The state’s attorney general, Gurbir Grewal, is cracking down on 24 men who were allegedly lurking on social networks looking for vulnerable underage boys and girls to sexually assault.
The conversations took place over several weeks on popular messaging apps like Whisper, Kik, and Chat Avenue. Officials say the men were told they were talking to 14- or 15-year-olds. Still, all 24 defendants allegedly made plans to meet the children for sex.
What these men didn’t realize was behind those keyboards weren’t children, but undercover officers.
“These alleged child predators traveled near and far hoping to find their underage and unguarded victims home alone. One man, defendant Nandalall, came all the way from the Bronx, New York — over 90 miles,” said Veronica Allende, director of the Division of Criminal Justice.
Dozens of law enforcement officers and evidence technicians were waiting for many of them at a staged home in Toms River.
“They were promptly placed under arrest, and in some cases, they were placed under arrest by the very officer who portrayed the child they targeted for sex,” said Allende.
Among the people arrested was a Howell Township police sergeant.
“Richard Conte, who we allege betrayed his oath and his badge. Conte claimed during his chats that he was a 19-year-old male, believing that he was chatting with a 15-year-old girl. He allegedly said that he had had sex with underage girls and wanted to meet the girl to ‘get naked.’ He had condoms in his pocket when he was arrested,” Grewal said.
In this group, we’re told there is also a nurse, college students, a firefighter and a registered sex offender.
“It’s absolutely critical that parents familiarize themselves with these apps. Just as you are vigilant about a stranger approaching your child in the park, you need to be equally, if not more, vigilant about the dangerous lurking in these new cyber playgrounds,” Grewal said.
“A lot of these apps, their strength is anonymity, so their anonymous nature allows people not to put their exact information in there,” said Lt. John Pizzuro, ICAC commander in the State Police’s Digital Technology Investigation Unit.
Officials warn that child predators will spend countless hours trying to build a rapport with their victims.
“The other thing we’re trying to highlight is monitor their activity because you have apps and games that also have chat functions that predators now use to target children playing these games,” Grewal said. “We want child predators to know that we are on social media too, and that the next child they may target may be an undercover officer waiting for them with handcuffs.”
All 24 defendants have been charged with second degree luring as a result of Operation Open House. Many also face additional charges.