ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – The sheriff’s office in St. Johns County announced Friday that they have arrested 17 men who allegedly tried to meet up with children for sex in the county.
"We arrested 17, and now we talked to a couple hundred," said St. Johns County Sheriff David B. Shoar. "Seventeen are the ones that got in their cars and said 'I'm going to come and victimize this person.'"
Shoar announced during an afternoon press conference that the 17 men were arrested about two weeks ago through an undercover multi-agency venture called “Operation Cruel Summer.” Four of the suspects are convicted felons and police believe one is a human trafficker.
"It's a compulsion that, quite frankly, is beyond comprehension," Shoar said. "They have to know that we're out there."
Several agencies, including the FBI, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, and authorities in Gainesville and Putnam County assisted in this “resource-intensive” operation, Shoar said.
Investigators would correspond with these suspects on e-commerce websites and set up meetings between what the suspects believed were children.
Shoar said the suspects were between the ages of 19 and 60, with several of them with criminal records already. Four were already convicted felons. They came from local and distant areas of Florida, as well as South Carolina and Virginia.
"We arrested 17 but we talked to literally hundreds more." Shoar said. "I can't even venture to guess how many get through."
He said he is convinced one of the men arrested is a human trafficker and would have likely kidnapped a child and mixed them up in drugs and other crimes.
The sheriff called the areas of the web that investigators have to go to in order to find these people as the “dark side of technology.”
Shoar said he found it confusing that these men would risk their freedom and reputation in order to possibly have sex with a child.
"Technology is a wonderful thing, but there's a dark side to it," Shoar said. "Unfortunately, the bad guys know how to manipulate and they evolve."
The investigation is ongoing, with the suspects facing possible charges of child exploitation or sexual crimes against children, the Sheriff said.