In a press conference Aug. 11, St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar announced that 17 men, ranging in age from 19 to 60 years old, have been arrested for soliciting sex from minors as a result of a county-wide undercover operation entitled “Operation Cruel Summer.”
The operation, which was the fourth of its kind led by the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office (SJSO) over the past six years, was a five-day operation in which undercover detectives posed as children online to locate and identify suspects wishing to sexually exploit minors.
“It took place about two weeks ago, here in our county," Shoar said. "All of you are familiar with the method of operation that we use. We start chatting people up on these e-commerce sites, and invariably, some of these people are looking to travel here – to our county – thinking that they are going to have some kind of sexual relationship with an underage female or an underage male.”
Shoar explained that suspects are often aware that they could be speaking with undercover law enforcement when they are seeking out children online, but that the compulsion that drives them is just too great.
“People that engage in this behavior, there’s no 12-step program and there’s no therapy for them,” he said. “We’ve learned that the hard way over many, many years.”
Shoar advised that, even with some suspects’ carelessness, advancements in technology are making it easier for predators to sexually exploit children.
“One of the issues that we have is that the bad people, the people who come down and try to do these things to 10-year-old girls and boys, they’re not as dumb as you might think,” Shoar said. “Things are evolving with technology—I call it the ‘dark side of technology.’ It’s evolving in the child porn industry…and we’ve got to stay one step ahead of them because if we don’t, our children are going to be victimized.”
Though most of the 17 apprehended men were Florida residents, some traveled from out of state to solicit sex from children. Of those arrested, eight were from Duval County, five were from St. Johns County, one each were from Clay and Flagler Counties, and two traveled from Richmond, Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina, respectively.
Shoar stressed that, while SJSO managed to capture 17 suspects, the number of other offenders out there committing these crimes is unknowable.
“For every arrest that we may make involving this particular type of crime, I can’t even venture to guess how people get through and actually are able to victimize our children,” he said.
Nonetheless, Shoar expressed his gratitude for the collaboration that took place throughout the county in order to make Operation Cruel Summer possible, stating, “We are all in this fight together…and there’s nothing worse than seeing children victimized by anybody—especially these types of people who are looking to sexually manipulate and exploit these kids.”