Effingham County sheriff speaks about child-sex sting that nets - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

Effingham County sheriff speaks about child-sex sting that nets 40 arrests

(Source: WTOC) (Source: WTOC)

The Effingham County sheriff is speaking out after 40 men were arrested this summer in a child-sex sting.

For 10 weeks this summer, agents with Internet Crimes Against Children posed as teen girls and boys to catch predators who were looking to sexually exploit children.

All of these suspects came to Effingham thinking they were going to be meet up with an underage teen, some driving from places as far as Augusta and Barnwell, SC. But when they arrived, they were met by investigators. 

At a news conference Wednesday, Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie says this was the first year they decided to do sting during the summer months while children were home from school. While the Internet Crimes Against Children task force has been in place for several years, this was the first time agents wanted to pursue a sting operation that was in line with students being out of school.

The sheriff says the results were shocking. Prior to this operation, the task force had only caught 12 people, but in just the last 10 weeks they caught almost four times that number.

“I had no idea the magnitude that it is on that internet. I had no clue but every one of them that we can get off the street is a potential saving for a child that we don’t have to worry about,” said Sheriff McDuffie.

When these guys were finally caught, there was a team of agents waiting to arrest them. But getting them to that point was all because of one agent who posed as an underage teen online.  

“It gets real uncomfortable real quick,” said Joe Heath, ECSO.

Over the past last ten weeks, Investigator Heath has spent most of his time online and on his phone – pretending to be a 14-year-old teen – talking to adult men who eventually were willing to come to Effingham County.

They have an intel program that updates in real time, tracking potential offenders across the country.  Around lunchtime Wednesday, perhaps folks were behaving or perhaps Heath and his team were able to catch them all.  

“This is a work day so tonight you’ll come back and it will be more active,” said Heath.

But he says timing is everything, that’s why they decided to change up their approach by doing a sting during the summer. And not only that, they also changed up the bait.  

“We had always used the female persona, this time, we thought we would try the male persona. There is certainly a learning curve to that. The conversations are much different than it would normally be for us,” said Heath.

Heath created a male and female account online and began having conversations with all 40 of the men, luring six of them posing as a teenage boy and the rest posing as a teenage girl.

“You see Joe walking around all day with his phone in his hand and in most cases, he’s talking to some of these folks,” said Sheriff McDuffie.

At a news conference Wednesday, Sheriff McDuffie praised Heath and the team for what they were able to accomplish. He says the jail is now starting to get crowded, but it’s well worth it when the children in the community are safe.

“Since we’ve started this, we’ve had one person fly all the way from Arizona to meet a child. The lengths these guys will go to is endless,” said Heath.

Since the beginning of the year, they've been able to catch 52 people total and put them behind bars. And officials only expect that number to grow before the end of the year. 

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