20 child sex predators arrested in Virginia sting operation

20 child sex predators arrested in Virginia sting operation

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - An undercover operation targeting online child sex predators resulted in the arrests of 20 people in Virginia and 20 cases in other states, Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli said Thursday.

Cuccinelli said "Operation Phalanx" marked the first time Virginia's two regional Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces and his office joined up to identify, investigate and prosecute offenders. The weeklong sting was conducted in 2011.

"As attorney general, I'm very happy with the results as they unfold," Cuccinelli said at a news conference.

Arrests were made in Bedford, Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties, Virginia Beach and Richmond. Charges include online solicitation of a minor and distribution of child pornography.

Cuccinelli said another 20 cases have been referred for investigation and prosecution outside of Virginia. Those referrals involve cooperation with similar task forces across the country, as well as law enforcement agencies in Australia and France.

"The Internet knows no boundaries, and neither can we," said Col. W. Steven Flaherty, superintendent of the Virginia State Police, one of several law enforcement officials participating in the news conference.

According to Cuccinelli, investigators from Virginia's two task forces "worked day and night literally scouring the Internet for predators."

Flaherty said "it's beyond disturbing when you think about the sheer number of images" of child pornography that are being sent through cyberspace. He said one defendant alone had thousands of pictures on his computer and his cellphone.

"Basically, his life revolved around producing and distributing child pornography," he said.

The Bedford County Sheriff's Office established the Southern Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force in 1998. That task force covers two-thirds of the state. A similar task force for the northern one-third of the state and the District of Columbia was created in 2004 and is headed by the Virginia State Police. The task forces, each comprised of dozens of law enforcement agencies, serve as clearinghouses for tips and leads involving child exploitation crimes.

Cuccinelli said Operation Phalanx was named after an ancient Greek military formation in which a large group of soldiers stands shoulder-to-shoulder and surges ahead to try to overwhelm the enemy.