A weeks-long sting operation aimed at men attempting to lure children for sex over the internet resulted in the arrest of 23 men from throughout the state, including a 54-year-old Hillsborough man.
On Tuesday, state Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced at the Hamilton Tech Center that Douglass Walton taken into police custody thanks to “Operation Open House,” a multi-agency operation over several weeks that targeted men who used social media to try to lure underage boys and girls for sex.
“It is a frightening reality that sexual predators are lurking on social media, ready to strike if they find a child who is vulnerable,” Grewal said. “To counter that threat, we are working collaboratively and aggressively across all levels of law enforcement to apprehend these sex offenders.”
According to police, the 14-year-old boy Walton believed he was arranging to meet for sex was a specially trained member of the New Jersey Regional Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force.
Like the 23 other individuals caught in the sting, Walton with second-degree luring. In addition, he was charged with second-degree attempted sexual assault on a minor.
Second-degree charges carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $150,000.
Officials said the operation was led by the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice, the ICAC Task Force, which is led by the New Jersey State Police, and the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office.
The ICAC Task Force includes the Division of Criminal Justice, U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), all 21 County Prosecutors’ Offices, and many other state, county and local law enforcement agencies.
The arrests in Operation Open House were made over a five-day period from Sept. 5 through Sept. 9, with a majority of them taking place at an undercover four-bedroom home in Toms River. Anyone who went to the home expecting to find the “child” alone were arrested on the spot.
Other individuals were apprehended by police at other locations or were stopped in their cars en route to the supposed meetup.
Along with Walton, the 24 men arrested included Richard Conte, a 47-year-old Howell Township police sergeant who believed he was meeting a 15-year-old girl for sex and a 29-year-old registered nurse from Toms River named Christopher Vargas who believed he was meeting up with a 15-year-old boy.
One case saw Nibindranauth Nandalall, a 24-year-old man from the Bronx, arrested for attempting to meet a 15-year-old girl for sex.
In all 24 cases, state officials said the men continued to engage in sexual conversations after learning the “child’s” age and made arrangements to meet for sex. Chats were conducted over several weeks before the “meet-up week,” when the arrests were made.
Grewal said he hoped the operation would send a clear message to would-be sexual predators.
“We want child predators to know that we are on social media too – and the child they target may be the undercover officer who puts them in handcuffs,” he said.
Authorities said the ICAC Task Force set up profiles on a number of social media platforms, including Kik, Skout, Whisper and Grindr. Once a conversation started, officials the ICAC agent would identify themselves as underage children.
Other apps commonly used in similar operations include Omegle, Tinder, Chat Avenue, Chat Roulette, Wishbone, Live.ly, Musical.ly, Paltalk, Yubo, Hot or Not, Down and Tumblr. Gaming apps like Fortnite, Minecraft and Discord are also targeted.
Since the aforementioned apps are ubiquitous among young people’s devices, Grewal urged parents to familiarize themselves with them and to open up a dialogue with their children.
“Parents need to be aware of their children’s activities on the internet, and if children appear anxious or evasive when this topic is raised, it may be a red flag,” Grewal said. “It is critical that parents talk to their children about social media and chat apps to let them know that the people they encounter may not be who they initially seem to be.”