Bartow County Sheriff's Office, Bartow-Cartersville Drug Task Force and City of Cartersville Police Department officials were among those who assisted in an online child predator sting over the weekend that resulted in the arrest of 20 individuals believed to have been involved in human trafficking and/or violating the state's child pornography and online exploitation laws.
"Operation Paladin" was the end result of "several months of planning" between the Georgia Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Child Exploitation and Computer Crimes (CEACC) Unit and the BCSO, said GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles.
"The goal of 'Operation Paladin' was to arrest persons who communicate with children online and then travel to meet them for the purpose of having sex," a GBI press release states. "Additionally, the operation targeted those that are willing to exploit children by purchasing sex with a minor."
Six men — Cartersville's Jeffrey Douglas Coleman and Daniel Mark Ewart, Jr., Woodstock's Conner William Thrash, Jasper's Steven Aubrey Byers, Summerville's Isaac Sanchez and Trion's Richard Douglas Brown — were booked in the Bartow County Jail for alleged "trafficking of persons for labor or sexual servitude."
An additional 14 men were arrested for allegedly violating Georgia's Computer or Electronic Pornography and Child Exploitation Prevention Act. Seven of the individuals arrested — Michael David Crider, Daniel Leonard Dorough, Vernale Rolston Mascall, Timothy Warren Smith, Michael Sean Wills and Charlie Warren Smith — are Cartersville residents.
The others arrested were Villa Rica's Michael John Turner, Dallas' Rick Phegel Paul, Powder Springs' Shawn Vernon Antoine Jeffrey, Acworth's Randall Martin Ball, Jasper's Bailey Gordon Brown, Calhoun's Bryan Russell Cain, Rome's Thomas Jackson Smith and Kingston's Clarence Walker Mann, Sr.
The arrests occurred between Thursday, Nov. 1 and Sunday, Nov. 4. Several of those arrested are facing other charges, such as Mann, who is also charged with possession of marijuana, and Turner, who is additionally charged with possession of methamphetamine, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana and crossing guard lines with contraband.
The age range of those arrested spans from 20 to 59. Their occupations include tow truck drivers, pest exterminators, electricians, patient care technicians and certified nursing assistants.
"This operation is a prime example of interagency planning and cooperation," Bartow County Sheriff Clark Millsap said. "I am proud that we were able to host the Georgia ICAC Task Force at our facility to carry it out. Moreover, I hope that these arrests send a loud and clear message: The Bartow County Sheriff's Office has a zero-tolerance policy for exploitation of children."
Other agencies involved in the sting include the Columbus Police Department, the Conyers Police Department, the Floyd County Police Department, the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office, the GBI's Georgia Information Sharing and Analysis Center, the Gwinnett County Police Department, the Hall County Sheriff's Office, the Marietta Police Department, the Polk County Police Department and the United States Department of Homeland Security.
According to the GBI, more than 30 cases "were established that met the threshold for arrest." The agency said undercover investigators had more than 200 exchanges with individuals on social media and other websites during the operation.
"Many of those were exchanges in which the subject initiated contact with whom they believed to be a minor and directed the conversation towards sex," reads a GBI press release. "In some of those cases, the subject introduced obscene or lewd content, often exposing the minor (undercover) to pornography or requesting the child take nude or pornographic images for them."
The agency said about half of the exchanges were on websites primarily used for dating, socializing and classified advertisements.
"The Bartow County Sheriff's Office is one of our most active member agencies," said Georgia ICAC Task Force Commander Debbie Garner. "We appreciate their daily efforts to combat child exploitation. This type of cooperation and collaboration is invaluable in the effort to keep our children safe from predators who seek to harm them."
Garner also said "there is the possibility of additional arrests" stemming from the operation.
At this juncture, Miles said those arrested are not facing federal prosecution.
"These are state charges," she said.