By W. Thomas Smith Jr., P1 Contributor

A four-day sting operation led by the Richland County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD) and involving multiple local, state and federal agencies, led to the arrest of 18 persons suspected of being child predators and another 20 for prostitution in Richland County, South Carolina, in mid-July.

Dubbed OPERATION FULL ARMOR, the effort was “very successful,” said RCSD Sheriff Leon Lott.

The child predators, also known as “travelers” because they travel from one area to the next in search of vulnerable child victims, initiated their crimes in internet chat rooms and through various social media. They began communicating online with persons they believed were girls between the ages of 13 and 14. A few of the suspects shared pictures of themselves. Others requested pictures. Each of the suspects then traveled to what they believed was a young girl’s home when the child’s parents were supposedly away.

“Unfortunately for them, they didn’t meet any young girls,” said Lott. “They met us.”

The joint mission was conducted by the RCSD-led INTERNET CRIMES AGAINST CHILDREN TASK FORCE. The task force, under the operational direction of RCSD Senior Investigator Melissa Perry, was composed of RCSD, the U.S. Marshal’s Service, the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security, the S.C. Attorney General’s office, the U.S. Attorney for South Carolina and seven other sheriff’s departments or offices within the state.

“The United States Attorney’s office remains in lock-step with local, state and federal agencies that comprise this ongoing partnership,” said U.S. Attorney Sherri A. Lydon, adding that her office is “ready to expedite the prosecution of these cases.”

Among those nabbed for either Internet crimes against children or prostitution were repeat and registered sex offenders, as well as a Boy Scout leader, a member of a county ethics commission, business leaders, a S.C. Dept. of Corrections officer and a U.S. Army officer. Two of those arrested admitted to possessing over 5,000 images of child pornography. “These are monsters within our community – there is no other way to describe them – and all of us working as part of this task force are committed to getting them off the street and away from our kids,” said Lott. “We now have 38 in custody, and there may well be more as this is an ongoing operation.”

The sting operation was conducted July 10-13.

About the Author

W. Thomas Smith Jr., a special deputy with the Richland County Sheriff’s Dept., is a formerly deployed U.S. Marine infantry leader and former SWAT team officer in the nuclear industry.

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