The Durango Police Department says its internet sting operations to identify individuals involved in human trafficking and sexual assault on children are above board, and monitored by trained investigators and legal professionals.
“We have supervisors involved in the investigation as well as communication with the DA’s office to make sure we toe the line,” said Deputy Chief Brice Current.
According to arrest affidavits filed in the 6th Judicial District Court, five men were arrested last month after responding to profiles and advertisements set up by investigators on the social media sites Grindr, Skout and Skip the Games.
Those arrested include William Dietz McLaughlin, 30; Joseph Ray Klemish, 29; Patrick Melvin Kendell, 39; Joshua Cody Romero, 24; and Sutthimeth Phongklang, 44.
The sting was conducted through partnership with the Durango Police Department, La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, Colorado State Patrol, Colorado Bureau of Investigation and Homeland Security. It sought to identifying and arrest individuals interested in engaging in sexual activities with minors aged 12 to 14.
Undercover operations were conducted by posting fake accounts on different social media platforms, and waiting for responses. At least one ad was titled “little x-mas angels to sit on your tree,” and advertised minor children who were available to have sex in exchange for money.
The police department has partnered with law enforcement agencies in the past to conduct similar investigations that resulted in arrests and convictions.
Local defense attorney Tom Williamson said establishing intent is important in these types of cases.
“What they’re (police) doing tactically is they acknowledge that the kid is definitely underage, and this is a crucial thing, and then if the person continues to interact, they (the defendant) cross the boundary at that point,” he said.
Consistent with what Williamson said, all of the affidavits in these five cases note that investigators confirm with the men that the person they believe they’re talking with is underage or is advertising sex with someone who is underage.
“Our effort is to be contacted by individuals that are already engaged in this type of behavior, and we frame our strategies around that effort to not entice anybody that’s not already actively engaged in trying to meet underaged kids for sex,” Current said.
Undercover agents then set up meetings with the men, who believed they were meeting an underage child for sex. Two of the men believed they were soliciting sex during the meetup.
Current said the law enforcement agencies that handled the investigations are well-trained and aware of the law. He said individuals arrested in the investigation were not enticed.
“To create a deterrent we absolutely do proactive investigations,” he said. “However, our detectives are sent through a lot of training through the U.S. Attorney’s Office as well as our local attorneys to strategize and make sure we are not entrapping people, and stay within the bounds of the law.”
The two men who showed up to a meeting with undercover investigators looking to purchase sex from a minor were Romero and Kendell. Both responded to posts on the website Skip the Games, a site the affidavits say is specifically used by individuals interested in advertising or soliciting sex in exchange for money.
According to Kendell and Romero’s affidavits, both chose to waive their Miranda rights when interviewed by police, and admitted to responding to the Skip the Games advertisement placed by undercover agents.
Klemish and McLaughlin were arrested on suspicion of enticement of a child and internet luring of a child.
Williamson said in an email to The Durango Herald that the charges are a thin conduct for liability. Specifically, he said internet luring of a child can involve simply talking sexually to a child the defendant knows is younger than 15 and then planning to meet up.
“So an adult man talks about sex with a 14-year-old and then invites him for ice cream. Even without proving that the intent was trying to arrange sexual encounter, sexual assault or exploitation, the defendant is guilty,” Williamson said.
Phongklang was arrested on suspicion of internet sexual exploitation of a child, which specifically has to do with exposing oneself online to a child the defendant knows is underage. In this case, Phongklang sent sexually explicit images of himself to a profile monitored by investigators.