In the decade since Dateline NBC's To Catch a Predator segments popularized Internet sex stings, more than 1,200 men in Florida have been arrested, accused of preying on underage teens and children for sex.
But as the stings put more and more men behind bars, detectives are working harder and harder to keep up their arrest numbers. And the tactics they're using to put alleged sexual offenders in jail are sweeping up large numbers of law-abiding men, too.
Many of the men whose mugshots sheriffs have been paraded in made-for-TV press conferences were not seeking to meet children online, according to a yearlong WTSP-TV investigation. Instead, they were looking for other adults when detectives started to persuade them to break the law.
Detectives used to post ads suggesting that an underage teen or child was available for sex but now routinely post more innocuous personal ads of adults on traditional dating sites.
When men, many of them younger than 25 with no criminal history, respond, officers switch the bait and typically indicate their age is really 14 or 15 years old. However, sometimes the storyline isn't switched until the men, who were looking for legal love, already start falling for an undercover agent.
Officers also now are responding to men's ads on dating sites like PlentyOfFish.com. After the men start online chats with people they think are adults, agents change the age they claim to be but try to persuade the men to continue the conversation anyway.
Other examples include undercover officers showing interest in a man then later introducing the idea of having sex with the agent's "child." If the men indicate they aren't interested, many still were arrested for talking to the adult.
Critics of the stings say the operations make for better press conferences than crime fighting. Many of the men charged with sexual-predator crimes see little jail time.
But when Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd was asked about overly aggressive detectives, he went on the offensive.
"The concern (I have) is that you inflate your investigative reporting to make it glitzy," he said.
Judges also have been critical of some tactics used in the stings, which violate Internet Crimes Against Children guidelines. Among the judges' comments in recent entrapment decisions:
It was the agent who repeatedly steered the conversation back to sexual activity with a minor.
"The government made a concerted effort to lure him into committing a crime."
" The undercover officer failed to follow the procedures."
"The law does not tolerate government action to provoke a law-abiding citizen to commit a crime."
The judge in one dismissed case criticized the undercover officer for failing to follow procedures, saying "the officer controlled the tone, pace and subject matter of online conversation, pushing toward a discussion of sexual activity."
Defense lawyer Anthony Ryan, who has a practice in Sarasota, Fla., just got a 23-year-old client's case dismissed in Manatee, Fla. A judge ruled that deputies entrapped his client, writing that their tactics had "no place in modern day law enforcement."
"They are really good at subtly turning conversations and normal statements into sexual innuendo — whether or not the other side intended that," Ryan said.
The blurring of legal and ethical lines has led many agencies such as the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and others in south Florida to focus their cybercrime resources in other areas such as child porn and sex trafficking.
Hillsborough and Pasco county detectives say those investigations yield better conviction rates and longer prison terms. They also provide law enforcement with additional leads.
"Any way you can take a sexual predator off the street is tremendous, especially those that are online looking at child pornography," said Sheriff Chris Nocco of Pasco County. "They may do something physically against a young little kid."
But predator stings are still alive in central Florida, operating under Judd, who is head of the Florida Sheriff's Task Force on Internet crimes against children.
Predator hunting is one sheriff's 'favorite topic'
Sheriff of Polk County since 2005, Judd has made it clear that targeting sexual predators is his top priority.
He called hunting predators his favorite topic at a recent press conference, and he has invited national media outlets along for some of the operations. His office's predator stings have been featured in three MSNBC specials as well as a recent CNN series.
But Judd has been much less forthcoming on how detectives lure targets and whether innocent men are getting swept up.
Judd has failed to provide information on the following issues, which are considered public records under Florida's Sunshine law:
• The language in the ads that detectives post.
• How detectives respond when innocent men show no interest in speaking to teens.
• Whether they see a problem of teens looking for adults online.
• How many men detectives contact before finding someone to investigate.
An overwhelming majority of men who communicate with detectives either end communication or report the undercover officer's activities to authorities, Judd said.
Judd maintains that the records are exempt from state open-records laws because all of the men are still under investigation because they may surface in future stings. However, that response indicates that Judd and other law-enforcement leaders who have used the same exemption to withhold requested records have investigations open on hundreds, maybe thousands, of men who legally communicated with adults on legal websites.
Judd also showed little concern for due process during a Tuesday press conference to tout arrests since March in predator-style stings. He pointed to 132 mugshots on a giant posterboard and called the men "sexual predators."
Some of the men already have been cleared of charges, he called them fair game
"We have a very liberal — a very forgiving — criminal justice system," Judd said.
The other victims of sheriffs' stings
Men who victimize children or look for underage victims online can't be excused.
However, it's easier to make a case for men swept up in stings when they were looking for adults online.
"(My son) was stalked by law enforcement for three days," said the mother of a 22-year-old arrested in one of the stings who asked not to be identified because of the stigma that the arrest has brought.
Her son was on Craiglist's personals pages looking to meet other adults. He responded to a no-strings-attached ad for a 26-year-old woman.
The story from the woman, really an undercover agent, changed a few times, including a claim that she was only 13, but he said he was skeptical.
He spoke on the phone to her and she sent a photo in which she was wearing a wedding ring. He said he was sure she was an adult — she was — so he made plans to meet her. When he arrived, he was arrested.
He later was sentenced to two years of house arrest and a lifetime as a registered sex offender.
"He had a life of promise. He had an education," his mother said. "That's all been shot."
Internet Crimes Against Children stings typically cost tens of thousands of dollars — sometimes close to $100,000 — and that doesn't include prosecuting and incarcerating defendants.
Light sentences sometimes are offered because suspects aren't considered dangerous offenders, contrary to Judd's claims.
Defense attorney Ryan adds that officers are pushing the boundaries to keep their arrest numbers up and keep federal grants flowing. And responding to legal ads on legal dating sites crosses the line.
"Once the low-hanging fruit is sort of gone, taken off the tree, there's still pressure from high above to justify these actions," he said.