DENVER -- Protecting children from online predators is the top priority for an exclusive team of local police who stop criminals in their tracks.
An exclusive squad of Arapahoe County undercover officers monitors the Internet for questionable conversations, invites the perpetrator for an exchange and then busts suspects on the street.
“Let me see your hands. Get down on the ground. Get down on the ground,” Sergeant Bruce Peterson yelled at a suspect who was at a hotel in Englewood to meet a 14-year-old girl for sex.
Peterson, an Arapahoe County investigator, said Cody Craven is the worst kind of criminal. “This adult person had talked a child into meeting at a hotel for sex,” Peterson said.
Craven, a decorated U.S. Marine, admitted he was there to have sex with a teenager he met online.
Peterson asked, “What are you doing here Cody?” The Marine answered, “I was here to meet up and have some sex.”
Craven had no idea that he had been chatting with an undercover deputy posing as a girl named “Lillie.”
FOX31 Denver was at the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office when Craven first made contact with a deputy posing as “Lillie.”
It’s easy for Internet predators to find their victims online. Peterson said, “Just by looking at Facebook or other social media they can pretty quickly convince a real 13-year-old girl, 'hey I know you … we used to go to school together' or 'we have friends who know each other… and I’m a 12-year-old girl.' When really I’m a 50-year-old male sexual predator.”
What starts as innocent chatting can lead to sexual assault. “I couldn’t believe it. I was angry. I was hurt,” said a Colorado mother whose son was assaulted by an online predator.
The mother’s 12-year-old son was playing computer games when he was contacted by someone he thought was a 15-year-old boy.
It turns out his online playmate was really 34-year-old sex offender Andrew Hartung of Seattle. Hartung convinced the boy to send him pictures of his genitals. For this Colorado mother, the red flags were raised too late. “You try so hard to do the best you can and protect … and I really feel like I failed.”
Arapahoe County prosecutor Leora Joseph said Internet luring is one of the fastest growing crimes in Colorado and across the country.
Joseph said, “It’s scary as a parent and it’s hard to know how we can prevent this. The technology is so much more advanced than most parents are.”
She said there are ways to learn more about who your kids are talking to online. “You have 657 friends on Facebook? How is that possible when you are 14. Really, how’s that possible? Ask, let’s go through them one night. Make that a fun game … tell me all your friends, who are these people?” Joseph said.
The prosecutor recommends that you know your kids’ accounts and passwords and make sure they know they can come to you without consequences. Joseph said, “A lot of times these kids are afraid. They get into these conversations over their head and then they feel stuck. They feel like their phone will get taken away. They feel like their parents will ground them.”
Craven may never serve any jail time. Colorado law allows for probation in many Internet sex crime cases. Some court orders in these cases prevent violators from using a computer. If they are caught they can face additional charges.
The Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office has arrested 16 people for Internet luring so far this year.
Sheriff Dave Walcher said busting online predators is a top priority and that is why he is dedicating a full time unit to the job.
The mother we spoke to said there needs to be more resources for victims like peer counseling groups for children.