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12 arrested in ‘Operation Heartbreak’ sting targeting online child predators

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 MOULTRIE — Twelve people have been arrested after a proactive online undercover investigation coordinated by the Georgia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Child Exploitation and Computer Crimes Unit, the Colquitt County Sheriff’s Office, and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia. 

Each person arrested over a three-day period beginning Thursday, February 10 was charged with Computer or Electronic Pornography and Child Exploitation Prevention Act of 2007.  There may be additional charges and arrests.

“Operation Heartbreak” was a three-day effort centered in Moultrie.  The operation took several months of planning and involved the collaboration of twelve law enforcement agencies and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia. 

The arrestees, ranging in age from 23 to 65, traveled from areas around South Georgia with the intent to meet a child for sex. Every individual arrested during the operation believed they were going to a location to meet with a child and engage in prearranged sex acts. Thirteen mobile devices were seized as evidence during the operation.  

The goal of “Operation Heartbreak” was to identify persons who engage in sexually explicit communication with children on the Internet, arrange to engage in a sex act with the child, and then travel to meet the child for the purpose of having sex. Additionally, the operation targeted those that are willing to exploit children by purchasing sex with a minor.

Online child predators visit chat rooms and websites on the internet, find children, begin conversations with them, introduce sexual content and arrange a meeting with the children for the purpose of having sex. The children these predators target are both boys and girls. Since 2014, the task force has arrested over 162 people in similar operations.  

Over the course of the operation, investigators had more than 69 exchanges with persons on various social media or internet platforms. During many of these exchanges, the subjects directed conversations towards sex with persons they believed to be minors. In some of these cases, the subject introduced obscene or lewd content, often exposing what the perpetrator thought was a child to pornography or requesting the child produce and send sexual or pornographic images for them. About half of the exchanges involved websites used for dating, socializing, or even websites used for classified advertisements. 

Although some websites promote themselves as being for “adults-only”, it is not uncommon for law enforcement to work cases in which children access these sites, establish profiles claiming to be older, and then find themselves vulnerable to victimization, harassment, blackmail, or assault. Several subjects were identified as communicating simultaneously with multiple investigators posing as minors. Such activity confirms what investigators uncover conducting these types of investigations: that many predators specifically seek out minors on such websites to groom them as potential victims for sexual contact.

Along with those agencies who participated in the planning and coordinating of the operation, twelve additional law enforcement agencies participated in “Operation Heartbreak” as members of the Georgia ICAC Task Force. These agencies were: 

1.      GBI Southeast Regional Drug Enforcement Office

2.      GBI-Georgia Information Sharing and Analysis Center (GISAC)

3.      Georgia State Patrol

4.      Gwinnett County Police Department

5.      Hall County Sheriff’s Office

6.      Homeland Security Investigations

7.      Moultrie Police Department

8.      Roswell Police Department

9.      Thomas County Sheriff’s Office

10.  Thomasville Police Department

11.  United States Marshal Service

12.  United States Secret Service

The proactive on-line investigation was a coordinated effort among the participating law enforcement agencies to combat this activity. “The Colquitt County Sheriff’s Office has no tolerance for those that seek to harm the children in our community,” said Colquitt County Sheriff Rod Howell.  “Our participation in the Georgia ICAC Task Force and relationships with all the other law enforcement agencies involved in this operation are critical to keeping our children safe.”  

“The Georgia ICAC Task Force received 14,922 child exploitation cybertips during 2021.  Most of these tips were a reaction to crimes which already occurred and children that have already been victimized, remarked GBI Special Agent in Charge Brian Johnston, Commander of the Georgia ICAC Task Force.  “This operation, and others like Operation Heartbreak, is an opportunity for multiple law enforcement agencies to collectively identify perpetrators who seek to sexually exploit children before a child is placed in harm’s way.  The GBI is extremely grateful for the Colquitt County Sheriff’s Office and the many agencies that represent their communities by being part of the Georgia ICAC Task Force.”