A multi-agency social media sting operation led to the arrest of 14 men in Fresno and Tulare counties.
“Parents, monitor your kids’ social media. Find out what they’re doing online. Their phones, their tablets, you paid for them, they’re minors, feel free to check up on them and inspect them. That’s how we’re going to combat this problem.” — Fresno County Sheriff John Zanoni
The operation — dubbed “Operation Boogeyman” — took place between Oct. 18 and Oct. 20.
Most of the men arrested have already posted bond and been assigned a court date. Charges range from attempted lewd act on a child, attempting to contact a minor with the intent to commit a sexual offense, and traveling to an arranged meeting place with the intent to commit a sexual offense, Fresno County Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright said Tuesday.
Several defendants have already appeared before a judge, submitting not-guilty pleas.
If convicted, suspects could face up to four years in state prison and would have to register as a sex offender, Wright said.
“Operation Boogeyman was to help protect our children in our community to target those individuals and those predators that are out there looking to take advantage of our kids and hurt them,” said Fresno County Sheriff John Zanoni.
Detectives identified and contacted the suspects online through various social media platforms. They posed as preteens and early teenage boys and girls.
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The suspects then expressed a desire to meet with detectives, authorities said. And, when the men arrived to meet with who they thought were children, they were arrested. During the operation, detectives said they met 30 other people who showed similar interests and predatorial behaviors.
“These individuals were not arrested, but it just goes to show you the magnitude in the number of individuals that are out in our community looking to take advantage of our children,” Zanoni said. Zanoni said there may be future arrests under Operation Boogeyman.
Third Fresno County Sting Operation in Four Years
In 2020, a similar sting by the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office called COVID Chat Down resulted in 34 arrests over 14 days. In 2022, Operation H.O.O.K. resulted in 19 arrests over four days.
This operation involved 17 local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, including the Fresno, Visalia, Paso Robles, and Visalia police departments as well as the Madera, Mariposa, and San Luis Obispo sheriff’s offices. The U.S. Attorney, FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, California Department of Justice, and the Central California Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force also participated.
“Those teams, which are located throughout the state, including here in the Central Valley, Sacramento, and San Diego are working hand-in-hand with our law enforcement partners to disrupt and dismantle human trafficking and the criminal exploitation of children,” said Stephen Woolery, bureau director for the California Department of Justice’s Bureau of Investigations.
Woolery said the team of investigators has arrested 643 traffickers and helped 647 victims.
Woolery said human trafficking is most prevalent in hospitality, commercial sex, domestic work, and construction industries.
“It is truly a modern-day form of slavery, and we have to do everything in our power to put an end to it,” Woolery said.
Zanoni said the suspects arrested in Operation Boogeyman may have committed other crimes. Anyone who knows about these suspects should report it to the sheriff’s office at (559) 600-3111.
Parents Should Be Aware of Children’s Online Activity
Detectives contacted suspects on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, Discord, and more. Parents should check for photos they shouldn’t be receiving or chats with older people.
Predators will often try to build trust with children, Zanoni said. They may pretend to be children, as well.
“They definitely play these games and they act overtly, and then they’ll ask to see a picture,” Zanoni said.
After they build that trust, they may then reveal their actual age.
“Parents, monitor your kids’ social media,” Zanoni said. “Find out what they’re doing online. Their phones, their tablets, you paid for them, they’re minors, feel free to check up on them and inspect them. That’s how we’re going to combat this problem.”