Online sex predator sting nets 24 arrests in Lee County
- By JACOB CARPENTER
Josue Cardosa arrived at a house Monday, expecting to meet 14-year-old “Liz,” the girl who posted an online personal ad titled “Get Me Pregnant W4M.” As Cardosa, 22, of San Carlos Park, would learn after deputies rushed and handcuffed him, finding a condom in his pocket, “Liz” was an undercover agent and the real poster of the perversely titled personal. Cardosa and two other south Lee County residents were among the 24 men arrested in the past week as part of an online sexual predator sting disclosed Tuesday by the Lee County Sheriff’s Office. Between May 27 and Monday, investigators say the two dozen men arrived at an undisclosed location, expecting to meet teenage girls, only to find deputies ready to make an arrest. Those from south Lee County were Cardosa; 30-year-old Jose Pacheco, of San Carlos Park; and 20-year-old Caleb Barnhouse, of south Fort Myers. Lee County sheriff’s officials said the sting, three months in the making and titled “Operation Safe Summer,” used online ads, chat rooms and social media sites to locate men looking for sex with underage girls. In each case, online and text conversations turned sexual and a meet-up was arranged. When the men arrived, deputies initiated the takedown. “We not only search for people out there on the streets, but we’re on the Internet, the phone lines, everywhere we need to be to catch predators,” Lee County sheriff’s Lt. Jeff Dektas said. Sheriff’s officials called the online and text messages “very graphic,” with the suspects describing “horrible” acts they intended to commit. Online sex stings have become commonplace across the country in recent years, aimed at taking potential predators offline. In October 2012, “Operation Spiderweb” netted 40 arrests, at least 31 of which resulted in convictions or plea agreements. (Resolutions for two of the 30 cases couldn’t be found.) Among those successfully prosecuted: Alain Guevara, of Lehigh Acres, serving a 3 ½ year prison term; Gary Hall, of Cape Coral, scheduled for release from prison in 2019; and William Nockengost, of Cape Coral, early in a 19-year sentence on solicitation and attempted sexual battery charges. But online sex predators stings haven’t been without legal challenges, evidenced by the seven men arrested by Lee County deputies in “Operation Spiderweb” who were acquitted by a jury, had their charges dropped or were never formally charged. In one case, prosecutors dropped charges after it became clear a Collier County man didn’t know the age of the teen he was supposedly soliciting. In another case, law enforcement offered to give a defendant gas money to meet them, leading to accusations of entrapment, a motion to dismiss and, ultimately, the dropping of charges. Danielle O’Halloran, a Fort Myers-based lawyer who represented one of the seven defendants, said “there were some problems and issues with the police work” in “Operation Spiderweb” that led to the legal issues. “Law enforcement is making a movement to get these sex predators off the street, and everybody should appreciate that. I appreciate that,” O’Halloran said. “However, you should make sure you’re protecting the rights of people who aren’t doing anything illegal online. You have to look at these cases very closely, and I think it’s not as open-and-shut as law enforcement would lead you to believe.” Lee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Tony Schall noted law enforcement’s burden to make an arrest is probable cause, while prosecutors face the higher burden of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” “Would we like to see 100 percent prosecuted? Of course,” Schall said. “But we respect what they move forward with and what they don’t.” Regardless of legal outcomes, the recent arrests are a reminder of the potential dangers lurking online, sheriff’s Lt. James Amrich said. “The best advice to give is as a parent, you need to monitor what your children are doing, both on their smartphones and other media devices,” Amrich said.