Undercover Child Predator Sting Operations in Florida Highlights Scary Reality

October 6, 2021 Criminal Defense, News & Announcements, Sex Crimes

What appears to be a huge success for authorities in catching child predators also highlights the ongoing issue in the state of Florida. There have been several undercover busts already this year from police departments across the state.

The most recent example is Polk County Sheriff’s Office seventeen arrests that had been made in Orlando, Florida after instilling an undercover child predator sting. Included in the seventeen adults arrested is a registered nurse, three employees of Walt Disney World, and a married man who was visiting from California.

To read our article on Disney’s Unwavering Problem with Sex Trafficking, click here.

The Polk County Police’s undercover sting lasted for almost a week. The suspects were all engaged in conversation, solicited, and then traveled to meet the supposed teens they thought they had lured in. What awaited them instead was several undercover officers from Central Florida. A total of 17 people were arrested and faced 49 felonies and two misdemeanors.  

Another example is from Okaloosa County, who has recently made 12 arrests and identified 20 other suspects in an undercover child operation. An operation lasting 5 days with the focus of targeting online solicitations of children by sexual predators resulting in the arrests and pending charges on multiple suspects.

Details from the Cases

Polk County’s Operation Child Protector

The operation went under the name, “Operation Child Protector,” and lasted during the period of from July 27th-August 1st. During this time frame several undercover officers posed as 13- and 14-year-old girls on social media. They went on various dating apps to try and lure in potential child predators. Each of the suspects were in contact with who they assumed were underage girls. After the initial conversations, proposed plans to meet were set into place. They arranged to meet in Polk County, where authorities were waiting to bust them.

The total number of arrests made were 49 felonies and two misdemeanors. The age of those arrested for the crime were between 26 to 47. All of them were from Central Florida, except one 33-year-old man who had been traveling from California.

The youngest out of those arrested was 26-year-old Kenneth Javier Aquino, who works as a lifeguard at the Animal Kingdom Lodge at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. He had been engaging in conversation with an undercover agent who was posing as a 13-year-old girl. Aquino allegedly requested the young “girl” to send explicit photos of herself, and then sent videos of himself as well.

Upon arriving to the planned meeting spot, Aquino was still wearing his Disney lifeguard uniform. He was in an Animal Kingdom Lodge polo shirt and his swim trunks when he arrived on the scene, implying he had just left his shift at the Disney resort. Aquino was charged with traveling to meet a minor for sex, attempted lewd battery, and transmission of material harmful to a minor. After Aquino was arrested, he pleaded to the police, stating that he was a Navy veteran and has a pregnant girlfriend at home.

Two other suspects arrested also fall into the Walt Disney World crew. Jonathan McGrew, 34, and his girlfriend Savannah Lawrence, 29, both work as custodians on the Disney properties. Jonathan had been the one exchanging messages online, with whom he believed to be a 13-year-old girl. He wrote on the social media apps that he wanted the underage “girl” to go to his house and engage in sexual intercourse with himself and his girlfriend, Savannah. McGrew proceeded to send videos of him and his girlfriend engaging in inappropriate sexual acts with one another. When it was time for the meet up, McGrew and Lawrence took an uber to the specified location where they were apprehended by the police. They were charged with traveling to meet a minor for sex, attempted lewd battery, and two counts of transmission of material harmful to a minor.

In a press conference from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Grady Judd have harsh comments while pointing at the mug shots of those who had been arrested: “What you see on the board…are deviants. Incredible deviants.”

Walt Disney World has yet to come forward and make a statement regarding their three employees.

Okaloosa’s Operation Night Owl

The undercover officers from Okaloosa’s Sheriff Department posed as underage teens on social media apps, in popular chat groups, and even gaming apps. Operation Night Owl was completed in part with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, a national network with over 60 task forces dedicated to investigating, prosecuting, and creating responses to internet crimes against children. The ICAC represents over 4,500 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.

The operation created contact with men who solicited for images, sent sexual images themselves, or solicited for sex. There was a designated meeting spot where the supposed young girls were supposed to be waiting; however, upon arrival to the pre-designated area, the suspects were arrested and detained by authorities. The charges given range from traveling to meet a minor for sex and use of a computer to seduce, solicit, and lure a child.

In one of the cases, an already registered sex offender in Santa Rosa County asked a 14-year-old girl to meet him at the county line. He was on probation and had a GPS tracker on his leg, which is why he requested such a specific location. Another suspect requested the 14-year-old girl to pick him up in an Uber, because his wife was still at home.

Penalties for Child Predator Crimes

For the suspects in both cases who were arrested, the charges that were given included traveling to meet a minor, attempted lewd battery, and transmission of harmful material to a minor. What exactly are the details of these charges?

  • Traveling to Meet a Minor – According to Fla. Statute 0135, a person can be charged with traveling to meet a minor under any of the following characteristics:
    • A person who travels any distance either within this state, to this state, or from this state by any means, and attempting to do so, or causing another to do so to engage in any illegal acts under unlawful sexual conduct with a child. The person has used an online computer service or any other device capable of electronic data storage or transmission to:
      • Solicit, seduce, entice, or attempt to lure a child or a person believed to be a child, to engage in any illegal or sexual acts; or
      • Solicit, seduce, entice, or attempt to lure a parent, legal guardian, or custodian of a child or a person believed to be the parent or guardian to consent to the participation of illegal sexual misconduct with a child.

Getting charged with traveling to meet a minor is a felony in the second degree, which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a fine of $10,000.

  • Lewd or Lascivious Battery – Statute 800.04 describes the details of lewd or lascivious offenses. A person can be charged with lewd or lascivious battery under the following characteristics:
    • The defendant has engaged in sexual activity with a person 12-years of age or older, but less than 16-years-old.
    • The defendant has encouraged, forced, or enticed a person younger than 16-years of age to engage in sadomasochistic abuse, sexual bestiality, prostitution, or any other act involving sexual activity.

Getting charged with lewd and lascivious battery is a felony in the second degree, which is punishable with up to 15 years in prison, 15 years of sex offender probation, and up to a $10,000 fine.  

  • Transmission of Material Harmful to Minors – Statute 847.0138 describes the details of transmission of material harmful to minors. A person can be charged with transmission of material harmful to minors under the following characteristics:
    • The defendant has sent harmful material to a minor by electronic device or equipment prohibited.
      • “Known by the defendant to be a minor” means the accused person had knowledge that the recipient of the communication was a minor.
      • “Transmit” means sending a specific individual known by the defendant to be a minor via electronic mail.
    • Any person who knew or believed that he or she was transmitting an image, information, or date that is harmful to minors.

Getting charged with transmission of material harmful to minors is considered a third-degree felony, punishable by up to 5 years in prison, 5 years of probation, and a fine of $5,000.

For more information on sex crimes and crimes involving minors, make sure to check out our page on Sex Crimes.

Scary Statistics in Florida

Unfortunately, the potential threat of child predators in the state of Florida has steadily been rising, according to an article by WLRN. A report completed by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability—or OPPAGA—has stated that nearly 29,000 Florida residents are registered as sex offenders. There has been a steady increase over the years, with a 53% rise since the state legislation first ordered the audit in 2005.

Online child sexual abuse is on the rise—and some are calling it an epidemic. A New York Times article reported that from 2019 there were over 45 million images and videos that were flagged as child abuse. The number of cases in Northwest Florida increased by about 373% just within the last 5 years.

A recent study by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children highlights the extreme growth of child sexual abuse reports with the following details:

  • 1998: 3000 reports
  • 2014: 1 million reports
  • 2018: 18.4 million reports
  • 2019: 16.9 million reports (69.1 million images and videos)

These statistics are clearly worrying to citizens of Florida, especially after this most recent case, when three of the alleged offenders were employees of the child tourist attraction, Disney World. Polk County’s “Operation Child Protector” and Okaloosa’s “Night Owl Operation” shed light on the ongoing issue of child predators in the state. Thankfully, the success of the undercover operations means the arrested suspects were stopped before causing any harm to a minor.

Sheriff Grady gave a statement to Newsweek: “It’s so important for parents to be aware of what their children are doing online. They need to be all up in their kids’ business when it comes to monitoring their child’s access to the internet.”

Tallahassee Criminal Defense Attorney

If you or a loved one have been accused of any of the above crimes—or any sex crime—it is imperative to contact an experienced Tallahassee Criminal Defense Attorney. Receiving a sex crime or a crime involving a minor can have detrimental outcomes. In addition to potential jail time and fines, it can cause unemployment and ruin your reputation and relations with family and friends. You could also be registered as a sex offender, which has extreme long-term effects. A proficient attorney may be able to have your charge reduced or completely dismissed. Don Pumphrey at Pumphrey Law has represented those accused in Florida for sexual offenses and is ready to aggressively fight your criminal charge. Call (850) 681-7777 for your free consultation today.

This article was written by Karissa Key

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