17 accused of traveling to meet children for sex

Men from as far as Virginia were met by deputy instead of child

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – A five-day operation in which law enforcement personnel impersonated children in chat rooms netted 17 arrests of men who thought they were meeting a juvenile for sex, but instead went to the jail, according to the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office.

The men arrested were aged 19 to 60 and traveled from as far as Virginia and South Carolina, although five were from St. Johns County, eight were from Duval County and one each from Clay, Flagler and Putnam counties.

"They didn't meet the 14-year-old they thought they were going to meet," Sheriff David Shoar said Friday as he announced the results of "Operation Cruel Summer."

Two of the men had military backgrounds. Four of those arrested are already convicted felons who could face up to life in prison if convicted again.

Shoar said one of the men is believed to be a human trafficker whose goal was to abduct a child. 

"We’re convinced he’s a human trafficker and we’re convinced, if he had made contact with a 14-year-old female, he either would have abducted her or got her involved in the drug trade," Shoar said.

SLIDESHOW: Photos, names, charges of 17 men arrested

This was the fourth time St. Johns County has done a similar internet sting of people seeking sex online, and while 17 were arrested, the officers made contact with hundreds more. That's why Shoar wants parents to know of the threat.

"These people know they could be talking to law enforcement, yet they still do it," Shoar said. "The compulsion is so great, they disregard (the risk)."

In addition to St. Johns County, deputies in Jacksonville, Putnam and Okaloosa counties, officers in St. Augustine Beach, Orange Park and Gainesville, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and FBI assisted in the operation.