ST. GEORGE — Authorities have arrested a dozen suspects for child trafficking and sexual exploitation offenses following a multi-day sting operation that began late Monday night and ended early Wednesday evening in St. George.
The investigation was set in motion when authorities were alerted to an ad found on Craigslist in which an individual posted a message implying that time could be spent with a child and asking those interested to respond via email.
While the ad has since been flagged for removal, there were at least eight calls to police from concerned individuals reporting the troubling advertisement, Dixie State Police Chief Blair Barfuss told St. George News Thursday.
Barfuss also said the advertisement “had more than 135 email responses to it,” both from people seeking information and those who were soliciting the services being advertised.
The high number of responses was a clear indication of a problem that would require additional resources, he said, which is when local and federal officers were brought in to assist.
In addition to serving as the police chief for the college, Barfuss, who is cross-deputized to work with the FBI, is also part of a child exploitation task force that includes officers and agents with the St. George Police Department, the FBI and Homeland Security. He was the lead on the investigation, which also included DSU Police Sgt. Ron Bridge.
“We looked at those responses and realized we would have to do some pretty aggressive proactive work,” Barfuss said. “And when we started, we got a significant response and success out of it.”
The police’s response involved a sting operation in which they set up locations where the suspect believed they were meeting up to “have sex with children,” Barfuss said. But instead, they were met by officers and arrested.
Those meeting spots were coordinated with the St. George Police Department and were “located all over St. George,” he said. The majority of arrests took place late Monday and Tuesday nights.
A total of 12 individuals were arrested and taken into custody in Washington County, and one suspect was arrested in Kane County.
Moreover, there are two open cases involving suspects who did not show up at the predetermined location set by officers, so they were not arrested. However, they are now facing criminal charges for sending inappropriate images, or for similar offenses.
Three arrests were made Monday, including one that involved a suspect from California who was visiting family in Las Vegas and allegedly traveled to St. George under the ruse he was meeting with a young woman for the purpose of becoming her pimp. Instead, he was confronted by the officers and he was arrested and transported to jail.
Also on Monday, Mason Holzendorf of St. George was booked into jail on second-degree felony enticing a minor electronic crime. Curtis Mills of Cedar City was arrested that same night on one third-degree felony count of the same charge. Mills also faces one count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and drug charges — each a misdemeanor.
On Tuesday, six suspects were arrested for second-degree felony enticing a minor electronic crime, including Alex Bustos, Nathan Rose and Micheal Erskine, all from St. George, as well as Skyler Carter of Cedar City, Jacob Rogers of Las Vegas, Nevada and Joseph Cooke of Kanab, who also faces second-degree felony rape of a child under 14.
Carter also faces one third-degree felony count of exploiting a minor — pornography, and a misdemeanor obstruction charge. Rogers also faces a third-degree felony charge of providing harmful material to a minor.
Erskine also faces felony rape of a child, criminal solicitation and third-degree felony count of providing harmful material to a minor.
Adrian Hernandez, also of St. George, was arrested for second-degree felony rape of a child under 14 and a third-degree felony charge of providing harmful material to a minor, as well as a misdemeanor drug charge.
Instead of being a low-key arrest, the scenario on Wednesday played out very differently. An arrest took place on 500 South, directly across from the LDS temple, involving a parolee out of Tulare, California, Donte Ford. Ford has a long criminal history that includes human trafficking, weapons, drugs and other offenses that officers found “concerning,” Barfuss said.
Ford was taken by officers at gunpoint before being transported and booked into Purgatory facing multiple charges, including second-degree human trafficking and several drug offenses.
Later that same night, a Cedar City man, Ali Alnasser, was arrested and booked on a second-degree felony count of enticing a minor — electronic crime.
Barfuss said that overall, the sting operation was an enormous success, and the work entailed in setting up such an operation is well worth it for all involved.
“This is one of the most important duties we have — to protect the those in our society who are weak and small and very vulnerable,” he said.
He also said that as technology changes, so do the methods and tactics used by those who have a darker agenda and use the internet “for evil,” he said, making it even more important for law enforcement to run operations like the one conducted this week and to stay on top of technological advances and the way in which these crimes are committed.
They also expanded the operation by following leads that were not associated with the Craigslist ad, which led them to a suspect in Kane County, John Krampf, who faces nine felony counts of sexual exploitation of a minor after officers served a search warrant upon his residence. As a result, they recovered “a significant amount of data and other materials” that are associated with the exploitation of children.
He also said having a dozen arrests come out of a three-day sting is not unusually high for any area, including St. George, but is typical during any operation where so many leads are followed. Moreover, these types of crimes are not confined to socio-economics, race or age, Barfuss said, adding that the age of the suspects in this case ranged from 19-70 years old.
He also stressed the importance of establishing partnerships with other agencies, including the St. George Police Department, which provides the manpower needed to conduct these types of comprehensive investigations, as well as federal partners like the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, agencies that provided the federal resources that allow them to go after crimes involving the internet and crimes that cross state lines.
“I can’t stress enough how important these partnerships are,” he said. “We couldn’t have done this without our local officers and the federal resources — it wouldn’t have been possible.”
There are still open cases that are being investigated at this time.
This report is based on statements from police or other responders and may not contain the full scope of findings. Persons arrested or charged are presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law or as otherwise decided by a trier-of-fact.
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