The St. Johns County Sheriff's Office arrested 15 men from across north Florida and southeast Georgia over the past five days in an undercover operation to find people using the Internet to try and sexually exploit children.
It is the second time in two years that the Sheriff's Office and other agencies collaborated, with detectives posing as juveniles or parents to arrange to those soliciting for sex with children.
Deputies say that between last Wednesday and Sunday, 15 men solicited a parent/guardian or minor through an online chat room and traveled to an undercover house in northwest St. Johns County expecting to have sex with children between the ages of 13 and 14, investigators said. Once the suspects arrived at the house, they were arrested.
The 15 suspects range in age from 19 to 49 years old and are facing all felony charges. Three of those arrested traveled from different areas of south Georgia, three came from Volusia County, two came from St. Johns, Duval and Alachua counties and one each came from Clay, Nassau and Flagler counties.
Among the professions of the suspects arrested, one was a St. Johns County school bus driver, a Navy enlisted man, students and clerks.
"I've known him for years and I never imagined him doing anything like that," said Karrie Lewis, a neighbor of 47-year-old Richard Copeland, the St. Johns County special needs bus driver accused of soliciting sex from a 14-year-old boy.
The Sheriff's Office said when Copeland arrived expecting to meet the boy, he was in possession of cocaine and drug paraphernalia.
The St. Johns County School District placed Copeland on paid leave and is in the process of trying to have him removed from the school system.
"It's very disheartening," said Christina Langston, spokeswoman for the school system. "We can't control the actions of others."
Multiple agencies participated in "Operation No Soliciting" under the auspices of the North Florida Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Those agencies included the FBI, the U.S. Marshal's Task Force, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Office of the State Attorney 7th Judicial Circuit, the Sheriff's Offices of St. Johns, Alachua, Volusia, Clay and Brevard counties as well as the Gainesville, Daytona Beach and Tallahassee Police Departments.