Crime & Courts

‘Real monsters’ charged in investigation of online child predators, Sheriff Lott says

38 arrested in sting operation, 18 child predators

The Richland County Sheriff's Department arrested 38 people for being alleged child predators in Operation Full Armor.
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The Richland County Sheriff's Department arrested 38 people for being alleged child predators in Operation Full Armor.

A four-day investigation led by the Richland County Sheriff’s Department captured some “real monsters” wanting to have sex with underage girls, Sheriff Leon Lott announced Thursday.

Lott announced the arrests Thursday during a news conference to discuss an effort called Operation Full Armor. The effort, led by Lott’s department, was a multicounty, federal and state law enforcement effort to capture online child predators.

From July 10 to 13, authorities pretended to be 13- or 14-years-old girls, sometimes younger, and sought out people online and through social media who wanted to engage in sexual activity with the teens.

A Richland County home donated by a community member was used as the location where people would show up to have sex with the minors. When they showed up at the home, they were arrested, some outside the home, others inside and many at gunpoint.

The sting lead to 38 arrests for crimes ranging from criminal sexual conduct with a minor to solicitation of a minor and distributing sexual content to a minor. Of the 38 arrested, 18 were “travelers,” or people who came to the home where they believed a minor was waiting for them. Some came from Lexington and Kershaw counties.

As part of the same operation, others were arrested on charges of solicitation, meaning they tried to purchase sex from an adult. Undercover investigators posted ads on pages like Craigslist.com or Backpages.com, where they engaged with people looking to purchase sex. They also were arrested when they showed up at the Richland County home.

Some arrested were previous sex offenders. One person was a correctional officer; another was on a county’s ethics commission.

Lott called Operation Full Armor “one of the most successful sting operations conducted in the state so far.”

The effort involved eight county sheriff’s departments, the U.S. Marshall’s Service, U.S. Secret Service, Homeland Security, the state attorney general’s office and the U.S. attorney’s office in South Carolina.

“The United States attorney’s office remains ready to expedite the prosecution of these cases and other cases in federal court,” said U.S. District Attorney Sherri Lydon of South Carolina.

Melissa Perry, a senior investigator with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, initiated Operation Full Armor after seeing what other agencies have done. She was one of the people behind the keyboard pretending to be a young girl.

Investigating child predators that way is distressing, she said.

“This stuff can weigh on you,” Perry said. “We see the worst of the worse. It can be tough, but it’s also very rewarding.”

Lott also offered advice to parents to help prevent their children from becoming victims of an online predator.

Always know what your kids are doing on their electronic devices and on social media. Also, tell your children that online predators exist and they want to harm young people.

“Scare the heck out of them,” Lott said. Predators “aren’t coming out of the closet or from under the bed; they’re coming from a computer over the internet. And they come and get them. They’re real, and they’ll come and get them.”

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