Three local men were arrested this month after planning sexual contact with a fake 14-year-old persona created online by the Durango Police Department.
The Durango Police Department for about a month posted ads on Craigslist: Western Slope in an attempt to elicit responses from people interested in sexual contact with children. At least three men – Oscar Ramiro Contreras, 30; Dustin Lowell Morris, 43; and Benjamin Molyneux, 44 – have been arrested on felony charges.
Specifically, the men have each been accused of luring a child through the internet, internet exploitation of a child and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
“Recently, the Durango Police Department has gone on the offensive to identify and arrest child predators who lurk in our region,” Chief Bob Brammer wrote in a statement. “We will not tolerate those who prey on the innocent.”
Proactive policingPosing online as an underage girl in attempt to arrest people interested in sexual contact with minors is not new, said DPD Detective Josh Newman. Remember the show, “To Catch a Predator”?
DPD in the past has worked with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to coordinate efforts to catch people interested in sexual contact with minors through online stings, Newman said. But this month’s effort was centralized at DPD.
“We know it’s happening,” Newman said. “It’s a pretty egregious crime.”
But DPD isn’t arresting just anyone – it’s communicating with suspects through electronic means, sending photographs of teenage girls and receiving lewd photographs of men in return. Each man arrested in the past month related to the online crime sting engaged in sexual conversation after learning the person they thought they were talking to was 14 years old, police said.
Each man arrested also planned to meet the 14-year-old persona in a public location “for the purpose of having sex,” according to arresting documents.
“The person is going into that (Craigslist) and going through the ads looking for a specific something,” Newman said. “They’ve taken steps to initiate what’s going on. At the point the age is disclosed, they can end the conversation right there.”
But defense attorneys have argued internet stings such as these are unfair, according to The Marshall Defense Firm, a law office in Seattle that specializes in defending people accused of sex crimes. Law enforcement and prosecutors “ignore the psychological frailty of some persons using the Internet,” according to the law firm’s website.
“For some persons, once they become interested in what looks like a legitimate offer, it is difficult to reverse course when they get different information,” according to the law firm. “Also, some persons have psychological challenges that make it difficult to break off a conversation – and detectives frequently reach out to revive a conversation if a target goes silent on them.”
Online safetyThe ease of creating a fake online persona has created a threat online that is “rapidly evolving,” said Durango police Cmdr. Ray Shupe. The police department isn’t doing anything new or different, he said – it’s using resources to protect vulnerable people from others who “found ways to exploit the system.”
Children could be exposed to a sexual predator online “daily, and it’s happening here,” Shupe said.
“It’s easy to make a fake profile and pretend to be some kid from Pagosa or Cortez or Denver and make a person believe you’re a 14-year-old kid,” he said. “Within hours or days, they could be soliciting sexual photos and conversations.”
Detective Newman has met with groups of young people and their parents in recent months to, in part, talk about the dangers of people posing as children to elicit sexual photographs and conversation from minors, he said.
It’s hard to know who’s been victimized – a lot of sex crimes related to minors go unreported, Newman said. For that reason, it’s critical for children to know who they’re communicating with online and important for parents to provide some level of oversight, he said.
While each man arrested in the online sting lived in Durango, the internet has made a platform for crime without boundaries, Newman said. And adults who elicit sex from or send lewd photographs to someone they believe to be a minor may have committed a similar crime before and could have the drive to do it again, said Deputy Chief Brice Current.
“Why is it not OK to talk to a stranger in a parking lot, but it’s OK to talk to a stranger you met online?” he said. “These are people who have (sexual) addictions who will risk anything.”
But evidence shows people are more willing to take risks when sexually aroused, said David Marshall, president of the Seattle-based law firm. Many people who are busted in online stings are not a threat to the public and would not have committed a sexual crime against a minor if they had not been solicited by law enforcement, he said.
It’s improper, Marshall said, “for police officers to set out to sexually arouse people then to punish them because they did unwise things while sexually aroused.”