SALT LAKE CITY — Thirteen people were arrested last week, and more arrests are expected following an undercover operation by the Internet Crimes Against Children task force.
But rather than child pornography, this operation targeted adults who were preying on children online.
"The 13 people we arrested were actively seeking to either rape or sodomize children," task force commander Jessica Farnsworth said at a Monday press conference. "We would rather get them before they get our children."
We are seeing a terrible trend in our state right now. We are seeing an increase in online activity and our children being targeted for the purposes of sexual assault.
–Jessica Farnsworth, Utah Internet Crimes Against Children task force
The group were all charged in 4th District Court Monday on a total of 48 counts that include criminal solicitation, attempted rape of a child, attempted sodomy on a child, attempted aggravated sexual abuse of a child and dealing in harmful materials to a minor.
Eleven of those charged thought they were talking online with, and were going to meet, a child between the ages of 11 and 13, Farnsworth said.
Even though this operation was held in Utah County, she noted, "We could do it in any county and probably get the same results."
Undercover officers used Whisper, Kik, Grindr, Craigslist and other apps to find online predators. Sometimes they posed as young children. Other times, the agents posted as adults offering money for men to "teach" their young daughter about sex, according to charging documents.
Among those arrested were: Timothy Lavell Dickerson, 29, of Taylorsville; Steven Bruce Holmberg, 60, of Springville; Tysen Aric Toone, 20, of Orem; Tylor Normand Berube, 27, of Layton; Matias Ignacio Kandalaft-Ruminot, 29, of Orem; Lehi Spencer Santiago-Lastra, 38, of Provo; Kelly Glen Herring, 33, of Magna; Jared Richard Park, 28, of Provo; Carlos Portillo, 48; Alberto Andrade, 31, of Provo; and Adam Peter Friel, 31, of Provo.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said operations like this are both good and bad. Good because it results in the arrests of predators. But he said he's "deeply troubled" that the problem with online predators seems to be getting worse in Utah.
"We are seeing a terrible trend in our state right now. We are seeing an increase in online activity and our children being targeted for the purposes of sexual assault," Farnsworth said.
In 2018, the Internet Crimes Against Children team received 916 referrals from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, conducted more than 12,000 investigations and made 226 arrests, she said. In just the last three months of this year, the task force has received 807 referrals, conducted 512 investigations and arrested 104 people, according to Farnsworth.
"This is a very bad year. Not a lot of good signs looking forward right now from what we've seen in the first quarter," added Leo Lucey, chief of investigations for the Utah Attorney General's Office.
Reyes said the increase may be due to more people reporting these types of crimes. Or it could be there are just more predators online, he said.
"A lot of people know we're out there, but they still come. And they're still targeting kids online," Farnsworth said, while adding that the age of the victims keeps getting younger.
Reyes said parents need to be watching what apps their children are on, and educate them about not engaging in conversations with people they don't already know. The attorney general's office has a list of apps on its website that parents should be educated on.