Every time a child goes online, there are predators ready to greet them and even meet them. That's why Indianapolis Metropolitan Police patrol more than just the streets; they are online working to catch predators.
It starts in chat rooms with easy conversations. "It may start out as an innocent conversation to gain trust and as we've seen through our vice investigators, those conversations turn evil very quickly," said Metro Police Captain Chris Boomershine.
Undercover vice detectives begin their chats in the same rooms where your children chat. In one online conversation, a man chats with a girl whom he believes is fifteen years old. He learns she is in Indianapolis; he lives in Evansville. The conversation eventually turns to sex and he agrees to make the three-hour drive. But the other person he's chatting with is really a police officer.
"At some point they probably have chatted with a child," Boomershine said. "And obviously the child doesn't understand the situation that they're getting themselves in by chatting online with someone they don't know."
When Bradley Hancock of Evansville arrived in Indianapolis to meet his 15-year-old chat room acquaintance, he was greeted by IMPD officers.
Eyewitness News asked Hancock who he thought he was talking to. "Just some girl from Indy," he responded. When asked whether he expected sex, he said, "I didn't know what was going to happen."
Hancock he and the 15-year-old chatted online about a number of things and he insists that he never propositioned her for sex. He did admit that the conversation got a little racy, "but nothing real horrible."
Hancock also said," If she showed up, great, if she didn't I would just go home." But instead, the 23-year-old went to jail. Metro Police Officer Brian Hofmeister escorted Hancock in handcuffs. When police searched his pickup truck they found a brand new box of condoms. Officers confiscated his cell phone and his vehicle.
As one suspect goes to jail, the undercover online conversations continue. In another chat room, an officer is propositioned by another out-of-towner. The man on the other end of that conversation was Charles Clouse of Frankfort. He also believed he was online with a 15-year-old Indianapolis girl. He also made the drive to Indianapolis and was surprised to meet Metro Police.
When asked whether he was expecting to have sex with a young girl, Clouse responded, "No, sir."
Their online conversation, recorded by Camtasia capturing software, tells a different story. At one point Clouse asked the undercover officer posing as a 15-year-old, "Should I bring condoms?"
Officers searched Clouse's pickup truck for evidence, finding directions, his Clinton County Emergency Management ID badge, a reflective vest and something more disturbing hanging from the rear view: His parking pass at the Community Schools of Frankfort. Clouse is a custodian at Suncrest Elementary School. Now his access to students is part of the investigation.
Indiana's Assistant US Attorney Steve Debrota says online predators come from all walks of life. "There is not a single profile of these people. I've prosecuted people all the way down from an ophthalmologist that owned laser surgery centers all the way down to a drug dealer."
While it's raised awareness of the problem, DeBrota says NBC Dateline's "To Catch a Predator" has changed the way investigators conduct online stings. "With the prevalence of people knowing about sting operations," said Debrota, "We're starting to see dumber and dumber offenders get caught with those type of sting operations."
Catching online predators now requires patience. A two-day sting used to end with a dozen arrests. A two-day operation that Eyewitness News followed resulted in just three.
Back in the chat room, another suspect thinks he's talking with a 15-year-old girl. Kendall Trent asked the undercover officer "u sound like uve had sex already have u?"
He arrived at the arranged meeting place only to meet police. Trent would not talk to Eyewitness News.
Officers searched the 42-year-old's vehicle and even found some incriminating evidence in his pocket: Viagra.
Debrota says Indiana is an attractive place for online predators, "What we tend to supply, unfortunately for the rest of the country, we tend to supply the victim. The offender tends to come here from other places."
While investigators work to protect children from predators, they say the real protection starts at home.
Captain Boomershine says, "My warning is to parents, to limit your children's access. Know the sites that they are surfing, make sure that there are parental controls that keep them from going to sites that they shouldn't go to."
It's a wake-up call, because it's not always a police officer on the other end of the conversation.