TAMPA BAY, Florida (Dec. 29, 2014) -- A drawn-out struggle to obtain public records has started to yield results for 10 Investigates, as local agencies have started releasing limited records – and providing insight – regarding how law enforcement conducts controversial sex "predator" stings.
Records recently obtained by 10 Investigates – primarily through the court system, since law enforcement agencies continue to deny public record requests – detail the incredible man hours dedicated to the stings, ways some officers violated the rules to boost arrest totals, and even how agencies take valuable property from individuals accused.
10 Investigates previously reported how many of the men arrested and publicly shamed by made-for-TV press conferences were not actually looking for children online. Instead, they were looking for other adults when detectives started to groom and convince them to break the law.
And while law enforcement leaders have denied any widespread issues with the operations, 10 Investigates continues to find evidence - in documents those agencies wanted to keep private – that details a pattern of officer misconduct in an effort to boost arrest totals.
Following 10 Investigates' year-long investigation, it was apparent law enforcement's approach toward the stings had changed: they ran fewer operations, skipped press conferences sometimes, and arrested far fewer men than had become routine. The Department of Justice also launched a review of Central Florida's Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force.
Yet law enforcement agencies have continued to stymie some of 10 Investigates' questions and record requests, often providing overly-broad public record exemptions as an excuse.
UPDATE JULY 2015: After pressure from the legal department of WTSP's parent company, Gannett/TEGNA, the Polk Co. Sheriff's Office started turning over emails they previously said didn't exist. A spokesperson said the agency made a "mistake" and provided 13 emails from two different stings. While the records included significant redactions, it showed detectives responding to legal Craig's List "casual encounters" ads with a standard "hey what age you looking for" message. 10 Investigates is continuing to analyze the records as they are obtained.
10 Investigates was seeking detectives' emails to men who ultimately showed no interest in having sex with underage teens. An open-records advocate in Attorney General Pam Bondi's office suggested the records should be public.
However, most of the examples 10 Investigates obtained through the judicial system were from men who were ultimately arrested – not the cases where officers unsuccessfully tried to deceive a target. 10 Investigates was trying to determine whether entrapment techniques were limited to just a few isolated cases, or whether they were more widespread.
Yet, despite the limited records obtained, 10 Investigates was able to determine a pattern of exaggerations on arrest reports by law enforcement officers involved in the stings.
Some officers claimed men were looking for children online when there was never any evidence to support the statement. But officers would use the claims to pile on additional felony charges, which were didn't just serve to publicly shame the accused men, but also allowed law enforcement to seize their property: two repercussions that – even when some of the men are exonerated – typically burden them socially and financially for the rest of their lives.
In addition to federal grant dollars used to run the ICAC stings, 10 Investigates found law enforcement agencies frequently took the vehicles from men arrested and kept them as their own – even when charges against the men were dropped.
In November, 10 Investigates reported how Florida's Contraband Forfeiture Act made it easy for agencies to seize property as their own from anyone accused of committing a felony – even if charges are ultimately never filed.
Sex stings have become especially rich sources for seizures, since almost every man arrested is accused of traveling to seduce, solicit, or entice a child to commit a sexual act…even though no real children are ever involved in the stings. However, the accusations are felonies, meaning law enforcement can seize suspect's vehicles, making it extremely difficult for them to ever get them back without paying thousands of dollars – or more - in cash to the arresting agency.
For example, in one January 2014 sting where the Clearwater Police Department (CPD) and Pinellas County Sheriff's Office (PCSO) arrested 35 men in a single weekend, CPD seized 19 cars as their own under Florida's Contraband Forfeiture Act.
The two agencies also arrested "in excess of 20" men in a similar April sting, which was after 10 Investigates started asking questions about the operations, and 11 more men in a September sting, after 10 Investigates had aired multiple stories on the topic.
Even though the number of men arrested dropped once a spotlight was shined on how they operated, CPD and PCSO were still able to seize nine vehicles in the April sting and three vehicles in the September sting.
If suspects are unable to win their vehicles back through civil procedures, the agencies are allowed to keep the vehicles for their own use or sell them at auction for cash. Often, attorneys for the agencies negotiate to sell the vehicles back to their original owners for up to half of the vehicle's estimated value.
One 24-year-old man, arrested in the January sting in Clearwater, had to pay $10,000 cash to get his 2014 Lexus returned. And even though all felony charges were later dropped in his case, he will not get the money back for either the negotiated settlement or the fees he paid an attorney to handle the vehicle case.
Clearwater's police chief at the time, Anthony Holloway, is now the chief of St. Petersburg's police department, but has not yet accepted interview requests for this story.
The Polk County Sheriff's Office, which serves as the leader of Central Florida's ICAC task force, also has seized a great deal of property the last few years in predator stings. The agency provided a list of nine late-model vehicles it was ultimately awarded, as well as several other pending or negotiated cases.
The Polk Co. Sheriff's Office also seized $15,900 from a suspect in a June 2013 sting, negotiating with him to split the proceeds 50% each. The sheriff's office netted $7,950 from the seizure.
Similar hauls were noted from predator stings around Florida, including in Osceola County and Lee County.
Most of the cases examined by 10 Investigates involved men who weren't necessarily looking for underage teens, but either posted – or responded to – ads seeking adults. Sometimes, the officers would act as an interested adult with a teenage "sister" who was also interested.
Even though many of the men had no interest in the underage decoys, if they traveled to meet the adult, they were arrested as a "sexual predator" and charged with "traveling to meet a minor."
In the case of a 27-year-old Cape Coral man, arrested during the Lee County Sheriff's Office (LCSO) sting this past May, deputies arrested him even though he didn't even travel to meet a child for sex. Law enforcement officers responded to the man's legal "casual encounters" Craigslist ad, pretending to be a 14-year-old girl, even though the ad said, "age for all women must be 18+ no one under email me plz."
The man repeatedly told the undercover detectives that he was "not OK" with meeting up with an underage girl, but because he didn't immediately end the conversation, he was arrested for utilizing his phone to solicit a sexual act from a child. Detectives went to his house and arrested him as a sexual predator of children.
Prosecutors decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute on either of the accused charges, yet the accusations and man's name remain on LCSO's online press releases and other media outlets' news stories.
Law enforcement officers also frequently broke their own rules and introduced sex to otherwise innocent conversations.
Among the victims of detectives ignoring ICAC guidelines was a 21-year-old in Pinellas County who responded to a DateHookup.com ad posted of an 18-year-old woman. The officer who posted the ad during Operation Home Alone II started exchanging messages with the man when he asked her to a movie.
The officer wrote, "are you Ok with me being under 18?" The 21-year-old continued the conversation.
Following more exchanged messages and text messages, the detective later added that "she" was about to turn 16, the age of consent in Florida.
As the two continued to swap texts, the man said "I don't want to have sex, is that OK?" But the detective, who repeatedly rejected the man's interest in a possible relationship, kept pushing sex and threatened to call off their meeting. When the man finally indicated he would have sex, police had enough to charge him with numerous felonies.
Prosecutors declined to file charges, but the man's name and accusations still appear on at least one local media outlet's website.
A 19-year-old man in Orange Co. was accused of soliciting the guardian of a 13-year-old decoy to arrange sex with her. But the evidence proved differently, as the man was merely responding to an innocuous ad from a 26-year-old woman, which was posted by law enforcement. The detective later tried to convince the man to have sex with the woman's "younger sister," even though he showed little interest.
According to notes from the prosecutor, "this is a tough case" because of "entrapment issues." The man chatted with what he believed to be a 26-year-old woman for five days and the "Law Enforcement Officer suggest(ed) sex first on 2nd day." The defendant said several times he wasn't interested in the 13-year-old, even suggesting he bring a younger teenager boy for the girl when the detective kept bringing the teenager into the discussion. The prosecutor also noted the "law enforcement officer again suggests illegal sex 2 more times" but the defendant was non-committal."
Ultimately, after hundreds of text messages, the man agreed to sex with both females, and was arrested upon arrival. The state declined to prosecute, but the accusations and man's name remain public record.
Court records from "Operation Home Alone," a January sting by the Clearwater Police Department and Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, detail 34 websites and apps targeted by law enforcement as potential breeding grounds for child predators. There is no love lost between deputies and sites like Craigslist and Backpage.
But the law enforcement plan also included sites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as legal dating and social media sites MeetMe.com, Fling.com, Omegle.com, Hi5.com, Tagged.com, and SpeedDate.com.
In most cases, detectives weren't posting ads of children, but ads of adults looking other adults. They would then later introduce a child to the conversation, or switch his/her age to that of a teenager.
And, as 10 Investigates previously reported, detectives were frequently reaching out to law-abiding men posting law-abiding ads on legal dating sites, seeking other adults. In Lee County, arrest records indicate detectives responded to one man's ad on the traditional dating site PlentyOfFish.com.
10 Investigates has pushed to see other records from law enforcement officers responding to legal dating ads on legal dating sites, but almost every request has been refused. Often, public record exemptions are cited, ranging from "active investigation" to "confidential surveillance techniques," but a Lee County Sheriff's Office spokesperson said records from their June sting had already been destroyed by July.
10 Investigates reported this summer how law enforcement agencies were spending tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of man-hours on each sting. Yet the majority of the men arrested were either teenagers or in their early 20s and not considered high risks to children.
In fact, some law enforcement officers have told 10 Investigates the federal ICAC guidelines seem to de-emphasize undercover stings where there is no probable cause to begin with.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd repeatedly said men seeking children online was a problem in Central Florida, but provided few examples of actual children being approached.
New documents – notes obtained from prosecutors trying to establish probable cause in court - further bolster 10 News' initial findings that the stings offered a solution to a supposed widespread problem that didn't actually exist in Central Florida.
In 2013, a prosecutor declined to pursue "traveler" charges against a man caught in an Osceola Co. sting because the "state tried to find evidence that the crime of solicitation of minor via computer (parent) was taking place…there are no known cases."
The prosecutor notes the detective "asked ICAC affiliate + the FBI and was able to come up with about 5 examples Nationwide. None in Central FL."
Another Osceola Co. prosecutor in the case of a 21-year-old defendant wrote, "biggest concern was entrapment argument b/c the LE Operation was not really addressing on-going criminal activity…There have been NO documented cases in this area of parents being solicited on-line for sex w/their minor children."
You can read those documents here and here, but WTSP chose to redact personal information and case numbers from the documents to protect men who have been exonerated from their crimes. The state also redacted some information in accordance with Florida public records laws.
10 Investigates reported how spending tens of thousands of dollars at a time on these controversial stings could be taking away valuable resources from other areas of cybercrime.
In fact, a 2010 audit by the US Dept. of Justice's Office of Justice Programs told the Polk County Sheriff's Office that the ICAC task force wasn't responding quickly enough to some high-priority CyberTips:
"From review of data over the period of March 2009 thru March 2010, there were multiple instances when it took the agency 20-30 days to review CyberTip data," the agency wrote in a summary letter. "Given the amount of federal support in this initiative, the average review time is not meeting the goals of the program. OJJDP strongly recommends that the locality provide additional resources towards the review, referral, and investigation of CyberTip data. These tips represent crucial information that may lead to the rescue of a child victim."
Records indicate the other issues in the 2010 audit, including improved reporting & accounting from the task force, appear to have been addressed.
A DOJ spokesperson tells 10 Investigates it is currently reviewing the millions of dollars in grants awarded to Polk County Sheriff's Office and the Central Florida ICAC task force.
Another issue exposed by 10 Investigates involved the potentially illegal involvement of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI). Federal law dating back to Reconstruction mandates the military may not be used to enforce local laws.
In some recent cases, an OSA agent working out of MacDill Air Force Base admitted to reaching out to random personal ads online and hoping he might snare a servicemember.
Among the cases profiled by 10 Investigates was that of a man arrested in Pinellas County earlier this year. The prosecution agreed to drop all sex-related charges in exchange for a plea bargain on one misdemeanor charge of "unlawful use of a two-way communications device."
The defense attorney tells 10 Investigates it was "too good of a deal" for his client to pass on, but had full confidence a judge would have thrown the case out, especially after a federal court in Seattle issued a similar ruling.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said his agency has stopped working with the Air Force OSI on predator stings since 10 Investigates brought it to his attention. Gualtieri also declined to call a press conference following Pinellas County's most recent undercover sting in September, a departure from the standard made-for-TV events agencies typically hold for media outlets at the conclusion of an operation.
Prosecutors tell 10 Investigates that even though a number of law enforcement leaders won't participate in the undercover stings anymore, the agencies that are still conducting them are paying more attention to the rules than ever before.
State attorneys' offices have worked with law enforcement agencies to make sure the stings are targeting potentially-dangerous predators seeking children, and not teenagers who may just be looking for partners close to their age.
If you have any additional information as to how the predator operations are conducted, please contact Noah Pransky at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can reach Noah on Twitter at @NoahPransky, or connect with him on Facebook too.