Advertisement
  1. News

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.
Published Apr. 15, 2014

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 Backpage.com. 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 lmorel@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4157. On Twitter: @lauracmorel.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Addison Davis, the superintendent of Clay County District Schools, was chosen Tuesday as the new Hillsborough County school superintendent. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
    The School Board’s vote is unanimous for Davis, who calls himself “an accelerator.”
  2. Smoke from the Levy County controlled burn travelled across three counties in order to reach Hillsborough. [VisitTampaBay.com]
    Commuters saw the smokey, hazy skies as they drove home. Strong southern winds are carrying the smoke from a prescribed fire in Levy County.
  3. In this Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, booking photo provided by the Orange County Sheriff's office is Mason Toney. Toney, 28, was charged with first-degree murder for the killing of his boss, William Knight, on Monday, according to an arrest affidavit from the Orange County Sheriff's Office. Co-workers told investigators that Toney and Knight were friends outside of work despite their political differences. (Orange County Sheriff's Office via AP) [AP]
    Mason Toney, 28, was charged with first-degree murder for the killing of William Knight on Monday, according to an arrest affidavit from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.
  4. Joseph Hernandez Hall is home to the University of Florida's chemistry department, where a faculty member recently resigned after officials discovered he failed to disclose his strong ties to China. While at UF, the faculty member also held positions at two Chinese universities, including vice president and dean. The faculty member was not named in a report obtained Tuesday from the Florida Legislature. [University of Florida]
    They also collected grant money from the U.S. government while never disclosing their outside work in China.
  5. Margaret Pruitt, today’s exercise model, is a real wonder woman.
  6. In this Feb. 14, 2018, file photo, students hold their hands in the air as they are evacuated by police from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., after a shooter opened fire on the campus. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, File) [MIKE STOCKER  |  AP]
    But this year’s bill may provoke fewer fireworks than the bitter debates seen in the past two sessions.
  7. The four candidates for Clearwater mayor in 2020. Clockwise from the top left: Frank Hibbard, Morton Myers, Bill Jonson and Elizabeth "Sea Turtle" Drayer. [[Frank Hibbard (Courtesy of Hibbard); Morton Myers [Douglas R. Clifford | Times]; Bill Jonson [Douglas R. Clifford | Times]; Elizabeth "Sea Turtle" Drayer; (Courtesy of Drayer)]
    We might learn a great deal about a key election in Tampa Bay.
  8. Rep. Anthony Sabatini presents his bill to create school board term limits to the Florida House PreK-12 Innovation subcommittee on Jan. 21, 2020. [The Florida Channel]
    The idea would require a three-fifths vote in each chamber before it could appear on the ballot.
  9. Muhammad Abdur-Rahim points out the location of a former African American cemetery in the old Clearwater Heights neighborhood, where he grew up. Archaeologists have begun surveying the land using ground penetrating radar. [JAMES BORCHUCK  |  Times]
    Marked graves were moved in the 1950s, records show. But unmarked graves may have been left behind.
  10. Deputies and the sheriff of Grayson County, Va., shared photos on their official Facebook from Monday's second-amendment rally in Richmond, Va. [Grayson County Sheriff's Office]
    In a viral video on Twitter, Grayson County Sheriff Richard Vaughan calls proposed legislation ‘unconstitutional.’
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement