Four men recently arrested in Modesto parks where children play had one thing in common: They are suspected of being there to meet minors to engage in sexual acts.
Using Craigslist, dating websites and social media, predators every day are finding their victims online, said Modesto police Sgt. Ivan Valencia.
"If you have Internet in your house, you are pretty much letting in the rest of the world," he said. "We want parents to be aware of what their children are doing. Back in the day, parents would go through backpacks or check notebooks. Now, they need to go through cell phones and computers and check for bad behavior that way."
Some predators will take months or longer to seduce their targets through affection, kindness and gifts. They will gain a child's trust, gradually lower his or her inhibitions and slowly introduce sex into their conversations, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
But there are others who will pounce quickly when they find a misguided kid who has revealed too much information online.
Those were the type of people detectives from Modesto's High Tech Crimes Unit and Special Victims Unit have been targeting since a concerned father came to them in February with his 12-year-old daughter's dating profile and emails from adult men who saw it.
Posing as boys and girls
Detectives since have used the same dating website to set up fictitious profiles and pose as teenage boys and girls.
On Thursday, Morgan Paul Stoeckmann, 29, was arrested on suspicion of arranging a meeting with a minor for the purpose of engaging in lewd and lascivious behavior. He communicated with the undercover officer through the dating website and text messages and arranged a meeting at a park on Morris Avenue behind the cemetery, police say.
When he pulled up to the park and spotted the undercover officer at a distance sitting on a swing in the park, he texted a message instructing her to come to his car, but he was met by uniformed detectives.
Stoeckmann sat on the curb, nervously digging his cuffed hands into the dirt behind him as detectives searched his car. Police say he'd texted before the meeting that he would bring methamphetamine for the date, but none was found.
Stoeckmann has a previous conviction for possession of a controlled substance, but other people arrested during the sting had no apparent run-ins with the law. One is a married Ceres man with an adopted 5-year-old son.
Last week, officers arrested the 44-year-old Ceres man after he responded to an undercover officer posing as a 14-year-old boy who posted a personal ad on Craigslist. The post wasn't sexually explicit; it simply stated that the poster was 14 years old and recently had realized he was "different."
Within hours, the officer got a response. An exchange of emails quickly progressed into text messages and phone calls; police said the nature of the conversation shifted from commonplace to sexually charged.
According to police, the man told the officer he thought was a 14-year-old boy how to masturbate properly. He told the officer it would be painful the first time he had sex, and police said the man arranged a meeting with the undercover officer at a park with the intention of performing oral copulation on him.
During a phone conversation, the man told the undercover officer he was surprised the officer's Craigslist post wasn't flagged and removed because of his age. Police say he then warned him to be wary of all the "weird people" on the Internet and assured him, "I'm not a pervert; I have a 5-year-old son."
Less than 48 hours after posting the ad, police say the officer went to John Muir Park in central Modesto to meet the man.
Taking proactive approach
Michael Scott Wilson pulled up to the park in a pickup, got out and sat down on a bench; nearby, a young boy climbed a play structure with the help of his father. The undercover officer received a text from Wilson, asking if it was him sitting under a tree on the other side of the park. It was.
Modesto police detectives converged on the park and handcuffed Wilson.
When they searched his car, police say, they found a grocery bag containing condoms and lubricant.
Wilson was arrested on suspicion of arranging a meeting with a minor for the purpose of engaging in lewd and lascivious behavior.
The demand online for sex with minors isn't new, but detectives in Modesto's High Tech Crimes Unit started taking a more proactive approach to combating the crime after the concerned father called about his 12-year-old daughter's online activity.
"It was a goal of our High Tech Unit to become proactive in these investigations," Valencia said. "We hope enforcement and education will make a difference. We want these predators to know we are out there. We want parents to also be aware of the dangers associated with online activity and the importance of actively monitoring their children's use of the Internet. We believe parents will have the biggest impact."
The father's preteen had set up an online dating profile, which had not been removed from the site despite being forthright about her age. Instead, she'd received several emails from adult men interested in meeting her.
Detectives arranged meetings with two of the men and arrested both in March. Mitchell Alan Hernandez, 23, of Fresno and Kenneth Hogan, 18, of Modesto were charged with contacting or communicating with a minor for the purpose of a sex offense.
Since then, detectives have been using the Internet to identify and catch sexual predators. The men with whom they are in contact have asked officers posing as children to send them nude pictures and engage in video or phone sex. In every case, the men have moved quickly and broached the subject of sex, Valencia said.
Even when some of the men become suspicious they might be communicating with law enforcement, Valencia said their desires almost always outweigh the chance of getting arrested. "It's kind of an impulsive behavior that causes them to lose common sense and risk getting in trouble," he said. "Very much like an addict."
Bee staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2366. Follow her on Twitter, @ModestoBeeCrime.
The maximum sentence for a conviction of arranging a meeting with a minor for the purpose of engaging in certain lewd and lascivious acts is four years in state prison.
The maximum sentence for a conviction of contacting or communicating with a minor for the purpose of a sex offense depends on the crime the person intended to commit. Offenses could include rape, kidnapping and distributing child pornography. A conviction would result in incarceration the state prison for a term equal to the term prescribed for an attempt to commit the offense.
Signs your child might be at risk online:
Your child spends large amounts of time online, especially at night.
You find pornography on your child's computer.
Your child receives phone calls from men you don't know or is making calls, sometimes long distance, to numbers you don't recognize.
Your child receives mail, gifts or packages from someone you don't know.
Your child turns the computer monitor off or quickly changes the screen on the monitor when you come into the room.
Your child becomes withdrawn from the family.
Your child is using an online account belonging to someone else.
What parents can do to help keep their children safe from online predators:
Spend time with your children online. Have them teach you about their favorite online destinations.
Keep the computer in a common room in the house, not in your child's bedroom.
Utilize parental controls provided by your service provider and-or blocking software.
Always maintain access to your child's online account and randomly check his or her e-mail. Be upfront with your child about your access and reasons why.
Teach your child the responsible use of the resources online. There is much more to the online experience than chat rooms.
Find out what computer safeguards are utilized by your child's school, the public library, and at the homes of your child's friends.
Go to www.fbi.gov/ stats-services/publications/ parent-guide for more information.
Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation