Nearly 60 suspected child predators were arrested in Florida as part of a nationwide federal operation aimed at identifying and rescuing victims of online sexualexploitation, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations said Monday.
"Operation iGuardian" comes at a time when investigators say a "disturbing trend" is emerging across the country: Predators are increasingly using the Internet to entice children to produce and share sexually explicit materials.
From May 28 to June 30, agents conducted a "surge" operation to identify child exploitation victims and arrest their abusers and the people who own, trade or produce child pornography.
Nationwide, 255 suspected child predators were arrested and 61 victims were identified, HSI said. Three of those victims are from Florida.
During Operation iGuardian, investigators encountered predators talking online with children about sexual topics and encouraging them to make their own sexual photos and videos, HSI said.
In some cases, the predators extorted the children into producing additional graphic videos and pictures.
Agents charged several men in Central Florida, including a missionary with the Sanford-based New Tribes Mission.
Warren Scott Kennell was arrested May 31 after he arrived at Orlando International Airport from a flight that originated in Brazil. Agents had received a tip that Kennell was a suspected child predator.
When investigators searched Kennell's thumb drives, they said they found child pornography on the devices. He also admitted he was the man in the images abusing a girl.
Also arrested during the operation was Alan James Ender, a federal employee who works at Patrick Air Force Base. HSI said he exploited at least two children to produce pornography.
In Daytona Beach, Thomas Mickey Turner, 65,was arrested on charges of possessing child pornography and failure to properly register as a sex offender. Agents said he downloaded child pornography via his cell phone.
In Melbourne, 26-year-old Kevin Porter was arrested after a federal grand jury indicted him on charges of distribution and possession of child pornography.
"Our ultimate goal is to protect children in the digital age," said Susan McCormick, special agent in charge of HSI Tampa, which oversees the agency's Orlando operations, in a prepared news statement.
Of the 61 victims identified during Operation iGuardian, 24 were communicating online with strangers who sexually exploited them, HSI said.
The victims ranged from toddlers to teenagers. HSI said four victims were younger than 3 years old.
Forty-two of the victims are girls and 19 are boys.
"We need to talk to our children about the good and the bad of the Internet.We need to teach themhow to protect themselves from online predators. If they are exploited online, they should report it. There are dedicated law enforcement officers and special agents who will do something about it."