Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced the arrests of 31 individuals who are charged with sexually exploiting children online.
The men were arrested in Operation 24/7, a collaborative operation launched to address the continued spike in reports of potential threats to children from online predators during the COVID pandemic, according to information provided by Grewal’s office on July 14.
Two men are charged with sexually assaulting or attempting to sexually assault children, and two other men are charged with manufacturing or attempting to manufacture child sexual abuse materials by extorting or soliciting sexually explicit images of children they encountered via gaming or social media apps, according to the statement.
The remaining 27 defendants are charged with possession and/or distribution of child sexual abuse materials, including, in many cases, child rape videos, according to the statement.
Among those charged from the area is Franco Grasparil, 21, of Sayreville, who was arrested on April 28 on allegations of possession of child sexual abuse material in the third degree.
“Through these collaborative operations with the ICAC Task Force, we are working tirelessly to arrest child predators and those who exploit children by possessing and distributing child sexual abuse materials,” Grewal said in the statement. “With young people continuing to spend more time on their electronic devices due to the COVID pandemic, we must remain vigilant. We urge parents and guardians to warn children about the threats that exist on social media and popular gaming sites, and to watch for signs that a child has been subjected to online abuse.”
The number of cyber tips to the New Jersey Regional Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force about potential threats to children online—including tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC)—remains high during the ongoing COVID emergency, with 3,324 tips received in the first six months of 2021, according to the statement.
That is 39% higher than the total of 2,393 tips for the entire year in 2019, and on pace to exceed the total of 6,130 for all of 2020, which included 10 months of the COVID pandemic, according to the statement.
Many cases in the operation stemmed from NCMEC tips, while others stemmed from law enforcement referrals or proactive online investigations.
“Through major cooperative efforts like Operation 24/7, we are sending a message to sex offenders that if you threaten or exploit children, we will identify and arrest you,” Director Lyndsay Ruotolo of the Division of Criminal Justice said in the statement. “In addition to pursuing tips from NCMEC, we routinely conduct proactive investigations on social media platforms and peer-to-peer file-sharing networks to identify online predators and offenders distributing child sexual abuse materials. There can be no higher priority than protecting our children.”
“Operation 24/7 is a testament to the success of the cyber tips received through the NCMEC. As law enforcement, we would like nothing more than to be there for every innocent child, so every single tip can potentially save a young victim from a predator,” Colonel Patrick J. Callahan, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, said in the statement. “We will never relent in our efforts to root out and arrest anyone involved in the depraved network of criminals who seek children to sexually assault, as well as those who share child pornography online. Parents can join the fight by talking to their children about the dangers of online predators and closely monitoring their online activity.”
Operation 24/7 was conducted by the Division of Criminal Justice, New Jersey State Police, ICAC Task Force, U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office, Camden County Prosecutor’s Office, Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office, Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office, Warren County Prosecutor’s Office, and Gloucester Township Police Department.
The men arrested in the three-month operation range in age from 18 to 65. They are variously charged with crimes including attempted human trafficking, attempted sexual assault, criminal sexual contact, sharing obscene material with a minor, attempted theft by extortion, and manufacturing, distribution, and possession of child sexual abuse material, according to the statement.
The arrests were made between April 1 and June 30.
In past cases, the ICAC Task Force has arrested child predators who used the following chat apps: Kik, Skout, Grindr, Whisper, Omegle, Tinder, Chat Avenue, Chat Roulette, Wishbone, Live.ly, Musical.ly, Paltalk, Yubo, Hot or Not, Down, and Tumblr.
Arrests also have been made involving the gaming apps Fortnite, Minecraft, and Discord.
Grewal urged parents to familiarize themselves with these and other apps and warn their children about sharing information with strangers, according to the statement.
“This diverse and robust team of investigators and prosecutors from local, state and federal law enforcement, as part of the NJICAC Task Force, work 24/7 and identify emerging technologies that predators use to target our children,” Jason J. Molina, special agent in charge, Homeland Security Investigations, Newark, said in the statement. “Bottom line: through our constant efforts, we will continue to pursue and bring to justice those who seek to exploit the most vulnerable members of society.”
First-degree charges carry a sentence of 10-20 years in state prison and a fine of up to $200,000. Second-degree charges carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $150,000, while third-degree charges carry a sentence of three of five years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000. Fourth-degree charges carry a sentence of up to 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.