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Area child porn sting nets 29, 3 from Manatee

A child pornography sweep in the Tampa Bay area has netted 29 arrests — including three men from Manatee County — and led to the rescue of two girls who said they were being sexually abused.

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum and agency heads were in Tampa on Wednesday to announce the arrests, which included a registered sex offender, a member of the U.S. Coast Guard and a military police officer stationed at MacDill Air Force Base.

The arrests were made by the Attorney General’s Tampa CyberCrime Task Force — a group of 15 area agencies including Bradenton Police Department, Sarasota Police Department and Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office — in the sweep that began Feb. 8 and finished Tuesday.

Officials said thousands of images of child pornography were found.

Michael Masto, a special agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said those arrested in the sweep included “the worst of the worst” of child pornography offenders.

Standing next to poster boards with mug shots of those arrested, McCollum called them “sick people.”

“These are very graphic images,” he said. “And they’re very hard to look at.”

Bradenton Police Department Deputy Chief William Tokajer said the partnership with the task force has trained detectives within the department how to build stronger cases against online predators and provides extra resources.

Bradenton Police made two arrests as a part of the operation, according to reports:

n On Feb. 18, 20-year-old Jonathan Crotty was charged with 15 counts of possession of child pornography.

n On March 10, police arrested 18-year-old Christian Gayheart after police found at least 20 images of child pornography in his possession.

“We have to protect our children,” Tokajer said. “That’s our responsibility.”

The Sarasota sheriff’s office arrested two men.

“Each image of child pornography is essentially a crime scene photo,” said Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight. “Online predators think the Internet provides anonymity, but this operation should serve as a warning that we have the tools to track child predators and charge them with these unconscionable crimes.”

In Hillsborough County, when investigators served a search warrant on Michael Edward Kelley, 58, they expected to find child pornography.

But when they arrived, they also found two young girls — ages 7 and 10 — pictured in some of the pornography. They were the daughters of a woman that Kelley molested as a girl in 1993, Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee said.

“This is a cycle that’s hard to break,” Gee said.

Kelley, charged with 60 counts of possession of obscene material and two counts of sexual battery, was held at the Orient Road Jail without bail. He spent a year in prison for the 1993 molestation case. He listed his occupation as a truck driver for Stepp’s Towing in Tampa.

Among the other arrested men were two employees of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Coast Guard who had no prior Florida arrest record.

“They range the gamut, from A to Z,” said Stephanie Bergen, section chief for the state’s Child Predator Cybercrime Unit.

Senior airman Scott Griffin, 23, who is stationed at MacDill Air Force Base, and Jared Coombs, 30, an aviation maintenance technician with the U.S. Coast Guard in Pinellas, were each charged with 20 counts of possession of obscene material.

Coast Guard and Air Force officials declined to comment.

In addition to the 29 adults, the sting netted two juveniles, one from Pasco and one from Sarasota, Bergen said. They were not named.

The Attorney General’s Office found the suspects by using specialized computer software. Bergen wouldn’t elaborate on the software.

McCollum said he realizes that arresting these 29 adults does not stop the production and trading of child pornography, but he said he hopes to deter people and to remind parents to protect their children.

“We cannot arrest everybody, but we can have an impact in educating,” he said.

— The St. Petersburg Times, The Associated Press and Beth Burger, Herald staff writer, contributed to this report.