Operation “COVID Chat Down” Nets 34 Arrests of Potential Sexual Predators
A total of 34 men from the Central Valley have been arrested and booked into the Fresno County Jail on various charges related to arranging to meet with a child for sex.
They range in age from 19 to 63. The arrests are a result of the undercover operation “COVID Chat Down,” which was conducted by the Central California Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force from July 20 to August 2, 2020. Agencies involved included: The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, Multi-Agency Gang Enforcement Consortium (MAGEC), Fresno Police, Clovis Police, Kingsburg Police, Parlier Police, San Luis Obispo Police, the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office, the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office, U.S. Attorney’s Office and Homeland Security
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, internet usage has increased across the country with people of all ages. Children in particular have engaged more with people through social media sites due to school closures and a reduction in extra-curricular activities. A potential danger of being online more often is an encounter with a sexual predator who is seeking out relationships with children.
To combat the problem, detectives with the ICAC Task Force and special agents with HSI constructed an operation to identify, contact and arrest anyone who may be trying to target a child for sex. Detectives used technology against these predators, posing as 12 and 13 year old boys and girls, conversing with men through online apps. During their conversations, these suspects used sexually explicit language and sent graphic photos to the detective pretending to be a child. Once the suspect requested to meet with the child, detectives arrived at a predetermined location and arrested them. No actual children were ever used or placed into danger during the operation.
One of the most notable arrests was that of 55 year old Thomas Binford of Clovis. Binford is a registered sex offender, who was previously arrested for sexually assaulting a child. Along with the crime of trying to meet with a child for sex, detectives found Binford to be in possession of child pornography. This included images of infant bondage and infant rape.
Another man arrested had intentions of having unprotected sex with a 13 year old girl. He later told detectives he is HIV positive.
Operation “COVID Chat Down” remains an ongoing investigation and more arrests could be made.
So far in 2020, the ICAC Task Force has made more than 90 arrests related to the distribution and possession of child pornography, including images of children being raped. This is nearly double the amount of arrests in 2019, which had 50. Most of these arrests occur with victims not being known due to this violent material being produced all around the world and then shared across the internet. However, ICAC detectives are well-aware that suspects who view child pornography can easily progress into hands on crimes against children. Operation “COVID Chat Down” is a prime example of how sexual behavior can escalate.
Law enforcement would like to remind the public to be vigilant when it comes to visiting websites and social media outlets. Parents should also monitor their children’s internet usage and be aware of the software apps they are using. Parents should keep the dialogue open with their children in order to build trust. Online predators often pretend to be someone else in order to lure their victims in and take advantage of them.
Teach children to be wary of the person on the other end of the chat line; many times people are not who they say they are. Report any suspicious behavior right away to law enforcement or file a cyber tip through the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. https://report.cybertip.org/ICAC is comprised of 64 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies spread throughout nine counties in the Central Valley. It is dedicated to protecting children online and investigating crimes committed against children, which are facilitated by the Internet and computer usage.
If you have any additional information about these suspects, please report it to Sgt. Chad Stokes at (559) 600-8144, Valley Crime Stoppers at (559) 498-7867, http://www.valleycrimestoppers.org You will remain anonymous and may be eligible for a cash reward.