Thirteen men, including an off-duty California Highway Patrol lieutenant, have been arrested in an Internet sting operation aimed at luring would-be molesters to a Laguna Beach apartment where they expected to rendezvous with teenage girls.
Some of the men had arrived with candy, flowers, sexual paraphernalia, cameras or alcohol, only to be greeted by police officers during last weekend's arrests, details of which were announced by authorities Wednesday.
"There has to be some risk involved when these people approach our children. I want them to know that when they engage a child online, they could be talking to a police officer," Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said of the 11-hour sting. "I think we'll be doing more of these."
The men are accused of contacting adults posing as 12- or 13-year-olds through popular websites such as MySpace.com. Members of a citizens group called perverted-justice.com, which has worked with law officers nationwide to catch would-be child molesters, chatted with the men and alerted Laguna Beach police, authorities said, whenever a man suggested a sexual rendezvous.
The conversations were innocent at first, revolving around subjects such as movies and ice cream, Laguna Beach Sgt. Darin Lenyi said. The men sent their pictures, authorities said, with some asking whether the girl thought he was too old to be her boyfriend.
Many of the Internet chats occurred over several days and led to telephone conversations with officers who sounded young. In some cases, it was just a few hours of online chatting before a meeting was suggested, authorities said.
The men arrived at a Laguna Beach apartment complex beginning Saturday afternoon expecting to find a young girl home alone, police said. Instead, a female detective posing as the girl's mother answered the door.
Authorities said a 29-year-old carrying a rose tried to explain why he wanted to date the woman's 12-year-old daughter. Several suspects bolted before being tackled by officers, police said.
The suspects, ages 19 to 51, were charged with attempted child molestation, a felony that carries a maximum sentence of four years in prison.
In addition, one man was charged with possession of methamphetamine and another with sending an explicit image over the Internet.
Highway Patrol Lt. Stephen Robert Deck, a 23-year veteran, is "no longer employed by the Highway Patrol," said Fran Clader, spokeswoman for CHP headquarters in Sacramento. Clader declined to say whether Deck, 51, was fired or quit. He lives in Carlsbad and was assigned to Orange County.
The other suspects include a Tustin engineer, the manager of a Westchester Starbucks, a college student and several unemployed men.
One suspect pleaded not guilty Wednesday in Orange County Superior Court. The others will be arraigned next month. Seven of the men are free on $100,000 bond; six remain in custody.
Last month, the Riverside County Sheriff's Department conducted a similar undercover operation over three days, resulting in the arrests of 49 men, including a Department of Homeland Security agent and a high school teacher.