A few years ago, law enforcement agents in the Virgin Islands went to a workshop on sex predators targeting children. Part of the training took them on a tour of underground internet chat rooms.
While one trainee with the Virgin Islands Police Department listened to the presentation, they typed into the system — St. Thomas, St. John, St. Croix. What happened next came as a surprise.
“I got a hit. A hit meaning I was getting responses. In this case, an adult male, looking for boys under 12,” the trainee said.
That workshop, hosted by the group Internet Crimes Against Children, took place in 2013. Since then federal authorities have arrested a number of adults using online communications to solicit V.I. minors for sex. Three recent cases involved undercover sting operations.
Investigators said defendant Josue Navarro, 37, answered an ad from what he thought was a 14-year-old girl.
Navarro and his online Lolita — in fact a federal agent posing as a teenage girl — discussed where they would meet and engaged in some explicit online talk about what they would do once they met.
The agent also asked if Navarro “brought something.”
Her mother would kill her if she got pregnant, the agent said.
On Aug. 30, 2018, Navarro was arrested and charged with coercion and enticement. In February, he was sentenced in District Court to 30 months in prison.
The next two cases bust the myth that sexual predators only hunt female minors.
Sixty-three year-old defendant Carlyle Ham was caught in an online sting after striking up a conversation with an agent posing as a 14-year-old male. According to a statement issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Ham exchanged emails with his target that suggested sexual activity.
On Nov. 16, 2018, Ham pleaded guilty to coercion and enticement.
This month a man wanted as a sex offender in Missouri was arrested after agents from Homeland Security Investigation received photos of the man’s genitals sent to a decoy posing as a minor.
“Agents working online in an undercover capacity created personas in online forums and applications designed to facilitate interactions between individuals,” said a statement released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Current events involving the late financier Jeffrey Epstein might give the impression that sexual predation in the Virgin Islands involves victims being brought in from elsewhere. In Epstein’s case, victims were allegedly flown in by private jet and transported to a private cay.
But one counselor working on St. Thomas says that’s not so. Counselor B.C. specializes in victims of child abuse.
B.C. described the steps predators take to contact, groom and hook their prey.
“In any kind of abusive relationship, not just for sex trafficking, there is a grooming process,” the counselor said. “Teenagers and young children are especially vulnerable to praise, to gifts, to being made to feel grown; needs for responsibility and power.”
As part of their growth it’s common for children and adolescents to pull away from their parents to form their own sense of self. That’s normal, B.C. said, but that process also takes place in youth who don’t get much attention or parental supervision.
“And so, all of a sudden, you have a vulnerable teen. A teen who may not be supervised very often or doesn’t feel they are heard at home. And so someone starts to talk to them and makes them feel valued, makes them feel heard. And so, they get to be friends,” the counselor said. But the predator uses friendship to quickly take control.
B.C. told a story to illustrate how quickly that relationship can form. “Kids, they feel connections, so they’re going to start sharing. In the mall, at the street, walking down the road. And (predators) they can tell. This kid’s kinda vulnerable and they befriend them,” the counselor said.
In the story, two minors are chatting in a popular eatery. The subject is homework. One minor confides in the other about their struggle completing homework assignments. No sooner was the comment made than a stranger appears and introduces themselves as a tutor.
The counselor noted that incident happened in person in a well known V.I. residential area. “He walks up to her and says I’m a tutor. Give me your phone number and I’ll call about helping you,” B.C. said.
There are also predators that enlist the help of others. This is where signs of sex trafficking appear.
In 2018 an online chat between a man and a woman in Puerto Rico took two unexpected turns. According to a statement from the FBI in San Juan, defendant Alexis David Rivera-Castillo struck up a conversation on an online dating site. As the conversation progressed, the woman mentioned her two children, ages 10 and 13.
“Defendant Rivera-Castillo requested to see the 10-year-old minor in underwear and have sexually explicit conduct with the minor and the adult female at a motel,” said Puerto Rico U.S. Attorney Rosa Rodriguez-Velez.
In exchange for the rendezvous, the defendant offered the woman money and a car.
That was the first surprise. That’s when the woman Castillo met online reached out to the authorities. A female FBI agent stepped in and kept up the conversation in her place.
“During the communication Rivera-Castillo coordinated to meet the undercover agent and the minor at a motel on July 23, 2018. On that date Rivera-Castillo arrived to the motel where he was arrested by the FBI.” Velez said.
On May 20, the defendant was sentenced to 15 years in prison after being convicted of sex trafficking of children.
Could it happen in the Virgin Islands? According to a top investigator working in law enforcement here, there’s no doubt.
“One of the indicators are pedophilia-type internet crimes against children. We’ve received reports of that,” investigator H.D. said.
Justice Department officials say the arrest in Puerto Rico was carried out in conjunction with Operation Safe Childhood, a nationwide initiative combating child sexual abuse and exploitation since 2006. Starting in August 2018, the Virgin Islands launched a different program to combat child sexual abuse within the contest of human trafficking.
The Blue Campaign was announced by U.S. Attorney Gretchen Shappert. Its kick off activities began with training events on St. Croix and a human trafficking round table on St. Thomas where Shappert led the discussion with members of law enforcement and community partners in the non-profit sector.
The work is supported by officials from the Immigration and Naturalization Service/Homeland Security Investigations Bureau. “Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world today and occurs when a person is recruited, harbored, obtained or exported through force, fraud or coercion for the purposes of sexual exploitation, forced labor, involuntary servitude, debt bondage and other methods of slavery,” said HSI Special Agent-In-Charge Ivan Arvelo.
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