MANATEE — A teacher from Chamberlain High School in Hillsborough County, a current U.S. Department of Defense employee, a youth choir leader from Ellenton and a nursing assistant at Manatee Memorial Hospital were among 35 men arrested during a week-long sting to catch Internet child sex predators.
“Operation Green Shepherd II,” a follow-up to the 43-arrest sting operation of the same core name conducted by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office in September, once again involved undercover officers posing as children age 14 and younger chatting with subjects who ended up wishing to meet the minor at an unidentified house in Manatee County.
The suspects, who were actually breaking the law the moment they talked about sex online with someone they think is a minor even if they don't pursue a meeting, were then met by members of law enforcement, not a minor, when they arrived at the house, said Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube.
The most receent sting revealed that the number of people willing to break the law and pursue a sexual relationship with a minor is not drastically declining, Steube said.
“We had hoped that from September’s operation people would get the message that this area of Florida will not allow child predators,” Steube said at a news conference. “But it is obvious to us the message is not getting through yet.”
Among those arrested in the most recent operation, which ran March 18 through today, were Philip G. Kornell, a teacher at Chamberlain High School in the Tampa area, said Lt. Todd Shear of the sheriff’s office’s Child Protection Investigation Division.
Shear coordinated the operation.
“We have alerted the school so they can see if this individual may have been online at school as well,” Steube said.
Ricardo Cantu, 61, a civilain employee with the U.S. Department of Defense and a retired member of the U.S. military, was also arrested, Shear said.
Daniel Konovalchuk, who is a nurse trainee at Manatee Memorial Hospital, was also among those arrested, said Dave Bristow, a sheriff’s office spokesman.
Brion A. Bennett, a baker and a youth choir leader from a church in Ellenton, was also arrested in the sting.
Most arrested will be charged with travel to seduce, solicit or entice a child to commit a sexual act, use of a computer to seduce and attempted lewd and lascivious, Steube said.
The 35 covered all walks of life, from clerks, maintenance workers, salesmen, bakers to the teacher, said Detective Jaime Rivera, with both the sheriff’s office Crimes Against Children Unit and Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
Rivera was one of the “chatters” in the operation, one of the people who actually worked on a computer posing as a child during the sting.
As in the September operation, the undercover officers were not lawfully allowed to entice the subjects, just to chat, Rivera said.
The suspects had to make the first move and, once they did, a location to meet was arranged.
There, the suspects were arrested.
Rivera said he would just go to one of the multitude of online social sites and simply enter the words, “I am a 14-year-old girl and I’m bored and looking to chat.”
He would receive a large quantity of emails, but not all of them were of unlawful intent, he said.
“A lot of people would write back and say, ‘You are too young to be doing this. This is dangerous. Get off the Internet,’ “ Rivera said.
“This is what we want people to do. But every once in a while, in that stream of chatter, one would come through from someone looking to meet up with this child.”
During these conversations, Rivera said the suspect would often say, “I think you’re a cop. I think this is a set up.’ “ Rivera said.
“But they still came to the house,” Rivera said. “They couldn’t help themselves.”
The sheriff’s office confiscated seven vehicles during the sting.
One man brought food from McDonalds.
One man brought a bathing suit and towel.
One man brought condoms.
“We are not allowed to entrap them,” said Sgt. Andy Ramdath of Crimes Against Children. “They have to make the move. We have to be guarded. The key is to have them make the proposal.”
Ramdath said the suspects were mostly very surprised when arrested.
“Some were upset,” Ramdath said. “A lot cried. Some said, ‘I was just checking to see if it was real.’ There were a lot of apologies. Most of these guys were willing to come forward and talk about it.
"Had they gotten away with this before? My belief is that it is rare for someone to get caught their first time.”