An Eckerd College student is among the suspects facing child predator charges in a large sting operated by the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office.
Kevin Williams, 21, of 25 Seton Road, Irvine, Calif., who is listed as a student at Eckerd College in Pinellas County, was arrested after allegedly SMS messaging and sending e-mails to arrange a sexual encounter with an undercover officer claiming to be a 14-year-old girl.
Williams' arrest was part of sting called Operation Intercept, which involved detectives posing online as minors and posting ads in chat rooms, message boards, Facebook and other places online. They waited for suspects to contact them, Knight said.
On Tuesday, May 8, Williams messaged that “I mean I’d love to come over but I only have enough money for gas there and back but not condoms, if that’s OK,” according to the probable cause affidavit.
He also drove the same day from Pinellas County to Sarasota County to the site of the undercover operation, for what investigators said he thought was a date with the girl, said Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight at a Monday afternoon press conference that announced the results of a joint agency online child predator sting.
This is the first-ever online child predator sting by the sheriff’s office, Knight said, and lasted six days.
“I think this operation illustrates how vulnerable our kids are,” Knight said. “And to parents, guardians of children — we live in a different era now than what we grew up in. I cannot express how important it is to have parents and guardians to become engaged and involved with what’s going on with the technology that our youth have in this day and age.”
The sting included residents from across Florida, including three Sarasota residents, four Bradenton residents.
All are charged with use of computer to seduce, solicit or entice a child to commit sex acts and travel to seduce, solicit or entice a child to commit sex acts, according to the sheriff’s office.
After emails, cell phone calls and texts, the suspect would show up to an undisclosed home in Sarasota County where deputies and other law enforcement would wait for them to surprise the suspect and arrest him, Knight said.
“The result of this operation I have to say is disturbing to an extent,” Knight said.
The ages of the suspects ranged from 20 to 62 years old, and came from diverse backgrounds, and several of them showed up in luxury cars, Knight said, including a 2008 BMW. The sheriff’s office will try to have those cars forfeited as they are considered tools in the commission of the crime, Knight said.
The computer use to solicit charge is a third-degree felony charge with a maximum sentence of five years in prison while the travel to seduce or solicit charge is a second-degree felony that carries a maximum of up to 15 years in prison, said Ed Brodsky, chief assistant state attorney in the 12th Judicial Circuit.
“We plan to continue with the various law enforcement agencies as the prosecution phase of these cases begin,” Brodsky said. “Our office is committed to doing everything we can to protect our children from victimization and to this endeavor, we will remain vigilant.”
Agencies from Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations, Sarasota, Bradenton, North Port and Venice police departments, Manatee County Sheriff's Office, State Attorney's Office and other members of the Central Florida Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force also participated in the sting.
Here’s a look at each of those other Sarasota charges in more detail:
• Shawn Gray, 45, of 555 NE 15th St. Apt. 34G, Miami, A lieutenant commander with the U.S. Coast Guard Judge Advocate General Corps, commonly known as JAG, also faces charges in the Sarasota child predator sting. Gray is also an attorney with JAG.
The Coast Guard JAG unit deals with military legal issues, accountability and legal readiness of its officers.
In Gray’s case, he used Yahoo Messenger to chat with what he thought was an 8-year-old girl and traveled from Miami to Sarasota County to meet with the child. In the message, Gray told the detective that he wanted to “f*** you in front of your family,” along with other lurid messages, according to the probable case affidavit. He was arrested on Saturday.
• Thamas Korona, a native of Vac, Hungary and currently living in Sarasota had used email on May 8 to send a picture of himself in a towel then texted an undercover deputy with messages signifying the intent to have oral and anal sex and traveled to the undercover home the same day. Detectives found that Korona also brought condoms with him to the scene, according to the probable cause affidavit.
• Daniel Rangel, a native of Mexico and current Sarasota resident, had used email on May 9 to contact a child believed to be 15 years old and said he was only 25 years old and he wanted to perform oral sex on her. Rangel had provided his phone number to the deputy and traveled that same day to meet with what he thought was the underage girl.
• Matthew Weaver, 21, of 9811 Country Oaks Drive, Ft. Myers, showed up with his 4-year-old nephew to the undercover home, Knight said. Weaver also used the alias Jason Reid, according to the probable cause affidavit.
Weaver faces an additional misdemeanor charge of contributing to the dependency of a minor, according to the probable cause affidavit.
Weaver used email to communicate with what he believed was a 13-year-old child and asked “13, you’re not a cop are you? LOL,” according to the probable cause affidavit. Weaver traveled that same day from Ft. Myers to Sarasota County to the undercover house.
• Frederick Joseph Wilson, 48, of 618 Weston Pointe Court, Longboat Key is the founding director of Wilson Resource Center in Arnolds Park , Iowa. He is also a blogger for a news site in Dickinson County, Iowa. According to the Wilson Resource Center website, the center is an outreach for "artists, conservationists, environmentalists, feminists, anti-abuse & sexual assault advocates, pro-choice advocates, people of color, people dealing with HIV/AIDS, & people celebrating diversity, teaching tolerance, & working to improve civil & human rights & create progressive social change." It focuses on outreach for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender and Transexual communities.
Wilson had contacted on May 7 what he believed was a parent of a 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son and was inquiring about having sex with either each or just the son only, according to the probable cause affidavit.
• Jayme Spencer, 26, of 178 Boundary Blvd. Apt. A, Rotunda West, is listed as a convicted sex offender, and lists his employment as the Clark Road Jiffy Lube in Sarasota. On May 7, he used email to message what he thought was the parent of a 14-year-old offering sex to their "step-daughter," and traveled from Charlotte County to the undercover home on the same day, according to the probable cause affidavit.
• Carlos Manuel Martinez, 41, of 402 Wilmington Parkway, Cape Coral, who is a clerk for the U.S. District Court in Lee County. Martinez, a native of Nicaragua, communicated with a child who he believed was 14 years old. Knight said that detectives determined that communication occurred while Martinez was at the court house in Lee County.
• Nick Barthram, 34, of 342 Mandez Drive, Sarasota, was charged with the use of computer to seduce, solicit or entice a child to commit sex acts and travel to seduce, solicit or entice a child to commit sex acts. Barthram, a native of Manchester, England, used email to engage with what he believed was a 15-year-old girl who posed as “Kelly’ for a sexual encounter on Friday, May 11, according to the probable cause affidavit.
Knight defended the sting method that some would consider entrapment saying the suspects had to have the conscious decision to commit the crime.
“We don’t trick anyone into committing a crime,” Knight said. “…We’re just inviting them to something they’re wanting to do and we don’t fight them to come and do something they don’t want to do.”
Each detective is trained how to talk like an 8-year-old boy or 14-year-old girl, Knight said, and the suspects each look for something different in their prey.
“Talking to them and communicating with them with find out exactly what they’re looking for, and when they come to the house they think they’re getting what they want,” Knight said. “It’s a wide variety of different ages of children.”
Knight wouldn’t reveal specific investigative methods.
More enhanced investigations and stings will be done in the county, Knight added.
A brief screening of the sting video prompted some chuckles in the conference room by attendees, and Knight points out that the comedy of seeing these suspects caught is met with caution.
“We like to laugh, but it’s a bit of a cautious laugh because we know these people that are screaming and saying they’re sorry — we know they’re there to harm a child,” Knight said of the surprise sting made famous by Dateline’s To Catch A Predator series. “It’s easy to laugh now, but if it wasn’t us and if it wasn’t real, some 8-year-old would have been victimized by some of these people. Do we like to hear them scream? You’re darn right that we like to hear them scream —absolutely for what they’re doing to children. Keep screaming because we’re going to be here.”
For tips on how to inspect your child’s online activity and to prevent your child from becoming a victim of an online predator, Knight encourages parents to call any law enforcement office.
The Sheriff’s Office can be reached at 861-4081
The Sarasota Police Department can be reached at 366-8000.
This story has been updated.