Law enforcement arrested 14 men from Fresno and Tulare counties in central California during a three-day operation targeting child sex trafficking, it was announced Oct. 24, 2023. (Courtesy of the Fresno County Sheriff's Office)
Law enforcement have arrested 14 men from Fresno and Tulare counties in central California during a three-day operation targeting child sex trafficking, authorities announced this week.
Undercover federal agents also identified 30 more people chatting with operatives posing as children. More arrests could be forthcoming as investigations continue, Fresno County Sheriff John Zanoni announced during a press conference Oct. 24.
The arrests were part of a multi-agency sting dubbed “Operation Boogeyman,” during which law enforcement from 17 federal, state, and local agencies targeted adults seeking to sexually exploit children.
“Operation Boogeyman is an ongoing investigation,” Mr. Zanoni said. “There’s a possibility that suspects in this case have victimized other people who may not have reported it.”
During the sting, detectives posed as preteen and early teenage boys and girls on social media apps known to be frequented by sexual predators.
Suspects reportedly used sexually explicit language and sent graphic photos to the detectives who were pretending to be children, the sheriff’s office reported.
All suspects allegedly initiated conversations and expressed their sexual desires to the undercover detectives. They also initiated a time to meet with them posing as children, according to the sheriff’s office. Once the suspects arrived at the locations, they were arrested.
A man is taken into custody after police responded to an incident in a file photo. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Fresno-area law enforcement ran a similar 14-day operation in 2020 called “COVID Chat Down” that resulted in 34 arrests. In 2022, Operation H.O.O.K., also in that area, resulted in 19 arrests over four days, according to the sheriff’s office.
The male suspects arrested Oct. 21 were booked into Fresno County Jail on charges related to arranging to meet with a child for sex, according to the sheriff’s office. Their ages range from 21 to 59.
By Tuesday, felony charges were filed against six of the men in Fresno Superior Court. Charges include attempting a lewd act on a child under 14, 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 on a minor, according to Steve Wright, deputy district attorney in Fresno County.
Several of those defendants have been arraigned and pleaded not guilty. They face a maximum sentence of four years in state prison and mandatory registration as sex offenders if convicted on all charges, Mr. Wright said at the press conference Tuesday.
Stephen Woolery, Bureau of Investigation at the California Department of Justice, said the arrests send a message to other sexual predators.
“The California [Department of Justice] will not tolerate sexual exploitation of our children,” Mr. Woolery said at the press conference. “We are committed to keeping our children safe from all predators whether that’s online or on our streets. If you go after our children, we will come after you.”
Victims of sexual trafficking, which he called a form of “modern-day slavery”—were among the most vulnerable in the state, including migrants, seasonal agricultural workers, residential care providers, and workers in the garment industry, according to Mr. Woolery.
The Merced County Sheriff’s Department in California discovered human trafficking victims in Merced, Calif., on July 26, 2023. (Courtesy of Merced County Sheriff’s Department)
The state launched teams, working with local law enforcement, in June 2021 to go after sexual predators. So far, they have arrested 643 sexual traffickers and assisted 647 sexual trafficking victims, Mr. Woolery added.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) dedicated more than a dozen personnel to the operation and helped lead the online chats, according to its Fresno office.
Seventeen local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies participated in the operation, including Fresno police and sheriff’s departments; San Luis Obispo, Visalia, and Sanger police departments; the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Fresno; the California Department of Justice and Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; the FBI; and Homeland Security.
Although the operation has had its successes, the Fresno County sheriff encouraged parents, guardians, and grandparents to watch out for their children and monitor their online activity.
“It’s prevention and intervention—that’s what’s going to stop this,” Mr. Zanoni said. “These people are from Fresno and Tulare counties, not in some state or far away. These people are local. They’re right here in our backyard.”