9 men arrested in undercover child sex sting

Ex-corrections officer, military member among 9 arrested in Operation Downpour

By Erik Avanier - Reporter

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. - An effort to locate and identify people using the internet to sexually exploit children led to the arrest of nine men on felony charges, the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office announced Wednesday.

For the last two weeks, detectives with several federal and local law enforcement agencies conducted the undercover child sex investigation named Operation Downpour. 

According to the Sheriff’s Office, nine men, who range in age from 18 to 34, used the internet to meet underage girls for sex and traveled to meet them. But investigators said the men were instead met by undercover detectives and federal agents.

All of the agents and detectives posed as girls younger than 15 and they all disclosed they were young, yet the suspects initiated sexually explicit conversations to express their intent and made plans to meet the girls, according to arrest reports. 

When the men traveled to an undisclosed location where they planned to meet with the child, they were immediately arrested, investigators said. 

VIEW: Booking photos of men arrested in Operation Downpour

The Sheriff's Office said the suspects include Honduran national Ernie Mendoza Aleman, who U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said had previously been deported, and former corrections officer Clarence Thomas. According to Thomas' arrest report, he thought he was talking to a 12-year-old girl.

Thomas shares the same name and age as a man who was arrested in 2015 on a charge of unlawful sexual activity with a minor, and was previously a part-time football coach at Westside High School and a Jacksonville Sheriff's Office corrections officer. In that case, Duval County court records show, he pleaded guilty to one count of child abuse and adjudication was withheld. 

Another suspect is active military member Raymond Wygant, the Sheriff's Office said. A 7th Infantry Division spokesman confirmed Wygant is currently assigned to Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington. According to the spokesman, Wygant arrived in December and currently serves as an air defense system operator. 

"Unit leadership is aware of the incident," the spokesman said. 

Although Wygant told investigators he thought he was talking to an 18-year-old woman, his arrest report stated he intended to meet a 14-year-old girl who told him she was about to turn 15. 

The youngest suspect was 18-year-old Ethan Persson. When News4Jax went to his St. Augustine home, his mother, Anna Persson, answered the door and said she was shocked when she learned of his arrest.

"But he is my son and I'm waiting to find out the whole story," she added. 

St. Johns County investigators were aided by the FBI, Homeland Security Investigations, the U.S. Attorney's Office, Seventh Circuit State Attorney’s Office, North Florida Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, Putnam County Sheriff’s Office, Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and Volusia County Sheriff’s Office. The St. Augustine Beach and Orange Park police departments also assisted in the operation.

Below are the names, ages, hometowns, charges and bonds for those arrested:

Clarence Bernard Thomas, 28, of Jacksonville
Charges (4): Attempted lewd and lascivious behavior, traveling to meet a minor for sex, unlawful use of a two-way communication device, soliciting a child for sex 

Orion Kade Healy, 19, of Palm Coast
Charges (5): Traveling to meet a minor for sex, unlawful use of a two-way communication device, soliciting a child for sex, attempted lewd and lascivious battery, tampering with evidence 

Michael Edward Beck II, of Jacksonville
Charges (6): Soliciting a child for sex, traveling to meet a minor for sex, unlawful use of a two-way communication device, attempted lewd and lascivious battery, transmission of harmful material to minor, possession of marijuana

Raymond Edward Wygant, 25, of McChord, Washington
Charges (4): Soliciting a child for sex, traveling to meet a minor for sex, unlawful use of a two-way communication device, attempted lewd and lascivious battery

Ethan Nathaniel Persson, 18, of St. Augustine
Charges (4): Soliciting a child for sex, traveling to meet a minor for sex, unlawful use of a two-way communication device, attempted lewd and lascivious battery

Ernie Mendoza Aleman, 31, of South Gate, California
Charges (4): Soliciting a child for sex, traveling to meet a minor for sex, unlawful use of a two-way communication device, attempted lewd and lascivious battery

Matthew Bernard Browne, 28, of Gainesville
Charges (4): Traveling to meet a minor for sex, soliciting a child for sex, attempted lewd and lascivious battery, unlawful use of a two-way communication device

Jhony Antonio Chacon-Montiel, 34, of Jacksonville
Charges (4): Traveling to meet a minor for sex, unlawful use of a two-way communications device, attempted lewd and lascivious battery, using a computer to solicit a child for sex

Joshua Ryan Blankenship, 28, of Green Cove Springs
Charges (6): Attempted lewd and lascivious battery, unlawful use of a two-way communications device, traveling to meet a minor for sex, using a computer to solicit a child for sex, possession of a controlled substance without prescription, possession of methamphetamine

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