SNOW HILL – Law enforcement officials are reminding parents of the dangers of the Internet after a year-long investigation resulted in charges against 21 men they are calling sexual predators.
Officials from the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office announced Thursday that through operation “Worcester Safety Net,” 21 men were arrested and charged after they attempted to engage in sexual contact with minors or used the Internet to share child pornography.
“The whole idea is to actually see what’s lurking in the shadows in the Internet,” said Sheriff’s Office Lt. Mike McDermott. “What we found was a terrible presence online of people willing to prey on our children. I think that’s terrifying for all of us.”
The year-long effort came about after the Worcester County Sherriff’s Office became the first law enforcement agency in the county to affiliate with the Internet Crimes Against Children task force, according to Detective Cpl. Alex Kagan of the Worcester County Bureau of Investigation. That partnership gave local law enforcement officials access to specialized training and equipment.
“The Sheriff’s Office was very forward-thinking in staying ahead of these cybercrimes,” Kagan said.
He said many of the men arrested had no criminal record and never would have been caught if it hadn’t been for Operation “Worcester Safety Net.”
Laiton Blake Witkowski, 42, was one of those. Kagan said the truck driver had been living in Stockton for years and, with no criminal history, was “under the radar.” The Sheriff’s Office investigation, however, revealed that large amounts of child pornography were being downloaded from his home. Investigators also determined that Witkowski had been abusing two local children. He was recently sentenced to 16 years in federal prison.
“In federal prison, you do the whole time,” Kagan said, adding that Witkowski would still be in the community if it hadn’t been for the Sheriff’s Office’s proactive efforts.
Kagan said another individual who wouldn’t have been identified if it hadn’t been for the investigation was OC Jamboree owner David Weatherholtz.
“This is an important example of why these investigations need to be done,” Kagan said. “A lot of times these crimes are going on undetected. This is cementing the fact that these crimes are going on and these types of predators are in the area and they’re hunting.”
Kagan said Weatherholtz used his business, a place he described as “Cracker Barrel meets Hee Haw,” to meet young boys. He said Weatherholtz was identified as a suspect after he placed an ad on a national website in search of a young male.
After Weatherholtz was arrested and his story made the news, Kagan said two victims came forward and said they were sexually assaulted by Weatherholtz when they were juveniles.
“This man was preying on young boys,” Kagan said. “I know there are more victims out there.”
Many of the men identified through the investigation caught law enforcement’s attention through their use of “peer-to-peer” file sharing networks to exchange child pornography.
“It allows you to connect to another person’s computer anonymously,” Kagan said.
Others were arrested after they used certain websites to meet children or to arrange to meet children. Millsboro resident Bruce Dennis Deforest, 70, was charged with solicitation of a minor after he arranged to meet with what he thought was a 13-year-old girl through a website.
“He showed up with a pickup truck with a bed in the back of it,” Kagan said.
Kagan said that while it was satisfying to arrest individuals intending to endanger children, the experience had been an eye-opener.
“It’s something you can’t really prepare yourself for,” he said.
McDermott said the reason his office wanted to share news of the arrests was to discourage others from preying on children.
“This is fair warning that we’re out there,” he said. “We’re monitoring. That’s the message.”
While the Sheriff’s Office does have an Internet presence, McDermott stressed that parents still needed to keep a close eye on their children’s use of technology. He said parents should know the passwords to all their kids’ devices and should check them regularly.
“That needs to be an open book,” he said. “That’s a parent’s responsibility. We need parents to be engaged because that’s the first line of defense.”
Kagan agreed. He said that for every person that was charged with solicitation of a minor during the investigation there were five or six individuals who engaged in conversation with the supposed 13-year-old girl and did not follow through with a meeting. He says it’s just a matter of time until they do.
“It’s a matter of time before they become hands-on offenders themselves,” Kagan said.
Individuals charged through Operation “Worcester Safety Net” included Jason Gregory Root, 37, possession of child pornography and possession of child pornography with intent to distribute; Laiton Blake Witkowski, 42, possession of child pornography, producing child pornography; Jose Cano-Lopez, 21, possession and distribution of child pornography; Darrell Lee Richardson, 55, possession of obscene matter; David Brynan Kerstetter, 55, possession and distribution of child pornography; Scott Allen Woodgeard, 35, charges pending; David Curtis Andrews, 51, possession and distribution of child pornography; Ernest Patterson, 44, charges pending; Carlos Edwin Mejia, 35, solicitation of a minor, solicitation for prostitution; Bruce Dennis Deforest, 70, solicitation of a minor; John Edward McGee III, 25, solicitation of a minor; Dwayne Turley, 41, charges pending; James Russell Moore III, 41, solicitation of a minor; Pedro Josue Jimenez Cedillo, 23, solicitation of a minor; Brandon Murry Ehrisman, 27, solicitation of a minor; Richard Thomas Peters, 39, solicitation of a minor; Quinton Purnell Bell, 50, solicitation of a minor; Frank Leroy Buccini, 21, solicitation of a minor; Miguel Valderas, 23, solicitation of a minor; David Edward Weatherholtz, 55, solicitation of a minor, sex abuse of a minor, second-degree assault, perverted practice, fourth-degree sex offense, sodomy and false imprisonment; and Richard Lee Maloy, 41, solicitation of a minor.