'I like your profile. Let's chat.' How police use undercover sex stings to bust suspects
The social media post in June 2019 had a specific goal: Its language was commonly used among people who seek children for sexual purposes.
In Scranton, Pennsylvania, James Obelkevich, a married 50-year-old mechanic, gave a brief reply to the message: "Hi. I like your profile. Let's chat."
At the time, investigators say, Obelkevich believed he was chatting with the parent of two girls ages 9 and 13 — not the undercover law enforcement officer at the other end of the internet connection. Over the course of six months, Obelkevich allegedly exchanged messages with the intent of arranging a meeting to have sex with two children.
"Are you actually serious about meeting and doing this?" the undercover officer, posing as the girls' parent, messaged him.
"As long as there is no trouble," Obelkevich allegedly replied.
Over the past two years, federal agents have been stepping up their search for these types of offenders: Defendants who are arrested in undercover stings and charged with federal crimes like coercion or enticement of a minor.
In recent cases, the suspect is unknowingly chatting with a police officer. Other prosecutions spring from complaints about direct online contact between a child and an adult, but for law enforcement officials, these complex investigations have required evolving tactics.
"We're really looking for those hands-on offenders … honing in on people willing to take it beyond images and videos to get their hands on children," said Supervisory Special FBI Agent Don Zumpano, of the federal Crimes Against Children Squad and Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Force.
Online enticement cases have been the subject of multiple federal prosecutions in recent years. In 2009, then 32-year-old Binghamton resident Mark McGrath used a computer at the Broome County Public Library to create a fake MySpace account and pose as a 15-year-old girl who attended East Middle School in order to engage in sexual conversations with minors. McGrath was later sentenced to a decade in federal prison.
More recently, in 2018, federal authorities charged former Cooperstown teacher Justin Hobbie, who posed as a teenage boy to converse with underage girls online. He's serving 16 years in federal prison.
But law enforcement agents in recent years have stepped up their use of undercover stings in these cases, and using those tactics over the past year, they have netted at least a half-dozen arrests on federal charges in the Southern Tier of New York. Some defendants are awaiting sentencing and others, like Obelkevich, are awaiting trial.
These investigations often involve law enforcement documenting online exchanges with perpetrators, typically with the undercover officer posing as a parent, until they arrange to meet for a sexual encounter with the child.
Once the suspect arrives at the prearranged location, they are taken into custody.
"These are opportunists, just like every other criminal," Zumpano said, and their goal to build up the conversation toward that eventual meeting intended to have sexual contact with a child.
Undercover stings: What are the legal challenges
It's fairly simple and believable for an FBI agent to pose as a parent of a child and talk to another adult or parent in order to establish a rapport to determine whether that person poses an active threat, said Adam Wandt, an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and an expert on cybercrimes.
In these undercover cases, he said, the defendant isn't being tricked into committing a crime.
"Entrapment involves taking somebody who wouldn't normally do this activity and encouraging them and enticing them to do this type of activity," said Wandt, who is also an attorney. In these cases, he said, law enforcement agents set themselves up specifically to find perpetrators who were already looking to engage in illegal sex acts.
These types of undercover sting cases could afford fewer legal hurdles for law enforcement to overcome than those involving downloading of child porn, which federal authorities also frequently investigate.
Often, Wandt said, child porn cases require law enforcement to prove not only who was downloading the illegal images, but also that the person knowingly did so.
When it comes to undercover child sting investigations, Wandt said perpetrators are offered an opportunity to conduct illegal behavior and "there is no doubt that when 'Suspect X' shows up, he is ready to commit this crime."
How children can avoid becoming victims
Most of the time, the chat starts out relatively benign.
A message pops up in a social media chat or other online forum, asking about a young person's family dynamic, what they're up to at school or questions about their friends.
The messages could play on the minor's personal troubles, conflicts with parents, and expressing empathy with the young person's struggles.
Perpetrators sometimes pose as minors themselves online in order to gain access. Just because someone shares a picture that looks like they're young, that doesn't mean it's the case, said Raini Baudendistel, Executive Director of the Crime Victims Assistance Center in Binghamton.
But young people can be so comfortable with social media, they might not think twice about sharing information.
"If these individuals can get online and start that grooming process ... to see who the vulnerable ones they can have casual conversations with," Zumpano said, "they may determine 'this one is the weak link.'"
Federal prosecutors in Binghamton said this type of scenario played out when Hobbie, the 42-year-old former Cooperstown teacher, posed as a teenage boy to coerce three girls — one was 17 and two were 14 at the time — to send him sexual images and videos through the Kik Messenger and Snapchat apps for about three years until 2018.
Children typically have to come forward to someone they trust — a parent, teacher, caregiver, or member of law enforcement in order to get some degree of justice, according to law enforcement officials.
"There's an added challenge because it's just so much easier for adults to access young people and I think there comes a point where people feel like they're too far in or they don't want to seek help, or they are embarrassed because they got to that place," Baudendistel said. "I would just say (to victims), we're not here to judge you. We just want to help you."
Who has been charged in the Southern Tier
People have traveled between states, even booked with airlines, in order to meet for an arranged sexual encounter with a child, according to law enforcement officials.
Among the recent undercover sting arrests in the Southern Tier are a Harpursville man who exchanged social media chats with a 13-year-old girl in Wyoming County, New York in order to meet for a sexual encounter.
Their meeting in a park near the girl's home was broken up when a family member intervened and after the girl's parent reported the incident to authorities, FBI agents took the suspect, 33-year-old David Lettieri, into custody.
A former social worker for Greater Southern Tier BOCES, 39-year-old Jacob Gorman of Waverly, is awaiting a federal prison term for attempting to engage in sex acts with a child in Broome County.
The U.S. Attorney's Office said he exchanged text messages with an undercover officer between Aug. 11 and Aug. 27, in which he expressed an interest in meeting the child for sexual purposes. During those chats, Gorman negotiated a price he was willing to pay for sex with the child if they met.
How victims can get help
Here are some Southern Tier programs available to help victims and how to reach them:
- The 24-hour Binghamton-area Crime Victims Assistance Center Crisis Line: 607-722-4256, available seven days a week.
- The First Step Victim Services Program is available in Chemung and Schuyler counties by calling its 24/7 Hotline: 607-742-9629.
- The Chemung County Safe Harbour Program: 607-737-2907.
- The Sexual Assault Resource Center, which serves Chemung, Steuben and Schuyler counties: 1–888–810–0093 .
Here are some recommendations from the FBI for parents:
- Review and approve games and apps before they are downloaded.
- Make sure privacy settings are set to the strictest level possible for online gaming systems and electronic devices.
- Monitor your children’s use of the internet; keep electronic devices in an open, common room of the house.
- Check your children’s profiles and what they post online.
- Explain to your children that images posted online will be permanently on the internet.
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