Online predator sting nets 18 arrests for soliciting children for sex in Lee County

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After a several month undercover operation by the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and state agencies called ‘Operation Picket Fence’ 18 suspects were arrested for preying on children.

During a press conference, Undersheriff Carmine Marceno said, “The focus of the investigation was to target individuals utilize the internet and social media platforms to prey on our children.”

The operation targeted individuals that use social media, prey on children and solicit them for sex.

18 people were arrested over a five day period from May 16 – 20.

The suspects range in age from 22 to 54 years old and traveled from around the state.

The sheriff’s office said, in more that 65 exchanges of messages where suspects initiated contact with an investigator posing a minor, suspects directed conversations toward sex, sometimes sending or requesting obscene content.

Three of the suspects arrested are registered sex offenders and one had previous arrests for Seducing a Child Over the Internet and Possession of Child Pornography.

Several suspects were communicating with more than one investigator posing as minors.

“These predators have more and more access every day, every year,” said Lieutenant Daniel Cote.

He adds that it’s a trend that’s getting harder to keep up with as technology gets more advanced.

“There are a lot of different applications and they’re always changing. Next month they’re gonna change to something else, another one pops up,” Cote said.

Marceno says his agency has made more than 100 arrests for sex-related crimes with minors since 2012.

Take Paul Newport, for example. He’s been arrested for the same crime before, was released, and now has been arrested again.

“They’re very creative and as time goes on, they see some of the ways most of them are getting caught and it gets more and more difficult for us to catch them,” Marceno said.

Another of the suspects, Chance Butner, ran when deputies confronted him. Undercover agents finally took him down at the Shell Factory in North Fort Myers Sunday night.

After trying to climb a wall, and falling about 40 feet down into a pond, Butner was caught.

Cote says they expect to make even more arrests, but knows this bust could make that even tougher.

“After an operation like this, the word will spread and they’ll move on again,” he said.

Butner injured a deputy when resisting arrest, but that deputy is in good condition.

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