florida.

The cybercrime unit has grown fivefold statewide during the past 18 months and has opened offices in Jacksonville, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale as part of an effort to ramp up efforts to catch Internet predators.

The Tampa office will cover much of the west coast of Florida, stretching from Pasco County to as far south as Fort Myers, and McCollum said he hopes the Legislature will pay for even more investigators around the state.

Florida needs them, law enforcement officials say.

"I've had examples of less than two minutes of being online that I've actually had a solicitation for sex, posing for a child," said Capt. Wilfredo Hernandez of the cybercrime unit.

An investigator will sit there, "almost being the perfect prey," and will wait for someone to make contact with whom he or she believes to be a child, Hernandez said.

And sexual predators are usually willing to travel to meet a prospective victim. Hernandez said his unit has seen people come from as far as California and Canada in attempts to meet Florida children.

But law enforcement is fighting back. McCollum's office now has 30 people statewide as part of its cybercrime unit, including two new investigators for Tampa, plus a prosecutor and two victim advocates. And nine local law enforcement officers were sworn in Wednesday as members of an Internet predator task force.

There, in a nondescript Tampa office park, the investigators will peer at their computer screens, day in, day out, messaging on chat services and browsing social Web sites like MySpace.

The cybercrime unit has made 69 arrests since its launch in 2005, including a 49-year-old Riverview man accused two weeks ago.

On Wednesday, Chavarria, posing online as a girl, found it to be a fairly slow morning, though a steady stream of messages kept flashing, many with suggestive quips. One user sent her a link to his Web site.

"I'm not going to open it," Chavarria said, "because you never know what you'll see."

New Tampa unit hunts for online child predators 07/02/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 4, 2008 1:18pm]
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