As a result of a proactive, online undercover investigation coordinated by the Georgia Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Child Exploitation and Computer Crimes Unit (CEACC), the Columbus Police Department, the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office for the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit, and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia, twenty-one (21) people were arrested over a five-day period beginning Thursday, November 9, 2017. Those arrested were charged with O.C.G.A. 16-12-100.2, Computer or Electronic Pornography and Child Exploitation Prevention Act of 2007. Additional charges may be forthcoming.
“Operation Hidden Guardian” was a five-day proactive effort centered in Columbus, GA. The operation took several months of planning. The arrestees, ranging in age from 22 to 55, traveled from areas around Columbus, GA with the intent to meet a child for sex. One of the persons arrested traveled from North Carolina. Some of the occupations of those arrested included forklift driver, mechanic, car wash attendant, military instructor, electrician, school custodian, research assistant and several were unemployed.
The goal of “Operation Hidden Guardian” was to arrest persons who communicate with children on-line and then travel to meet them for the purpose of having sex. In addition, the operation targeted those that are willing to exploit children by purchasing sex with a minor. On-line child predators visit chat rooms and websites on the internet, find children, begin conversations with them, introduce sexual content and arrange a meeting with the children for the purpose of having sex. The children these predators target are both boys and girls. Since 2014, the Georgia ICAC Task Force has arrested over 120 people in similar operations.
Over the course of the multi-day operation, investigators had more than 600 exchanges with subjects on various social media or internet platforms. More than 400 of those were exchanges in which the subject initiated contact and directed the conversation towards sex. The exchanges involved websites used for dating, socializing, or even websites used for classified advertisements. Some persons when told they were talking with a minor reacted appropriately and ceased communications. However, in some of those instances, the subject continued to communicate. Over the course of the operation, almost 40 cases were established that met the threshold for arrest. Twenty-one of those cases were concluded with arrests. In some of those cases, the adult introduced obscene or lude content, often exposing the minor (Undercover) to pornography or requesting the child take nude or pornographic images for them.
Although some websites promote themselves as being for “adults-only” it is not uncommon for law enforcement to work cases in which children access these sites, establish profiles claiming to be older, and then find themselves vulnerable to victimization, harassment, blackmail, or assault. During Operation Hidden Guardian, at least one person was communicating with multiple undercover personas and had also contacted other undercover officers in previous similar operations. Such activity confirms what investigators uncover conducting these types of investigations: that many predators specifically seek out minors on such websites to groom them as potential victims for sexual contact.
Along with those agencies who participated in the planning and coordinating of the operation, twelve (12) additional law enforcement agencies participated in “Operation Hidden Guardian” as members of the Georgia ICAC Task Force. These agencies were:
Athens-Clarke County Police Department
Floyd County Police Department
Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office
Hall County Sheriff’s Office
Georgia Information Sharing and Analysis Center (GISAC) – unit of the GBI
Glynn County Police Department
LaGrange Police Department
Marietta Police Department
Polk County Police Department
Tallapoosa Police Department
Federal Bureau of Investigation
United States Secret Service
The proactive on-line investigation was a coordinated effort among the participating law enforcement agencies to combat this activity. Columbus Police Department Chief Ricky Boren stated, “The Columbus Police Department works daily to protect the safety of the citizens of our community, especially those that are unable to protect themselves. I want to recognize the cooperation of our federal, state, and local law enforcement partners that work daily to seek out and apprehend predators that attempt to do harm to our children. We will continue to be proactive in identifying, apprehending and prosecuting individuals who exploit children.” GBI Special Agent in Charge, and Commander of the Georgia Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force, Debbie Garner, remarked “The Columbus Police Department is one of our most active member agencies. We appreciate their daily efforts to combat child exploitation. This type of cooperation and collaboration is invaluable in the effort to keep our children safe from predators who seek to harm them. This successful operation was a partnership between all the agencies involved. We will continue to aggressively work together to protect our children.”
The following were arrested and charged in Muscogee County as part of “Operation Hidden Guardian”:
Austin Tyler Pierce, W/M, Columbus, 26, car wash attendant
Reginald Kiiani Crowell, B/M, Pittsview, AL, 36, unemployed
Jonathan David Jenkins, B/M, Columbus, GA, 23, treatment operator
Brian A Cocoran, W/M, Columbus, GA, 42, unemployed
Ji Won Kim, A/M, 26, Atlanta, GA, unemployed
Derrick Lamart Smalls, B/M, 38, Phenix City, AL, military instructor
Robert Alan Moore, W/M, 31, Ledonia, AL, tech specialist
Collis Dwight Eaton, W/M, 48, Midway, AL, electrician
Kenneth Jordan, B/M, 29, Columbus, GA, research assistant
Edwin Nieves, H/M, 55, Columbus, GA, customer service worker
Ke Song, A/M, 24, Auburn, AL, student
Christopher McGowan, W/M, 32, Mechanicsburg, PA, industrial mechanic
Jarrod R. Long, B/M, 27, Columbus, GA, city maintenance worker
Jimmy Cobb, B/M, 35, Columbus, GA, mechanic
Uthemes Taylor, B/M, 30, Columbus, GA, forklift driver
Michael Andrew Everett, B/M, 22, Columbus, GA, unemployed
Harold Bates, B/M, 35, Selma, AL, pipe welder
Dereck C. Weldon, B/M, 30, Columbus, GA, unemployed
Gary D. Whitfield, B/M, 28, Columbus, GA, unemployed
William Pruitt, W/M, 48, Franklin, NC, school custodian
Eric K. Menefee, B/M, 50, Opelika, AL, unemployed
The Georgia ICAC Task Force is comprised of 200+ local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, other related criminal justice agencies and prosecutor’s offices. The mission of the ICAC Task Force, created by the U. S. Department of Justice and managed and operated by the GBI in Georgia, is to assist state and local law enforcement agencies in developing an effective response to cyber enticement and child pornography cases. This support encompasses forensic and investigative components, training and technical assistance, victim services, prevention and community education. The ICAC Program was developed in response to the increasing number of children and teenagers using the internet, the proliferation of child pornography, and the heightened online activity by predators searching for unsupervised contact with underage victims. By helping state and local law enforcement agencies develop effective and sustainable responses to online child victimization and child pornography, the ICAC program delivers national resources at the local level. Arrests made by the Georgia ICAC Task Force have been steadily increasing over the last 3 years. In 2014, the GA ICAC Task Force made 196 arrests. The Georgia ICAC Task Force made 244 arrests in 2015, and in 2016, the Georgia ICAC Task Force made 340 arrests. The Georgia ICAC Task Force has made over 2,200 arrests since its inception in 2002.