Thursday, January 8th, 2009
Area online child predator sting leads to arrests
By Shelley Grieshop
St. Marys Police Patrolman Brian Christopher prepares to go online as part of an. . .
ST. MARYS - Six men have been arrested in the last 12 months - including one from St. Henry - after allegedly seeking sex with a teen they met online, who turned out to be an undercover police officer.
The men, who range in age from 31 to 50, were apprehended as part of an ongoing sting operation by the St. Marys Police Department. A police officer pretends to be an online teen and lures sexual predators to a location where they think they are going to have sex with this teen.
Arrested in the past year were: Francis "Frank" J. Harmer, 33, 441 N. Linn St., St. Henry; Grant M. Wisener, 42, of Wapakoneta; Adam W. Hittle, 31, of Troy; Jonathan A. Tschopp, 29, of Maineville; Kevin G. McKinnon, 50, of New Concord; and Steven T. McFarland, 48, of Lowell.
All were charged with at least one count of importuning, a fifth-degree felony, for seeking sex with a minor. Harmer, who is a former Minor League baseball player, also was cited for drug possession. The name of the drug was not released.
Upon conviction of importuning, suspects must register their address with the sheriff's office each year for 15 years and their neighbors will be notified that a sexual predator lives nearby.
Hittle was the first to be arrested in February 2007 - just one month after the sting began - after driving from his home in Troy through a snowstorm to have sex with who he thought was going to be a young girl, Police Chief Greg Foxhoven said.
"The drive inside these people is so powerful," Foxhoven said.
The police department decided to go public with their operation after several news reporters questioned some of the court cases. Foxhoven said announcing the undercover operation will likely scare away some online suspects.
"Sadly, it'll only be temporary," he added.
The local operation is similar to the popular television series "Dateline NBC," which lures suspected child predators to a suburban home where they are interviewed and subsequently arrested.
St. Marys Police Patrolman Brian Christopher said almost daily he logs onto various chatrooms posing as a juvenile boy or girl and within minutes gets hits. Some bloggers just want to talk while others waste no time soliciting sex, he said.
"I don't solicit anything or even have to say anything," he explained.
Foxhoven said some guys are very straight forward and many use Web cameras to send live photos of themselves "in various states of undress" adding crude remarks. The suspects come in all ages and social circles, investigators said.
"You think you've seen it all, then you see this," said Christopher, adding most of the online predators are male.
Christopher underwent training and continues to receive more on how to successfully convince a would-be predator that he is a young girl or boy. Although they won't reveal specific techniques, investigators say they use log-on times and chatroom dialect that would fit a teen, not an officer of the law.
"They (online predators) try to gain your trust, they have to think you're real," he said.
One of the first things child predators ask for is a photo, Christopher said. With permission, the officers send pictures of young girls who are now adults.
Christopher has received numerous hits from people all over the country but the department decided initially to focus on those living close to the Grand Lake area.
"We don't want to bring perverts here from other areas," Foxhoven said.
He said it was shocking to find out how many local people solicited themselves to youngsters online.
"We had a boatload of people from Mercer County," he said.
When asked why the department decided to get involved in this specific Internet crime, Foxhoven said it was a chance they couldn't pass up.
"In law enforcement, we don't get to be pro-active very often," he said. "We don't want to wait to hear from the victim when we can stop this before (the crime) ever happens."
Six face charges in sting:
Court cases are ongoing for the six men arrested in the Internet sex sting operation by the St. Marys Police Department. Listed below are the current status of those cases.
• Francis "Frank" Harmer, 33, of St. Henry, was arrested Dec. 27 for importuning and drug possession. A preliminary hearing is set for Tuesday in Auglaize County Municipal Court. His case likely will be presented to a grand jury and bound over to common pleas court, authorities said. He was released on a $25,000 bond with conditions such as no contact with minor children except members of his family and no access to the Internet.
He claimed indigency but the court found him financially able to hire an attorney.
• Steven T. McFarland, 48, of Lowell, was arrested Jan. 1 for importuning and was released on a $10,000 bond; a preliminary hearing is Jan. 16. His case also is expected to go to a grand jury.
• Grant M. Wisener, of Wapakoneta, was arrested March 2 for importuning. He pleaded guilty to the charge and was sentenced in October to five years probation, 10 days jail and a $1,000 fine. Jail was suspended after five days. He must register as a sex offender for 15 years.
• Adam W. Hittle, 31, of Troy, was arrested Feb. 12 for two counts of importuning; one count was dismissed at sentencing in July, when he pleaded guilty to the single charge and was ordered to serve one year in prison. He, too, must register as a sex offender for 15 years. He was granted early prison release in October but can have no Internet access, no contact with minors except family members and no nudity-oriented materials in his possession.
• Jonathan A. Tschopp, 49, of Maineville, was arrested Sept. 2 for importuning. He initially pleaded not guilty, however, a plea change hearing is set for Friday.
• Kevin G. McKinnon, 50, of New Concord, was arrested Sept. 10 for importuning. A pretrial hearing is set for Jan. 30. He is free on bond but must have no Internet access except on his work computer on restricted hours, no contact with juveniles except his grandchildren and must be home each evening.
- Shelley Grieshop