New Jersey Acting Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin and Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo J. Onofri announced the arrests of 21 alleged child predators in “Operation Risky Business,” a multi-agency undercover operation targeting individuals who allegedly were using social medial in an attempt to lure underage girls and boys for sexual activity.
The defendants will be prosecuted by the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office and the Division of Criminal Justice.
The underage “children” were, in fact, undercover officers, according to information provided on May 26.
Most of the defendants in Operation Risky Business were arrested at either the undercover residence in Hamilton Township or another meet-up location, including the Hamilton Train Station, according to the statement. Those who went to the undercover house allegedly expected to find their victims home alone. Instead, they found law enforcement officers prepared to arrest them and process any evidence seized.
Those arrested include four Megan’s Law registrants, an injury lawyer from Georgia, an information technology worker, a dump truck driver, and a pastry chef from the Pocono Mountains region. One defendant was arrested and charged in two cases because he was chatting online with two separate undercover officers.
The following area men were arrested in Operation Risky Business and are charged as indicated. They allegedly believed they were communicating with a minor as described in parentheses, according to the statement. The prosecuting agency is also specified.
- Laurentiu Tonea, 41, East Windsor. (Girl, 14) Tonea is an information technology worker in Edison. Charges: Attempted sexual assault, two counts of attempted endangering the welfare of a child, attempted criminal sexual contact, attempted luring. The Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office (MCPO) is prosecuting.
- Moises Cortes Diaz, 35, New Brunswick. (Girl, 13) Diaz is a self-employed painter. Charges: Attempted sexual assault, attempted luring, attempted endangering the welfare of a child, attempted manufacturing of child pornography. The Division of Criminal Justice (DCJ) is prosecuting.
- Frank Duggan, 54, Bordentown. (Girl, 14) Duggan is unemployed. Charges: Attempted sexual assault, attempted luring, attempted endangering the welfare of a child, attempted manufacturing of child pornography. DCJ is prosecuting.
- Nestor Alonso Chappuis, 37, Hamilton. (Girl, 14) Chappuis is unemployed and a registered sex offender. Charges: Attempted sexual assault, attempted luring, attempted endangering the welfare of a child. MCPO is prosecuting.
- James Hendryx, 26, Hamilton. (Boy, 14) Hendryx is unemployed. Charges: Attempted sexual assault, attempted luring, attempted endangering the welfare of a child. MCPO is prosecuting.
- Taylor Picillo, 29, Hamilton. (Boy, 14). Picillo is employed by a solar energy equipment supplier in Rocklin, California. Charges: Attempted sexual assault, attempted luring, attempted endangering the welfare of a child, resisting arrest. MCPO is prosecuting.
The operation was led by the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Unit, the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice Financial and Cyber Crimes Bureau, and the New Jersey State Police, in collaboration with U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, and additional federal, state and county law enforcement agencies.
“Operation Risky Business is a great example of how successful law enforcement agencies can be when they collaborate across all levels like they did here by proactively investigating and arresting predators who sought to sexually exploit children,” Platkin said in the statement. “We are committed to working collaboratively in order to aggressively investigate and prosecute sex offenders. But we also need parents to talk to their children about the dangers of social media and let them know not everyone who they encounter online is who they initially claim to be.”
“Not in Mercer. Not our children. Not under my watch. That’s the message we are sending to sexual predators with collaborative efforts like Operation Risky Business,” Onofri said in the statement. “Social media sites have become hunting grounds for individuals looking to exploit children. Law enforcement will continue to use every investigative tool at our disposal to aggressively pursue and prosecute these predators that attempt to exploit our most innocent victims, but we can’t do it alone. Parents and guardians can do their part by remaining vigilant. Talk to your children about the dangers that exist on social media and gaming apps, and monitor their online activity.”
About half of the arrests in Operation Risky Business were made over a four-day period from April 7-10, according to the statement.
The defendants are from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and one from Georgia.
Arrest warrants for the remainder of the suspects were forwarded to the U.S. Marshals Service, who tracked down the rest of the alleged predators over the last few weeks, according to the statement.
The undercover law enforcement members who conducted the chats with the defendants were specially trained members of the New Jersey ICAC Task Force. The defendants typically initiated contact based on profiles posted on social media platforms by the undercover detectives and agents, according to the statement.
The social platforms that were used in these encounters included Kik, Skout, Whisper, Grindr, GROWLr and MeetMe. Once chatting began, the undercover officers clearly identified themselves as underage girls or boys. Despite that information, the defendants allegedly engaged the purported “children” in conversations about sex, and all 21 defendants are alleged to have made arrangements to meet the “children” for sex, according to the statement. Some of the chats were conducted over a period of several weeks leading up to the “meetup” week when arrests were made.
Onofri advised parents to familiarize themselves with the apps their children use, as well as signs that their children may be targets of online exploitation.
“Spending an increasing amount of time online, becoming secretive about their online conduct, switching screens or closing tabs or windows whenever a parent is close, using sexual language they would not be expected to know and becoming emotionally volatile, these are all red flags,” he said in the statement.
The undercover house was staffed with dozens of law enforcement officers, analysts and attorneys. Attorneys and detectives drafted search warrants for electronic devices that were seized from the defendants. These devices were taken to the forensic computer laboratory at the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office for full forensic examinations. These examinations, which are ongoing, will enable investigators to determine if the devices contain evidence of any prior encounters by the defendants with underage victims, which might constitute additional cases of luring, sexual assault or child endangerment, according to the statement.
The defendants were lodged in the Mercer County Correction Center until detention hearings were held. Three defendants – Gregory Barger (who is a registered sex offender in Pennsylvania), Justin Wann, and James Hendryx – were ordered detained in jail pending trial. The other defendants were released subject to stringent pre-trial monitoring conditions, including at a minimum reporting regularly to Pre-Trial Services staff and prohibitions from using the internet except for work or having any unsupervised contact with children under 18, according to the statement.
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.