Seven men were arrested between Thursday and early Sunday in Warren County in connection with a sexual predator sting that is scheduled to be part of the NBC show “To Catch a Predator.”
A home in Bowling Green was used in the sting by police and members of Perverted Justice, an advocacy group that targets pedophiles.
Each of the seven men believed he was speaking with and were going to meet either a 12- or 13-year-old girl, said David James, commissioner at the Kentucky Bureau of Investigation.
Those arrested were charged with attempted unlawful transaction with a minor, a class C felony, which carries a sentence of between five to 10 years in prison if convicted, James said. Those arrested were Michael J. Patterson, 24, of Indiana; John Wesley Elliot, 39, of Marshall County; Jeremy T. West, 27, Springfield, Tenn.; Lorne L. Armstrong, 37, of Nashville; James T. Fowler, 34, of Murfreesboro, Tenn.; Richard M. Watwood, 41, of Hermitage, Tenn.; and Dustin McPhetridge, 26, of Kingsport, Tenn.
Patterson, a former law enforcement official in Indiana, drove more than 350 miles to Bowling Green and brought a loaded weapon with him, James said. In another case, there was more than 120 hours of online contact between the decoy and the suspect before a potential meeting was scheduled.
“The efforts of these men show just how dedicated these predators are to their goal of abusing children,” James said.
Members of the KBI, the Warren County Sheriff’s Department and the Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office were stationed both at the home used for the sting and in the community room at the Bowling Green Police Department, which served as the home base.
Teams of people reviewed the chat logs between the men and the decoy, others worked to get search warrants, teams of officers at the site waited to make arrests and interview subjects, James said. The entire process was recorded onto DVD to use as evidence.
More than 150 men contacted the decoy and 50 to 60 were considered possibilities to come to Bowling Green and attempt contact with the decoy, James said. A number of those men couldn’t come, and others were scheduled to, but didn’t show up.
Cameras were set up inside the house and along the road so officials knew exactly when vehicles were pulling up to the home and when the same vehicle drove by multiple times. Authorities would not give the address of the decoy house.
Once the chatting begins, the KBI uses the National Crime Information Center to try and find an identity for the chatter, James said.
After a suspect has been arrested, a file is created that goes along with the case that details both the chat and any statements make to either NBC’s Chris Hanson for the show or to detectives after they have been arrested, James said.
“Most of these men like to show up under the cover of darkness,” James said.
This is the third time the KBI has teamed with NBC and Perverted Justice to do a sting operation, he said. A total of 29 people were arrested in the three sting operations.
The goal was to catch as many of the people who contacted the girl as possible, James aid.
In previous Kentucky efforts, 75 percent of the subjects who committed to showing up did come, he said. This effort did not draw as many people.
In at least three cases, men stated they would not come to Kentucky because they were aware of the previous stings, James said.
In a number of the chats, the subject quickly brings up the idea of having sex with the underage girl, said Chris Cohron, commonwealth’s attorney for Warren County.
There are common questions that all ask about the girl’s anatomy, he said.
“There were people who questioned why we would want to bring these type of people to Bowling Green,” Cohron said. “This is a preventative shot across the bow because I want these people to think twice when they see an underage girl (online) from Bowling Green that it could be us watching.”
Once the arrests were made at the decoy house, a team of law enforcement officials quickly obtained a search warrant and sent police to the person’s house to search their computer, said Maj. Randy Hargis of the sheriff’s office.
“You never know what you’re going to find at their home,” Hargis said. “None of these guys are going to be completely truthful with you.”
This was an undercover operation unlike anything the sheriff’s office has ever been involved with before, he said.
“We’ve learned from it and these are lessons we will take with us moving forward,” Hargis said. “The lesson is that the Warren County Sheriff’s Department, Bowling Green Police Department and Kentucky State Police are watching. If you come to our area and try to abuse children, we’re going to take you down - end of story.”
Several of the men were arraigned this morning with bonds set at $50,000.
Because some of these men allegedly crossed state lines with the intent of having sex with an underage girl, it is possible that they could also face charges in federal court, Cohron said.
The date for the local sting to be featured on Dateline has not been determined, but it will most likely be in late November, according to an NBC representative.
Sex stings can cause concerns
Law enforcement officials in Warren County who participated in a sting operation backed the efforts of Perverted Justice and the NBC Dateline show “To Catch a Predator.”
But nationally, the sting operations have stirred controversy after a Texas prosecutor declined to press charges against those arrested and following the suicide of a Texas suspect as police and NBC cameras gathered outside his home.
The Texas prosecutor claimed Perverted Justice had not supplied adequate information to prosecute the cases.
Chris Cohron, commonwealth’s attorney for Warren County, said he had no issues with the effort coming to Bowling Green because his staff was able to view the logs of the Internet conversations each man had with the decoy to determine it wasn’t entrapment.
In fact, during the weekend effort there was one man who was called just as he arrived at the home and turned away because the prosecutors believed the decoy had been too aggressive in talking about sex during the chat.
This effort has been nothing but professional, said Randy Hargis of the Warren County Sheriff’s Office.
The reason the Kentucky Bureau of Investigation is willing to participate is that the issue of predators targeting children needs to be publicized, said Commissioner David James.
“Most parents think their child is safe at home alone having a computer in their room and not knowing who they’re chatting with,” he said. “They don’t think anyone would try and contact their child.”
The stings prove that people will absolutely try to contact underage children, James said.
“People see a program like this and they pay attention,” he said.
Perverted Justice has never lost a case that has been prosecuted, James said.
There is no way that these investigations could have been done without the help of Perverted Justice and NBC, Cohron said. They had the money to provide technological equipment the county and state simply couldn’t because of budget constraints, Cohron said.