You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Operation April Fools nets 22 Marion County men accused of soliciting sex from kids online

Ocala StarBanner logo Ocala StarBanner 4/6/2022 Austin L. Miller, Ocala Star-Banner
Sheriff Billy Woods speaks during a press conference on Tuesday at the Marion County Sheriff's Office in Ocala. © Austin L. Miller/Ocala Star-Banner Sheriff Billy Woods speaks during a press conference on Tuesday at the Marion County Sheriff's Office in Ocala.

Law enforcement officials have arrested 22 men and are searching for five more in connection with an online child sex sting operation that wrapped up over the weekend.

Authorities said 22 of the 27 men charged in Operation April Fools are local residents. The other five are from Georgia and New York; officials said they have issued warrants for their arrests.

Those detained and booked into the Marion County Jail were ages 21 to 61. The charges included traveling to meet a minor, soliciting a person believed by the defendant to be a child for unlawful sexual contact, transmission of material harmful to minors by electronic device or equipment, and unlawful use of a two-way communications device.

Among those arrested were a state Department of Corrections officer, the son of an Ocala City Council member and a vendor for the local school district.

Court: Last defendant sentenced in Marion County sting aimed at people soliciting minors online

Behind bars: Guilty plea in Marion County: 2-year prison term for online soliciting of child for sex

Half a century: Man, 55, sentenced to 50 years for sex offense on teen

Related Facebook post

Shared from Facebook

City Council President Ire Bethea's son, Ire Jr., 38, is charged with traveling to meet a minor, soliciting a person believed by the defendant to be a child for unlawful sexual contact, unlawful use of a two-way communications device, and human trafficking.

The elder Bethea declined to comment. Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods said his heart goes out to the elder Bethea, but not the man's son. 

Victor Cruz Jr., 23, is a corrections officer at Marion Correctional Institution (MCI), a state prison for men located north of Ocala. He is charged with traveling to meet a minor, soliciting a person believed by the defendant to be a child for unlawful sexual conduct, unlawful use of a two-way communications device, and human trafficking.

MCI is located at 3269 NW 105th St. An email was sent to state officials seeking comment. They said they received the message and will be in touch.

A third individual, Wesley Hicks, was charged with traveling to meet a minor, soliciting a person believed by the defendant to be a child for unlawful sexual conduct, and unlawful use of a two-way communications device. 

Those connected to the operation said the 44-year-old man was a contractor for the Marion County school district. A spokesman for the district noted that contractors are not school employees, and they're subjected to a statewide background check. In situations such as this, the spokesperson said, the person's badge would be flagged so he or she cannot enter the school premises.

Sheriff Billy Woods explains the operation

At a press conference held Tuesday, Woods said Operation April Fools lasted six days: March 28-April 2.

During the online exchanges, the defendants engaged in sexually explicit conversations and even described sex acts they wanted to do with the minors when they met in person, officials said.

Those snagged in the operation thought they were communicating with juveniles and planning to meet with juveniles to have sex. Instead, when they arrived, they were met by law enforcement officials. The ones arrested did not know that law enforcement officials had been on the other side of the computer.

Woods said the solicitation came from the individuals arrested, not the operation's organizers.

Law enforcement participants in the operation were the MCSO; the Ocala, Belleview and Dunnellon police departments; the U.S. Secret Service; the Florida Department of Law Enforcement; and the U.S. Marshals Service. 

Examples of the alleged conduct 

The sheriff gave examples of what authorities encountered while talking to the men.

One of them thought he was going to meet a 12-year-old quadriplegic for sex. Another wanted a juvenile to meet him naked in the middle of a field.

Woods warns parents to know what their children are doing on the internet. Pointing to the pictures of the arrested men displayed not far from him, Woods said he's not proud of the fact that these predators are living in the community.

He said what they do is evil, and that type of evil never rests or takes a break.

Woods said these kinds of activities occur daily and it's very important that parents and guardians keep tabs on their children.

Contact Austin L. Miller at austin.miller@starbanner.com

This article originally appeared on Ocala Star-Banner: Operation April Fools nets 22 Marion County men accused of soliciting sex from kids online

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from Ocala StarBanner

Ocala StarBanner
Ocala StarBanner
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon