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'Operation Playground' searches out internet predators, police say

Operation Playground

Mount Pleasant Police Chief Carl Ritchie speaks about "Operation Playground" with other agency participants, including individuals from the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office, the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, made up of federal, state and local agencies, including Charleston County Sheriff’s Office and the Charleston Police Department.

Eight men have been arrested on various child-sex charges in what was dubbed "Operation Playground," Mount Pleasant Police Chief Carl Ritchie said last week, when he announced the initiative and said the cases were only the beginning.

Most of the men face charges of criminal solicitation of a minor, the chief said in a news conference at the Mount Pleasant Municipal Complex on Tuesday, Oct. 10.

The arrests were part of a partnership between the Mount Pleasant Police Department as the host agency and the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office, the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, the U.S. Secret Service, NCIS, Homeland Security, and police and sheriff’s offices from across the state, including Charleston County Sheriff’s Office and the Charleston Police Department.

“We conducted a four-day operation with other federal, state, county and municipal law enforcement partners," Richie said. The investigation targeted individuals who seek to engage juveniles "in sexually explicit or suggestive online communications with the intent to arrange a meeting ... for the purpose of sex.”

Investigators identified "those subjects who possess, transmit, share or create child pornography and those who would solicit juveniles as prostitutes, promote the prostitution of juveniles and any other who is participating in the sexual exploitation of children in Mount Pleasant.”

In addition to the eight men taken into custody, he said detectives are completing investigations into 17 others and will soon have arrest warrants. “That will take us up to a total of 25 targets when this is complete.” Ritchie said.

Warning of “the dark web,” Ritchie said it “is a very dangerous place where offenders feel safe while targeting their next victim.”

The U.S. Department of Justice describes the dark web as “a shadow world where the good and bad co-exist.” The “good” side provides a shield for sensitive classified government activity, but the “bad” side, the department said, “has emerged as an important hub of criminal commerce, a fully functional marketplace where hidden customers can buy from hidden sellers.”

The arrests made in the operation followed that definition. “At least two of these predators had been chatting with what they believed was an underage person for the past two weeks. In reality, they were chatting with one of our undercover officers. Any person who would invest two weeks trying to set up with an underage person and who then follows through by travelling to meet them, some from over two hours away, are not good people,” Ritchie said.

“It was more than just chatting.” He emphasized, “There were images sent, they were set up to meet. These folks actually travelled to Mount Pleasant thinking they were meeting some underage person for whatever act or deviance they were going to engage in. Instead, they found our police officers and we got them off the street.”

Kevin Atkins, commander with the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office, described the effort simply. “It’s kind of what we do. That’s our sole mission, to investigate these complaints and to focus on individuals who would do harm to our children.”

Internet crimes against children are a statewide problem, said Atkins. “Just based on the kinds of tips we get and from the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The tips are not only about people who are disseminating child pornography, they alert us to when minors are engaged in inappropriate conversations with adults, talk about sexual acts. These companies have algorithms and programs that take that information and notify us. It is prevalent around the state and the country.”

Ritchie added, “I’ll take it a little further. I think it’s a global problem.”

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