Undercover officers work the night shift during Operation Black Veil, an Internet Crimes Against Children sting operation at the Door County Justice Center in Sturgeon Bay. From left, Door County Sheriff's Deputy Bob Sitte, Sturgeon Bay Police Sgt. Carl Waterstreet, Ashwaubenon Public Safety Officer Aaron Dufek, and, across the table, Door County Jailer Molly Thornton. / Samantha Hernandez/Door County Advocate
Door County Sheriff's Deputy Troy Montevideo posts to Craigslist's Casual Encounter's section as part of Operation Black Veil. / Samantha Hernandez/Door County Advocate
More than 100 officers from numerous jurisdictions took part in Operation Black Veil.
Assisting the state Division of Criminal Investigation, Door and Brown counties in what became a statewide effort were personnel from the Madison Police Department, Dane County Sheriff’s Office, Outagamie County Sheriff’s Department, Ashwaubenon Public Safety Department, Sturgeon Bay Police Department, Minocqua Police Department, Marathon County Sheriff’s Department, Kenosha Police Department, Shawano Police Department, Kewaunee County Sheriff’s Department, Oconto County Sheriff’s Department, Marinette County Sheriff’s Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations.
Door County Sheriff's Deputy Jason Stenzel puts maps of areas where take-downs are occurring on a TV screen to help familiarize officers with the designated meeting points. Also pictured is Door County Sheriff's Investigator Jim Valley. / Samantha Hernandez/Door County Advocate
Door County Sheriff's Investigator Jim Valley talks with law enforcement around the state to coordinate take-downs of suspects. / Samantha Hernandez/Door County Advocate
Seventeen men who thought they had arranged sexual liaisons with 15-year-olds online ended up under arrest last week when their underage partners turned out to be undercover agents.
The Door County Sheriff’s Department played a central role in a large-scale Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) operation last week that resulted in the arrest of 17 suspects from Wausau to Kenosha to Green Bay and Appleton.
The three-day-long operation, dubbed Operation Black Veil, was the work of investigators from Brown and Door counties and special agents from the state Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) in cooperation with other local law enforcement. Officers focused exclusively on suspected sexual predators using the Wisconsin Casual Encounters section of the online classified service Craigslist.
This reporter for the Door County Advocate was granted unprecedented access during the course of the operation, described in a joint press release as “a proactive, online investigation relating to the exploitation of children through the use of online personal advertisements, specifically targeting online predators who solicit children for the purpose of engaging in sexually explicit conduct.” A Green Bay television news crew was also invited.
The 17 suspects who were arrested have the presumption of innocence.
The Major Case Workroom inside the Door County Justice Center served as the command center for most of the 16-hours-a-day, three-day operation. Two teams worked eight-hour shifts; each team had one woman, someone on logistics, an officer in charge and three people posting ads and answering emails.
The day shift was headed by Door County Sheriff’s Investigator Jim Valley, and Investigator Chris Neuville headed the night crew.
Valley’s expertise in dealing with online sex crimes goes back to 2007, when he received training in protecting children from online predators, ICAC, undercover chat investigation, and peer-to-peer network training about child pornography. He has taught at several national conferences pertaining to online child sex crimes.
Neuville attended an ICAC national conference and Wisconsin Department of Justice ICAC school. He also received ICAC peer-to-peer training and taught cyberbullying to officers at the National Strategy Conference on Combating Child Exploitation.
All of the officers chosen for the operation received specialized training with respect to what their duties would be, Valley said.
“All of them are trained by myself for undercover Internet investigations; some have more training in those types of things than others,” he said.
Valley has trained thousands of officers over the years at national conferences and teaches at the Wisconsin Department of Justice ICAC school.
“In a professional matter, you have to be able to go outside your personality boundaries,” he said.
The first shift began just before 8 a.m. March 12, and officers got their first responses to posts within 15 minutes.
The officers distinguished their post between proactive—a post that authorities made—and reactive—one they responded to.
One of the first things Valley said to the two embedded reporters was that many of the officers had dreamed about the operation the night before.
“You just become consumed,” Valley said.
Authorities answered and posted ads using prewritten scripts. The Sheriff’s Department asked the Advocate not to use the exact wording of the ad.
By 10:19 a.m. the group had 13 names or online IDs written on a white board that covered one wall. By 11:55 a.m. 23 potential suspects were actively engaged by officers.
“We are the barrier between the children and the suspects,” Valley said of the officers.
Some of the potential suspects were savvy and wary of being caught, but the the investigators pressed forward.
Children for sale
One of the first proactive posts the officers set up was an offer to sell the services of three young girls.
Officers posted an ad titled “Looking for a Good Time,” purporting to be a man willing to sell girls ranging in age from 8, 10 and 14 for $60 for one, $100 for two and $150 for all three.
One of the agents, Ashwaubenon Public Safety Officer Aaron Dufek, said in his experience the prices for adults and children are generally the same.
The ad eventually led to the arrest of William C. Ward, 27, of Kewaunee, who was arrested on March 13 in Green Bay and has been charged with trafficking of a child.
Ward allegedly contacted officers during the first day of the Operation Black Veil wanting to buy time with the 10-year-old.
Officers tried to arrange to meet with Ward on Tuesday, but he claimed he had to work and could only meet on Thursday at a restaurant in Ashwaubenon. Ward contacted undercover agents the following day to arrange a meet-up for Wednesday afternoon.
A take-down team and an undercover police officer were positioned at the restaurant when Sturgeon Bay Police Department Sgt. Carl Waterstreet received an email saying the suspect had a doctor’s appointment on the opposite side of the Green Bay metropolitan area and wanted to change the meeting place.
Waterstreet tried to convince Ward to meet at the original location but in the end moved it to a business on Lime Kiln Road in Bellevue. Ward arrived ahead of the take-down team. Waterstreet messaged Ward that he was seven minutes away. At this point the take-down team was about three minutes away.
After arresting Ward, officers found that he was legally carrying a concealed .45-caliber handgun, Valley said.
Valley said Ward had also contacted an officer who was posing as a 15-year-old boy, but they had not made a date to meet up.
Craig R. Nelson of Suamico was also arrested on a charge of child trafficking the same evening. He allegedly arranged to buy a child for $40, but only had $20. When he was arrested officers found the ATM receipt for $20 on him. He was also charged with possession of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Although some of the suspects had no problem sending photos of their genitalia to what they believed was a 15-year-old child, they still expressed concern about not wanting to get caught.
“I’m not trying to end up on ‘Dateline’,” one man responded. The Advocate is declining to name the man because he was not arrested.
The net cast by the undercover officers snared Benjamin Lahti, an Ironwood, Mich., man who posted an ad in Casual Encounters that read in part: “Clean sane man in his mid 20s looking for an nsa (no strings attached) encounter that will leave us both walking away with a smile!”
The rest of the ad Lahti allegedly posted went on to describe what he would do to his potential partner in graphic detail. He asked responders to include a photo of themselves.
Door County Sheriff’s Deputy Bob Sitte posed as a 15-year-old girl answering the ad, while jailer Molly Thornton, sitting a few stations away, texted photos to Lahti in live time.
Sitte sent the first message at 6:04 p.m.: “hey hi responding to your posting … im 5’4, 110, 15 yrs old and experienced and discreet and clean. reply if interested”
A message attributed to Lahti arrived at 6:05 p.m.: “Well hmm possibly!”
His next message at 6:08 p.m. reads: “any pics or anything?! :P”
The officers sent a childhood photo of an undercover agent with the message: “ : ) there yah go”
From there, the officer and Lahti talked about whether the “girl” could meet him in Ironwood or if he would have to travel to Minocqua.
Sitte responded back, “Im 15 so I can’t drive on my own : ) so…”
Lahti allegedly sent the next two messages one at 6:24 p.m. “well … do you have a cell? lol, i may be able to take a trip… ;)” and the next was a photo text at 6:33 p.m. “what would you do with this? ;)”
The photo was of aroused male genitalia.
Sitte answered “yummy!” The sexual nature of Lahti’s text escalated from there. During the course of the conversation, Sitte mentioned being 15 years old three times and Lahti mentioned “her” age twice.
Lahti asked for and received photos of the “girl” he was meeting. Thornton posed for the photos but was careful not to show her face. At one point Lahti and Thornton spoke on the phone. The Advocate was not allowed to listen in on the phone call.
The Door County ICAC team coordinated with Minocqua Police Department to arrest Lahti outside of a well-known restaurant there. Lahti and the “girl” had made plans to go to a scenic overview presumably for sex.
Thornton was talking to the suspect when he pulled into the parking lot and spotted the officers waiting for him.
The phone went suddenly silent, she said.
“I’ve never done this before, so it kind of had my adrenaline pumping,” Thornton said of talking to Lahti. “At first I was pretty nervous.”
The officers were jubilant over the arrest.
“If this had been a real 15-year-old on the Internet and this guy went to meet her, this 15-year-old could have been assaulted,” Dufek said.
“If this entire operation only stops this one person from potentially harming one person under the age of 18, I think it’s worth it,” Sitte said.
Valley communicated with authorities in Oneida County March 13 asking that the suspect’s bond hearing be held until the next day because that is the day the operation was set to wrap up.
Lahti was released on $10,000 bail Thursday. He has been charged with use of a computer to facilitate a child sex crime, exposing a child to harmful materials and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Sometimes as fast as officers posted an ad, it was flagged as questionable either by the website or a concerned citizen.
“These things happen,” Valley said. “Which is a good thing.”
Being banned did slow down matters, and at 9:57 a.m. on the first day of Operation Black Veil, the three officers in the room needed to register with new identities.
By the second day the Sheriff’s Department IP address had been flagged by Craigslist and all posts were taken down immediately. A command center in Madison had to take over putting up posts, and then Madison’s IP was flagged and they had to move the operation to another building in order to post again.
Once the ads were posted, the officers in Door County took over answering the replies.
By Valley’s estimate the six Door County officers took part in 500 chats that resulted in those 17 arrests. Several investigations are still pending.
Dufek said numerous well-meaning citizens sent messages to the mythical girl urging her to be careful and warning that she was too young to solicit sex online.
Due to the sheer volume of emails officers had to answer and surfing Craigslist for ads to answer, occasional mistakes were made.
Officers printed out each chat and Craigslist ad in an effort to keep the conversations straight. Several of those chats and emails came with nude photos.
Once an officer gave a suspect the wrong phone number and covered his mistake by telling the suspect it was an old number. Another officer answered two different ads for the same man who was looking for both a boy and a girl.
One computer had intermittent problems with the Internet signal cutting off and on.
The officers used an Internet phone number generator and created new emails each time one of their numbers or email addresses was banned.
The frustrations were not limited to technical issues.
Sometimes, as hard as it was for the Door County team, a possible suspect was allowed to leave the scene without contact with authorities.
Although it may appear on paper that all the elements of the crime were present to justify an arrest, ultimately the agents in the field have to agree that those elements are there as well, Valley said.
“Suspects give different car colors, different car makes, different identities,” he said.
Sometimes Neuville would tell officers that they needed their suspect to be the one who spelled out the intention to meet up, and also to make sure the suspect was well aware the person he or she was chatting with was underage.
“Don’t initiate that you want to have sex,” he told an officer.
“For the warrant we have to prove quite a few things,” Valley said.
The elements that must be in place before an arrest can be made are: some type of intent of sexual contact, knowledge that the person is a minor, and some sort of action to meet the minor once the first two criteria have been established.
Neuville and Valley were diligent in making sure that officers met the first two criteria before contacting the arresting agencies.
At times the room had the air of a regular office, as officers typed and from time to time asked Neuville or Valley to review their transcripts and help them assess whether they had enough for an arrest.
Several contacts asked members of the ICAC team pointblank if they were a cop. Each time officers responded no.
Law enforcement is not obligated to tell a potential suspect that they are police, unless they are giving chase to a suspect; then they must identify themselves as law enforcement, Dufek said.
Officers are aware of what entrapment is.
“We’re not trying to trick people,” Neuville said. Officers do try to control the meeting place, but suspects have to initiate the meeting.
Long, difficult hours
Doing this type of operation takes an emotional and physical toll.
“It goes without saying our family life suffers,” Valley said.
On Thursday Valley told those in the room that he’d only had three hours of sleep in two days and had been keeping an eye on the operation from home. When he went home on Thursday after his shift, he was called back in when things picked up.
When the Advocate left at around 11 p.m. the third night, Valley was still there helping with the investigation.
Jokes flew freely around the room.
“Humor is our best friend in this job,” Dufek said.
Reading and responding to these ads is difficult for officers.
“Honestly when I get done with these, I’m mentally drained,” Dufek said at the end of the first day.
“I would echo that; I’m tired. I’m mentally drained,” Waterstreet said.
Contact Samantha Hernandez at firstname.lastname@example.org or (920) 743-3321, Ext. 112.