CLEVELAND — Thirty-one people, ranging in age from 20 to 80 years old, were arrested as part of “Operation Deja Vu,” an undercover operation led by the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force and the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office.
The 31 individuals, who came from five different counties, including Cuyahoga County, were arrested after engaging in sexually explicit online conversations with who they believed were minor children, according to Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley.
Initial charges ranging from third-degree to fifth-degree felonies were filed against the defendants including attempted Unlawful Sexual Conduct With A Minor, Disseminating Matter Harmful to Juveniles, Importuning, Compelling Prostitution, Carrying A Concealed Weapon, Failure To Comply and Possessing Criminal Tools.
"The felonies of the third degree hold a possible term of incarceration of up to three years in prison, and they would be classified as tier two sex offenders, which means they would have to register for 25 years as a registered sex offender with regards to those charges," Ohio ICAC Supervisor and Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Fallon Radigan said.
Undercover officers posed as children under 16 years old. The 31 individuals talked with the children on popular social media apps. Some sent pictures of their genitalia to the officers who they believed were children, while others offered to pay for sex during those online conversations.
"I just want to stress to parents out there that it is critical that you monitor the activities of your children online because there are predators out there every day seeking to exploit and abuse them," O'Malley said.
All 31 individuals agreed to meet at an undisclosed location in Cuyahoga County where they were arrested by officers after knocking on the door of a residence.
"We have a lot of offenders who feel very comfortable. Once they've been provided an address, they will then, just believing the child is home alone, enter the residence to attempt to engage in the activity that they expressed an interest in," said Ohio ICAC Task Force Commander David Frattare.
In total, 33 cell phones, 10 vehicles, a bicycle, champagne, lubricants, condoms, HP tablets, a pocketknife, firearms, bullets, gun magazines, holsters and drug paraphernalia were seized and will be reviewed as evidence.
“Operation Deja Vu” is the fourth undercover operation the ICAC Task Force has led since 2018. Those operations have yielded 108 arrests combined.
“I have no doubt if these types of operations were engaged in weekly, there would be no doubt in my mind we would have arrests every weekend,” O’Malley said.
Over the last year, officials said cyber tips have skyrocketed.
"In February of 2020, we were averaging anywhere from 700 to 800 cyber tips. In March and April of 2020, we went up to between 1,200 and 1,400 cyber tips. So you have a pandemic, you also have a lot of children going to school at home, you have offenders, adults who are now working from home. Perfect storm in essence, and that those numbers have continued to increase," Frattare said. “We received over 10,300 cyber tips last year alone, which puts Ohio in the top five consistently with regards to the work that we have to do."
Officials are urging parents to be vigilant and stay informed so their child doesn’t become a victim.
“The reality is, with what we see and the apps that these offenders are using, they're the same apps that children are using. And a lot of parents don't understand that,” Frattare said. "They also don't understand how powerful these devices can be. If you're a parent that has older technology, but you've given your child the latest and greatest smartphone, it's time to educate yourself about what these devices really do, what they're capable of communicating with or interacting with, and what kids can do with them."
All 31 individuals arrested are being held in the Cuyahoga County Jail.
Each of their cases will be presented to a grand jury in the coming weeks for an indictment.
This story will be updated once charges have been released.
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