Gwinnett child sex sting was largest in GBI task force’s history

Operation Spring Cleaning was a sobering reminder that child sex trafficking “isn’t just an inner city problem, isn’t just a lower socioeconomic class problem,” but one that persists in suburban metro Atlanta areas like Gwinnett County, Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Tracie Cason told a crowd Wednesday.

Cason joined state Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford), law enforcement officials and child sexual abuse prevention advocates in a morning press conference about Operation Spring Cleaning, a sting targeting potential sexual predators attempting to pay for sex with children.

The sting was the largest in the history of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force (ICAC), according to ICAC chief Special Agent Debbie Garner.

Police arrested 23 men, including an Air Force member from Kansas, who traveled to one of two locations in Gwinnett County under the impression they would be having sex with a 14-year-old boy or girl. Some of the suspects had agreed to pay for sex. Others had purchased a “gift” for the child, according to police.

The suspects traveled to the locations after talking online with professional “chatters” — law enforcement members trained to pose as children in order to find potential sexual predators. Some of the men talked to the “chatters” for weeks before their arrests.

The men arrested ranged in age from 19 to 41, and 53 percent of them were Gwinnett County residents.

“Some think that this is just an inner city problem or a lower socioeconomic class problem, but this was in the middle of Gwinnett County, in the suburbs,” Cason said. “There is no single one predator. They cross all boundaries.”

Child sex abuse prevention advocates said this operation should be a stark reminder that the issue can hit anywhere in metro Atlanta.

“Operation Spring Cleaning is proof to anyone who had disbelief that there was demand for sex with children in our state,” said  Heather Stockdale, executive director of Georgia Cares. “These suspects were willing to travel and pay for sex with children.

The sting not only yielded the largest number of arrests of any ICAC sting, but involved 20 law enforcement agencies and more than 70 officers. Garner credited the number of officers and agencies that participated, as well as lessons learned from conducting previous stings, for the high arrest number.

All suspects who planned on traveling in the case were surveilled by law enforcement, and all who traveled were arrested, Garner said.

None of the suspects have previous arrests for child sexual abuse, but are charged with offenses including child molestation, sexual exploitation of a minor and human trafficking. Some of those charges carry a maximum of life in prison.

Unterman, a vocal advocate for human trafficking and child sex abuse prevention, praised the operation as a sign Georgia continues to make progress on those issues.

“We are taking predators off the street,” she said.

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