Florida police lured innocent men into online sex stings and seized their property, records show
Police posed as underage teens online to lure men into breaking the law as part of an apparent revenue scheme by Florida law enforcement agencies, according to an investigation of newly released public records.
Emails and other online communications analyzed by WTSP-TV revealed that many of the men who were eventually arrested were not interested in meeting children but were instead seeking adult sex partners – until they encountered undercover officers.
Law enforcement agencies fought open-records requests by the TV station, which eventually gained access to investigation reports from cases that resulted in arrest – but not from those that did not.
Police fought the requests by claiming the investigations remained open, but one agency claimed it had already destroyed records from one sting just one month after it was conducted.
Clearwater police seized 19 cars in January 2014, the station reported, when a joint sting with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office arrested 35 men in one weekend.
The two departments arrested at least 20 other men three months later and 11 more in September in similar stings that netted 12 more seized vehicles, the station reported.
One of the men arrested in the first sting paid $10,000 to get his 2014 Lexus returned, and the 24-year-old won’t get any of that money back even though all felony charges were eventually dropped in his case.
The station found that many of the men arrested in the stings had posted or responded to personal ads seeking adults, but police often steered the conversation to underage children or posed as adults with younger siblings who were interested in meeting.
These men were arrested if they traveled to meet the adult, even if they expressed no interest in the younger decoys.
In one case, a 27-year-old man arrested in May had posted an ad specifying that he was interested in “18+ women no one under,” but undercover officers sent a reply posing as a 14-year-old girl.
The man repeatedly told detectives he was not interested in meeting anyone underage, according to evidence in the case, but he was arrested as a sexual predator anyway because he did not immediately end the conversation.
Prosecutors eventually determined there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue a case, but the man’s name remains online with the accusations in press releases and online news stories.
Other cases showed that officers violated their own guidelines by repeatedly steering conversations back to underage sex, even when the men said they were not interested.
Law enforcement agencies spent tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of man-hours on each sting, WTSP reported, but most of the suspects were men in their late teens or early 20s and not considered high risks to children.
One prosecutor trying to build a case wrote that federal authorities had found only five cases nationwide of adults – and none in central Florida — attempting to meet children online, as the undercover stings were built.
Watch this video report posted online by WTSP-TV: