SIKESTON -- The Internet can be a toxic resource when it comes to children and teenagers. It offers games, entertainment and networking, but also opens the doors to danger by allowing direct access with strangers who could lead them into harmful situations.
A recent operation by the Sikeston Department of Public Safety proved just how risky chat rooms and other social networking on the Web can be. "We're doing periodic checks on chat rooms," said Capt. Mark Crocker. "We're checking in to see who's trolling for the kids."
DPS personnel posed as 12- to 14 year-old girls and waited for people to contact them, Crocker said.
"This is no different than undercover drug officers," Crocker said.
And the results were astonishing. "It's almost scary the number of hits (the officers) would come up with," he said. "We're really trying to watch it and make sure it's not happening in the community."
As a result of the undercover work, three men are now in Circuit Court, according to Scott County Prosecutor Paul Boyd. One man is from Morley, the other two are from the St. Louis area.
Crocker said the officers and detectives posing as young girls tried to only chat with people from the Southeast Missouri area. "We didn't want people traveling -- that's almost like inviting them into your community," he said.
But it seemed that most of the men conversing with personnel were from metropolitan areas including St. Louis, Columbia and Kansas City.
According to complaints filed by the prosecutor, the charges on the suspects include enticement of a child and attempts to commit statutory rape.
All suspects were found to be carrying condoms. One man also brought alcohol and a switch blade knife; and one possessed cocaine, marijuana and two pornographic movies. The men were asked to meet in a Sikeston location before going to a hotel to have sex.
There were more than three conversations, but the alleged predators had to do more than talk to be charged -- there had to be intent. "We need them to show up in our jurisdiction," Boyd said. "Following through is the 'nail in the coffin.'"
Although DPS officers and detectives were the ones to pose online, Boyd also got a look at the action. He and an assistant spent one evening observing the operation.
"It was very troubling to watch this and how these individuals tried to play the officers," he said, adding that the men were playing on feelings such as power and subjugation.
A common question was "ALS" -- age, location, sex -- Crocker said. Some also asked if they were talking to the police. "They can be very convincing and conniving," he added.
For the most part, Crocker said the DPS was trying to see "what's out there and what (people) are looking for."
The persistence of the men was unique, Crocker said. "They knew (the children) were 14 or under and they were determined to get down here to have some type of sex with them," he said.
At times, the posers attempted to stop the conversation and ask the person to leave them alone, but the other person in the conversation would persist.
Some of the men would try to entice more than one person at a time, too. "They may jump from one right to another," Crocker said, explaining the men would carry on a conversation with several girls or who they believed to be girls, at the same time. "At one time, we had one guy hitting on three of the people posing as underage girls."
Men from the Southeast Missouri area didn't appear to be as aggressive as those from metropolitan areas. Crocker said that may be due to learning the 'girl' was from Sikeston, perhaps because they were scared it may be someone they knew.
Crocker said he was astounded by some of the pictures exchanged. "Full nude pictures wouldn't be that uncommon," he said. He was also surprised that some were willing to travel 150 to 200 miles in order to meet with an underage girl.
Because the DPS is planning more investigations in the future, Crocker declined to give more details about the nature of the investigation and procedures.