Child-sex offenders: Who are they? How are they caught?


This image from law enforcement video shows an arrest during the Operation Tail Feather Internet sex sting conducted by the Alachua County Sheriff's Office and Gainesville Police Department in 2012.

Published: Saturday, May 24, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 23, 2014 at 6:11 p.m.

Three Alachua County sheriff's deputies stood silently behind the front door. One gripped the handle while another leaned his body close to the wall.

Facts

Safety tips and warning signs

Here are some basic tips and warning signs to help keep your children safe while using the Internet.
— Keep the computer in a high-traffic area of your home.
— Establish limits for which websites children may visit and for how long.
— Remember that Internet technology can be mobile, so make sure to monitor cellphones, gaming devices and laptops.
— Know who is connecting with your children online and set rules for social networking, instant messaging, emailing, online gaming and using webcams.

Here are some warning signs that your child might be talking to a stranger:
- Does your child spend an unusual amount of time chatting online?
- Does your child get anxious or upset if he or she is not able to get to a computer to chat or check email or to send cellphone text messages?
- Is your child isolating him or herself from friends and family?
- Does your child have a sudden influx of cash from an unexplained source?
- Is your child getting gifts through the mail?
- Does your child use a prepaid phone card to make calls to a person you don't know?

Sources: National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's Netsmartz Workshop; Florida Attorney General's Office

White sheets covered the windows, leaving the deputies in the dark as they waited inside the Arredondo Farms house off Archer Road.

Driving 66 miles from Lady Lake, Dylan Kestel was expecting to meet a 12-year-old girl for sex.

Days earlier, the 20-year-old Maryland resident had answered an advertisement on a dating website posted purportedly by the girl's guardian. After several phone calls, text messages and email exchanges, Kestel agreed to meet in Gainesville, police said.

At 1:15 a.m. on July 21, 2012, Kestel arrived at the house and knocked on the door. The deputies stormed out, grabbed Kestel and yanked him inside. In less than 20 seconds, he was handcuffed and on the ground.

Kestel had believed the guardian and girl were real, but the conversations were with an undercover detective during Operation Tailspin, an Internet sex sting designed to catch people preying on children.

Kestel, who was convicted and sentenced to prison in January 2013, was one of eight men arrested in that police operation — and one of more than 1,000 people arrested in similar stings and investigations across Florida since 2010.

While such stings are conducted sporadically, children are solicited constantly online and in person, said Frank Williams, an assistant U.S. Attorney for the Office of the Northern District of Florida. More than 67,000 online enticement claims have been reported to a national tipline since 1998.

Gainesville has seen its share of recent child enticement cases and stings: A local swim coach was accused in April of coercing a boy to take nude photographs and sexually explicit videos of himself; a traveling musician was accused in February of soliciting a teenage girl on Facebook for sex and driving to meet her; two men, including a University of Florida student, were arrested during Operation Nightlight in January 2013.

Such crimes garner headlines and have even inspired the popular NBC Dateline show "To Catch a Predator." Yet, the risk and publicity do little to stop perpetrators — almost always men — from preying on children.

Experts say offenders have varying reasons to solicit sex from minors. Among those reasons: Some want to satisfy a fantasy, while others use the Internet as a sexual outlet because they're unhappy with their relationships.

Kenneth V. Lanning, a retired FBI agent who has studied deviant sexual behavior since 1973, said offenders often act on a need to validate their behavior, fuel a fantasy or turn a fantasy into a reality.

"What they come to believe is what they need to believe," he said.

Therapists can help control urges or tackle stress-related issues, he said, but there is no "cure" for individuals motivated to seek sex with minors.

"You cannot eradicate and change this fundamental core part of what arouses them and gratifies them," he said.

The groomers

Offenders are typically men between 20 and 40 years old and from all walks of life, said Jennifer Klein, a co-instructor of a Sex Offenders course at the University of Florida. They search for victims — often 13 to 17 years old — on social-networking sites, chat rooms and online gaming.

They "groom" victims by befriending them and earning their trust, Klein said. They focus on weaknesses, such as isolation from friends and family, to manipulate minors into becoming dependent on them. Eventually, the conversations turn sexual, and offenders suggest meeting.

David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said most offenders know their victims, either through school, sports or church.

In late April, Gainesville Police Department officers arrested Joseph Michael Diaz, a 30-year-old behavioral resource teacher at High Springs Community School and a swim coach for the Makos Aquatics Club of Gainesville, on molestation and child abuse allegations.

A teenage boy told detectives that Diaz coerced him to take explicit pictures and videos of himself using Diaz's cellphone. Another victim later came forward and alleged that Diaz sexually battered him during a three-year period.

As of April 30, police said the number of possible victims in the case could be seven or higher.

In February, a similar incident rocked the community.

Ryan Burd, a percussionist in The Dallas Brass, met a female student at a concert at a Gainesville church. After the show, the girl went home and "liked" the band's Facebook page. The two later talked online.

Burd was 28 years old and wanted sex. The girl was 14.

The Sheriff's Office received a tip on Feb. 17 that Burd, a Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, resident, had met the girl at her house in High Springs, police said. She refused to have sex with Burd and told him to leave.

An undercover detective, posing as the girl on Facebook, later messaged Burd. He agreed to meet again and drove to the girl's house Feb. 19. Deputies arrested him shortly after he arrived.

For investigators, the cases represent a growing number of such incidents they handle each year.

"Our priority is to seek out offenders and protect children from this kind of victimization," Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell said. "It's just a horrific crime."

The enforcers

In 1998, the Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention established the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Program to tackle online child exploitation nationwide.

The North Florida task force, which is based at the Gainesville Police Department, has investigated cases across 38 North Florida counties since 2003.

The task force made 1,093 arrests from 2010 to 2013, the second-highest total in the state behind the Central Florida task force.

GPD Detective John Madsen, commander of the North Florida task force, said detectives investigate cases through tips from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's CyberTipline and 911 calls.

More than 30 North Florida agencies, including the Sheriff's Office, GPD and Alachua Police Department, have participated in 17 sting operations that led to more than 250 arrests since April 2011, according to GPD records. That number doesn't include offenders arrested after police announced the stings publicly.

In 2011, the Department of Justice awarded the Sheriff's Office a $490,147 grant that led to the creation of the Child Sexual Predator Task Force. The unit arrested 49 people between 2011 and 2013 before the grant ran out, sheriff's spokesman Art Forgey said.

Madsen said each operation demands months of planning, including shifting investigators' work schedules, installing surveillance equipment and finding arrest locations, such as a rental house or apartment unit.

In previous stings, detectives — acting as children or their relatives — posted advertisements on e-commerce websites such as Craigslist.com or Backpage.com, and talked with suspects through emails, phone calls and text messages.

Darnell said investigators, also known as "chatters," are on a constant schedule during a sting.

"You don't just turn off the computer or stop talking on the phone at 5 o'clock," she said. "If you've got someone who's having a conversation or establishing a dialogue, thinking you're a child, we're going to keep that going as long as need be."

Madsen said police review each case before making an arrest to avoid errors.

"When we make an arrest, we try to be far above … probable cause," he said.

Crime and punishment

Prosecutors determine whether a case goes to state or federal court based on an offender's criminal history and the crime's severity, among other factors.

Eighth Circuit State Attorney Bill Cervone said his office often prosecutes first-time offenders for soliciting a minor online or traveling to meet them. If convicted, they can receive prison time and required sex offender registration.

In federal court, however, punishments are harsher: a 10-year mandatory minimum prison sentence if convicted.

Detectives must follow a set of procedures, known as the Internet Crimes Against Children Program Operation and Investigative Standards, when they talk with defendants.

Investigators, for example, must let defendants "set the tone, pace and subject matter of the online conversation."

"Law enforcement is encouraged to use open-ended language and have the person intending to respond for sex do most of the talk," said Gilbert Schaffnit, a Gainesville defense attorney.

Peter D. Aiken, a Sarasota-based defense attorney who has represented offenders caught in stings for the past decade, said he has handled cases in which detectives went against the task force's rules.

"They are not protecting or preventing crime," he said. "They're creating it."

Defense attorneys know they have an arduous task in these cases.

"It's difficult," said Randy Murrell, federal public defender for the Northern District of Florida. "In almost every case, there is a conviction."

In federal court, he said, the conviction rate is between 80 percent and 90 percent.

Offenders often claim police entrapment as a defense, alleging an undercover detective induced them to solicit sex from a minor.

Williams, the assistant U.S. attorney, said he has never encountered a successful entrapment defense in court.

"In fact, most times the defense will not even raise the legal argument of entrapment because they know that the case is meritless," he said.

That doesn't mean everyone arrested in a sting truly meant to solicit sex from minors or travel to meet them, the defenders say.

"That is a danger in all these sting operations," Murrell said. "You cast the net too broadly."

Trey Gennette, a 45-year-old Pensacola resident, was arrested during Operation Blue Shepherd in 2011 after he chatted online and traveled to meet someone who he thought was a 19-year-old woman and her 14-year-old sister.

Gennette pleaded no contest in his case after a judge refused to dismiss his charges based on an entrapment defense. He appealed to the Florida 1st District Court of Appeal.

In September, two appellate judges voted to overturn Gennette's conviction, ruling the undercover detective who talked to Gennette during the sting had led the conversations.

"The law does not tolerate government action to provoke a law-abiding citizen to commit a crime in order to prosecute him or her with that crime," they wrote.

For Gennette, life after his arrest and overturned conviction has been difficult, he said. He's unemployed and struggling financially.

"Believe me, life doesn't suddenly get better if you win your case," he said. "Even though I'm a free man, it's a battle."

Consequences

Experts say young victims of online sexual encounters can suffer lasting consequences, such as teen pregnancy or abuse.

Danielle Tolson, a co-instructor of the Sex Offenders course at UF, said victims also could become dependent on offenders. Seventy-three percent of children who have offline sexual encounters with offenders do so more than once, according to the UNH center.

"We really need youth to understand the harms of statutory rape because when these youths are groomed — and they do fall victim to these advances — they are often very much protective of the offender," Tolson said.

Other consequences from online solicitation might include child pornography. Victims who send explicit pictures of themselves to offenders risk having that picture uploaded and shared online.

"That's a very traumatic thing once (victims) realized that and can't remove the picture from the Internet," said Stacy Pendarvis, program director for the Monique Burr Foundation for Children in Jacksonville. "They will be victimized and re-victimized forever."

Sherry Kitchens, president of the Child Advocacy Center in Gainesville, said parents often don't suspect that their children are being victimized online. The realization can be devastating.

"It can turn a parent inside out," she said.

The consequences extend beyond the victims and the perpetrators. For families with loved ones in custody, their lives can change as quickly as the thud of a judge's gavel.

David Arvelo, a 50-year-old Staten Island, New York, resident, compared his 29-year-old son's 10-year federal prison sentence after he was arrested during Operation Pegasus in 2013 to losing a best friend.

Arvelo said his son, David Michael Arvelo, an Air Force veteran from Melbourne, suffers from post-traumatic stress after a six-year tour in Japan and Iraq and depression from a January 2013 divorce.

Arvelo said he didn't downplay his son's actions but felt frustrated with the punishment: a decade in a New Jersey prison.

"Our family feels like we let him down," he said in a phone interview. "We weren't there for him. We assumed everything was OK."

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