Officials in Marion County, Florida have arrested nearly two dozen men seeking sex with kids during a six-day undercover sting operation called “April Fools.”
According to the Marion County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO), county deputies, with assistance from local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, conducted an undercover operation that resulted in the arrest of 22 men who thought they were meeting underage children.
The operation saw undercover officers exchange messages with 19 men who later traveled to various locations in Marion County expecting to meet a child aged between 12 and 16 for sexual activity.
“During the online exchanges, these men engaged in sexually explicit conversations, graphically describing the sexual acts they hoped to perform with the child,” the Sheriff’s Office said.
Upon arriving at the various locations in Marion County, the men were met by law enforcement officers, who immediately detained them.
Another eight men have warrants out for their arrest for sending sexually explicit pictures to individuals they believed were minors, however, those men did not travel to meet a child.
Of those eight additional men, three have been arrested and deputies are actively looking for the other five.
“A child’s innocence is something we should all strive to protect,” said Sheriff Billy Woods. “I will continue to use all of my resources to hunt down these predators so they may never hurt a child.”
Speaking at a news conference following the sting operation, Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods said that officials had now arrested a total of 27 individuals as part of the six-day undercover operation.
At a news conference, Woods said 22 of the arrests were local and included one individual who works as a Florida Department of Corrections officer, another who works in the school system, and the son of Ocala City Council member Ire Bethea Sr.
Woods said his heart goes out to Ire Bethea Sr, “but to him, not to his son.”
“You got one individual who thought he was meeting a 12-year-old paraplegic individual to have sex,” Woods said. “It infuriates me. As a father, my blood boils to think this occurs on a regular basis.”
The Marion County Sheriff also urged parents to keep tabs on their children and ensure they are being safe when they are using technology.
“Every day, there is somebody out there trying to get your teen into a dark place,” Woods said.
During his impassioned conference, a visibly infuriated Woods said that he and other law enforcement officers will continue to investigate and track down child sex predators.
“I will use every resource in my power to hunt you down,” he said. “I want this community to know they are the predators. They are the ones preying on your innocent children every day. Our detectives didn’t ask them to have sex. They are the ones who reached out. These predators go where children are.”