Tallahassee, Florida -- Thirty-five men, 25 of whom are from Tallahassee, were arrested over the last week in an extensive underage sex sting where the men allegedly solicited sex in online forums with people they thought were teenage girls.
Mug Shot Gallery: Suspects arrested in underage sex sting
The sting is considered the most successful operation in Florida history, based on the number of arrests, police said. Those arrested include a youth baseball and football coach employed by the city of Tallahassee, a corrections officer for Florida Department of Corrections and an attorney for the Agency for Person with Disabilities.
"This investigation has revealed a disturbing number of individuals who have been actively targeting children in this community," Sheriff Larry Campbell said. "Law enforcement cannot do what parents can do to keep children safe from online predators."
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there are 3,668 cases reported to the center's tip line every week involving child sexual exploitation.
Online predators can be savvy, but parents and children can take steps to learn how to avoid being a potential victim and learn about red flags.
Mike Phillips, assistant special agent-in-charge for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said filtering and monitoring software for home computers is an effective tool. He also said talking to children is vital and parents need to be aware of what children are seeing and experiencing online.
"It's their job to protect their kids and part of that is knowing what your kids are doing," Phillips said, although he cautions parents not to panic. "You don't have to be looking over their shoulder every day. But just keep up with what they are doing."
Leslie Reinhard, 28, mother of three children ages 12, 4 and 2, said she doesn't allow her oldest son to surf the Internet unsupervised.
But she was stunned after reading breaking news posted on The Tallahassee Democrat that her son's baseball coach, Carlos Stephens, was among those arrested.
Reinhard called Stephens "nice" and "an incredible coach," but said she was alarmed by the allegations.
Stephens, 28, has been a city employee since September 2005, said Dee Crumpler, director of the city's Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Affairs Department.
He was a referee for adult flag football and baseball. He also coached boys baseball ages 11-12 in the Spring 2010-2011 season for the Cal Ripkin Baseball League at Capital Park on Tram Road.
Crumpler said he immediately suspended Stephens without pay Tuesday and he is moving forward with terminating Stephens.
"When I first heard about it, as a parent of teenage daughters, I was sickened," Crumpler said of the sex sting arrests. "It's unfortunate, but we have 1,200 employees in our department ... We do everything we can to prevent that."
Stephens passed all background and drug checks when he was first hired. However, in 2008 he failed a drug test when he tested positive for marijuana.
Per city policy, Stephens had to sit out for a year if he wanted to work for the city again. He was required to participate in the city's employee assistance program and drug counseling. He returned to the city in August 2009.
Nathan J. Dygart, 29, another man arrested in the sting, held a temporary position as an attorney in the general counsel's office for the Agency for Persons with Disabilities for the last five months. According to Melanie Etters, spokeswoman for the agency, Dygart was fired on Monday.
"He no longer has access to our building or databases," she said. "Our IT people will do a review of his computer."
Brantley Hill, 21, works as a corrections officer for the Florida Department Corrections. It has not yet been reported if he has been suspended or terminated.
The arrests were made as a part of Operation Tallyop by the North Florida Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. The group is made up of officers from FDLE, the Leon County Sheriff's Office, Tallahassee Police Department, the U.S. Marshal Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, St. Johns County Sheriff's Office and the Alachua County Sheriff's Office.
"This is the most successful ICAC operation to date in Florida," said Tallahassee Police Chief Dennis Jones. "It could not have been accomplished without everyone working together to meet the common goal of ridding the streets of these predators."
According to Jones, there were about 40 police officers working at any given time throughout the week and arrests peaked at eight in one day.
Assistant State Attorney Stefanie Walters said the men, if convicted, could face up to 15 years in prison for traveling to meet a minor for sex and up to five years in prison for online solicitation.
Desiree Stennett and TaMaryn Waters, the Tallahassee Democrat