DPD arrests online predator

Published 9:15 pm Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Imagine your 14-year-old child or grandchild going online to chat on Facebook or MySpace or some other public forum or chatroom. They meet someone who seems pretty cool, kind of interesting, who is interested in them. The conversations get more personal, and soon the other person is sending inappropriate photos or even asking the teenager to meet someplace to get closer.

Sometimes the other person — an adult — is up front about his age, but often, he hides behind a false age, saying he is 15 or 16, and your teenager doesn’t learn the truth until it is too late.

That happens often, as seen on the NBC program series “Dateline NBC: To Catch a Predator,” but while it may seem to happen “somewhere else,” the truth is that it happens anywhere and everywhere, and any child — boy or girl — is a potential victim of an online predator.

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The Demopolis Police Department has been running an online investigation similar to the “To Catch a Predator” series, and recently arrested someone.

DPD arrested Larry Michael Sullins, 52, of Northport on Friday and charged him with soliciting a child by computer and transmitting obscene material to a child by computer, both Class B felonies in Alabama. Sullins is presently in the Marengo County Jail on a $100,000 bond.

DPD Chief Tim Williams said the arrest was the 12th made by DPD undercover officers since the investigation began two years ago.

“We have an undercover unit that works on the Internet,” said Detective Sgt. Tim Soronen. “Mr. Sullins contacted one of our undercover officers who was portraying a 14-year-old female, struck up a conversation, and during the conversation, identified himself as a 52-year-old male. He was aware that he was dealing with a 14-year-old female. During that conversation, he transmitted obscene material to the ‘child’ — nude photos of himself — and also solicited the child for sex.

“After the conversations continued, he made arrangements to come to Demopolis. He wanted to come here, pick up the child and go have sex. He made arrangements to come this past Friday at a certain time and location, and at that time and location, he met up with investigators instead of a child. He met with myself and Chief Williams.”

Soronen said that this kind of undercover investigation is not considered to be entrapment, since the undercover officers do not entice or initiate any of the inappropriate behavior.

“Actually, we just have profiles that are out on the Internet,” Soronen said. “We don’t contact anybody. All of the contact is done by these people. They contact us first. Everything to do with solicitation is done by them. We let them set the tempo of the conversation. We let them suggest meeting. We don’t ask them to send us the photos; everything is initiated by these people. We’ve had people show up within two hours of the first contact on the Internet. They came to Demopolis within two hours of the first online contact.

“This is the 12th such arrest in less than two years, so it’s an ongoing problem, and we actually have this unit so we can deal with crimes against children. That’s one of my pet peeves, is that anyone would harm one of our children.”

“I’ve got two teenage daughters myself,” Williams said. “That’s a big pet peeve of mine, too.”

Soronen said that those who were arrested likely made contact with other real teenagers and may even have succeeded with what they intended.

“We’re trying to make it so scary for them to even go on the Internet and try to do this,” he said. “We’ll slow it down, and us making arrests is what’s going to do that. If they get online and there’s a good chance that they will contact the police instead of a child, they’ll probably try to do that a different way.

“They all know. During our conversations with these guys, they are all familiar with ‘Dateline: To Catch a Predator.’ They’ll bring that up; they’ll talk about it. They’ll ask us questions like — are we the police? Obviously, we’re not going to tell them, ‘Yeah, we’re the police.’”

“They’re thinking, in their mind, that we have to say ‘Yes,’” Williams said.

“They have the false impression that we have to tell them that we’re the police, or it’s entrapment,” Soronen said. “It doesn’t work like that. We don’t have to tell them that we’re the police. They’re the ones leading the conversation, not us. We don’t contact them; they contact us.

“Once they contact us, we will answer their questions. They’ll ask us for phone numbers; we’ll give them a phone number and they’ll call us on the phone. We’ll put people on there to talk with them sometimes.

“I’m a true believer that it’s a sickness,” he said, “and that they do need some help. We don’t want them to harm any of our children or take something away from our children that they can’t get back.”

Soronen said that the Marengo County District Attorney’s office contact them and said there was this problem in the county and asked the police what they could do about it.

“We did some research and saw how other agencies did this,” he said. “There is a federal task force that does this full-time, and we got a copy of their guidelines, and we’re real strict about the way we do it. We go by their guidelines to keep from being accused of entrapment. Most of it has been self-taught, but we follow those federal guidelines.”

“We want people to know that we’re not taking all of our time doing this,” Williams said. “We do this on our own time.”

“We’ll get people who say, ‘Don’t you have anything better to do?’” Soronen said. “And, unfortunately, there’s a percentage of the population that does not have a problem with what some of these guys are doing. But, we will continue.”

Soronen said that the DPD has had a very good percentage of prosecutions in the cases brought about by the investigation.

How can a person prevent these kinds of dangers from coming into the home through the computer line? Soronen recommends that children let their parents know when they have been asked something or told something inappropriate.

“But I don’t think it’s the teenagers,” Soronen said. “Teenagers are inquisitive; they’re going to try to look at whatever they can look at, and they may be worried about getting in trouble for going to a site that they may not have been allowed to go to.

“For the parents, the biggest thing is to guard against having open access to the computer. I have locks on my computer. My children have computers, but they can’t go to just any Web site. I have to approve that Web site through a password that I have logged in to my computer.

“Parents have to be — not so much controlling of their children, but just protective.” He said. “Know what your children are doing. I’m a firm believer in staying in your child’s life. There is no such thing as privacy in our house. If I want to go in my child’s room, I will go in my child’s room. When you get in your child’s life, that’s how you know what they’re doing, who their friends are, and you keep things from happening to them.”

“A lot of parents are just nave to this sort of thing,” Williams said, “that it doesn’t happen in Demopolis. Well, we’ve made 12 arrests where that does happen in Demopolis.”

It does happen in Demopolis, or Gallion, or Linden, or Myrtlewood. Anywhere there are children — from toddlers to teens – there can be predators using whatever means they can to get what they want. When these children go online, they need to be watchful of people they don’t know well to help prevent anything criminal from happening to them. The Demopolis Police Department undercover investigations will help keep the number of those incidents down by getting those predators offline and off the streets.