The texts were firing back and forth.
You’re OK that I’m 30?
Yes. You OK that I’m 13?
Yes. Just don’t tell anyone. That could get me into trouble.
Taking a proactive approach to the exploding problem of sexual predators using the Internet to prey on minors for illicit hookups, the Garden Grove PD in late December held a sting familiar to viewers of the 2005-2007 Dateline NBC “To Catch a Predator” reality TV series.
Cramped into a motel room, GGPD detectives, accompanied by federal agents and an O.C. sex crimes prosecutor, worked mobile phones and computers to engage in live chats with men who had responded to an ad on Craigslist from a female interested in meeting men.
Unknown to the men who responded to the GGPD-created ads in the “Casual Encounters” section of Craigslist, the person on the other end of the live chats was a Garden Grove PD sex crimes detective pretending to be a 13-year-old girl.
The above text exchange was among the least graphic of the chats, which became increasingly lurid as the suspects made their intentions clear over the course of the several-hours operation on Wednesday, Dec. 20.
In the reality TV series, host Chris Hansen confronted suspects who came to homes to meet with a decoy under the pretense of engaging in sex. After Hansen confronted them and grilled them, the suspects were arrested once they left the homes.
Similarly, the GGPD operation involved officers and federal agents who were ready to arrest any suspect who showed up at the motel after making it clear that their intention was to have sex with a person they believed to be 13.
Under California law, a person can be convicted of a felony and forced to become a registered sex offender for life for arranging a meeting with a minor for “lewd/lascivious purposes” — even if the person never actually engages in any sexual activity with the minor or even meets the minor.
The GGPD operation, overseen by Sgt. Ray Bex, was the brainchild of Detectives Lea Kovacs and Pete Garcia, who work in the Crimes Against Persons Unit.
They got the idea of staging a “To Catch a Predator”-like sting after undergoing, in May 2017, a week of training by federal authorities about how sexual predators use the Internet to exploit minors.
“To see the number of (sexual predators) on these websites, it’s crazy,” Garcia said.
After a trial operation in August 2017 that led to one arrest, the GGPD was ready to go again with its second operation of the year.
Well over a dozen law enforcement officers were involved in the Dec. 20 operation, including agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
In 2011, HSI joined the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and U.S. Postal Inspection Service in forming the Orange County Child Exploitation Task Force.
The goal: share information and resources to apprehend those who hurt children, as well as educate parents, law enforcement and the public to raise awareness about the dangers children face on the Internet and how to reduce those risks.
THE SET UP
Around 1 p.m. on the day of the operation, Garcia briefed participants about how it would go down.
Speaking in the briefing room of GGPD headquarters, he described how officers and agents would use two rooms at a Garden Grove motel.
One was the “arrest room,” where officers would huddle and take suspects into custody once they showed up.
Another nearby room would be used by Det. Kovacs to chat with the suspects. Also in that room would be a “decoy,” a very young-looking (but, in reality, 25-year-old) GGPD employee posing as the minor who would, at the request of the men she was chatting with, take selfies for Kovacs to send to them.
There would be other officers around the motel on foot and in undercover vehicles.
Garcia noted that men who usually meet minors for sex have a high chance of bringing weapons with them, and told the officers and agents to be on high alert.
The pretense of the operation was a 13-year-old girl was living at the motel and her mother was away and she wanted male companionship.
Once suspects started communicating with the girl on chat apps, detectives and other law enforcement officials would try to find information about the suspects based on what they told the supposed 13-year-old.
At first, typically, the suspects would be suspicious about whether the 13-year-old they thought they were chatting with was real.
Send me a pix holding something from your fridge
The decoy held up a bottle of Gatorade to partially obscure her face, stuck out her tongue and took a selfie.
Kovacs then texted the picture to the suspect, who seemed satisfied she was real.
One especially cautious suspect actually texted Kovacs that he felt he was being set up; that the conversation felt like something out of “To Catch a Predator.”
Kovacs brushed off the suggestion as ridiculous and remained quiet for a while.
Soon, the suspect resumed texting her and started becoming increasingly explicit in what sexual acts he wanted to engage in with her.
“Once they get tunnel vision (about having sex), there’s no stopping them,” said Deputy District Attorney Bobby Taghavi, a veteran prosecutor who was in the room with Kovacs to offer advice on how to respond to texts, as well as to ensure GGPD detectives were conducting the operation in a legally sound manner.
For example, Kovacs — pretending to be the 13-year-old — could not bring up the idea of having sex, Taghavi said. Once the suspect did, however, it was fair game, and she could be just as explicit as the suspects were in their sexual banter.
During the operation, Kovacs at one point was engaging in conversations with three men. One requested a picture of her favorite underwear. Another asked her if she was a virgin. Kovacs responded to the latter by telling him she’s done some sexual stuff but now was willing to do more.
One man in particular, a 31-year-old from Garden Grove, seemed especially eager to carry out the sordid — and criminal — rendezvous.
He told Kovacs he had a break between two jobs and wanted to drive the girl around in his truck and have sex.
He wanted her to answer the motel door in a sexy outfit.
She asked him to bring her a Mountain Dew.
He showed up at the motel at 5:27 p.m. in a Toyota Tacoma.
Immediately after he backed into a space facing the room the girl said she was staying in, he was surrounded by units. Officers trained their weapons on him as he slowly got out of the car.
Robert Phan, from Garden Grove, was wearing a gray long-sleeve shirt, baggy gym pants and tennis shoes.
Officers also found Phan to be in possession of a condom and a can of Mountain Dew.
Later during the operation, at around 9:30 p.m., officers arrested a second suspect who showed up at the motel.
Like Phan, Pedro Espino, 21, of Tustin was arrested and booked on suspicion of soliciting a sexual act from a minor.
After the operation ended that night, a third suspect, Yashas Behtoteh, 38, of Irvine, continued to text and chat with Kovacs through the following morning.
He ended up meeting with GGPD detectives at a McDonald’s and was taken into custody.
“The Detective Bureau is general viewed as a reactionary detail, an assignment, so to speak, that awaits an incident to happen and then addresses the criminal nature with investigative follow-up,” Bex said.
“Our Crimes Against Person’s Unit — more specifically, the Sexual Assault Detail — wanted to develop a preemptive measure that was proactive in its enforcement efforts to protect the community and put these predators in jail where they would be unable to victimize children.”
Bex said the GGPD plans to run at least two more similar stings in 2018.