Updated at 1:50 p.m.
TRENTON, NJ – Arrests have been made in a massive operation that targeted sex offenders and persons possessing child pornography. The arrests were announced Friday morning by Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino.
The arrests of 79 alleged child predators and child pornography offenders, who stretched from New Jersey to California, were part of “Operation Safety Net,” a nine-month, multi-agency child protection initiative led by the New Jersey Regional Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force.
Postal worker Kevin Groeger, 63, of Cranford, was among those arrested.
Groeger allegedly had more than 2,000 files of suspected child pornography. He is charged with third-degree possession of child pornography and second-degree distribution of child pornography.
The second-degree distribution charge carries a sentence of five to 10 years in prison, and, if convicted of distributing more than 25 files, there would be a mandatory minimum term of five years of parole ineligibility.
Third-degree charges carry a sentence of three to five years in prison. If he is convicted of possessing more than 100 files, there is a presumption he will go to prison, even if he has no prior criminal record.
On July 21, 2017, Governor Christie signed a new law which will take effect Feb. 1, 2018, and will further enhance penalties for possession and distribution of child pornography.
The new law expanded the definition of child pornography to include child erotica. In addition, the new law makes it a first-degree crime to distribute 1,000 or more items depicting the sexual exploitation of a child, with a mandatory parole ineligibility period of one-third to one-half of the sentence imposed.
The new law also makes it a first-degree crime to possess 100,000 or more items of child pornography, and a second-degree crime to possess anywhere between 1,000 and 99,999. Under the new law, videos depicting the sexual exploitation of a child will count more heavily than still images, each counting for 10 images.
“The individuals who share this horrific material will not stop unless they are apprehended and removed from the public,” Colonel Patrick Callahan, Acting Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, said. “The nine-month investigation conducted by the New Jersey Regional Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and partnering agencies has ensured that children throughout the country will not fall victim to the actions of these depraved individuals. These arrests should put anyone looking to engage in this behavior on notice that law enforcement will be relentless in our efforts to put them behind bars.”
Those arrested in Operation Safety Net included 10 “hands-on” offenders, including child predators in California and Indiana who allegedly tried to have children transported interstate from New Jersey by adult traffickers so they could have sex with the children; four men in New Jersey who allegedly sought to lure children for sex; a camp counselor who allegedly sexually assaulted a girl, 14, under his supervision; a youth minister who allegedly sent lewd photos of himself to a young girl; and a man, 24, who allegedly used a phone app to record underage girls performing sex acts on themselves.
Those arrested also included numerous defendants, ranging in age from 14 to 75, who allegedly amassed and/or distributed large collections of child pornography, including a Trenton police officer, a swimming coach, a piano teacher, an IT professional from Morris County who allegedly had over 138,000 files of suspected child pornography (possibly over one million), a mechanic from Mercer County who allegedly had over 10,000 files of child porn, and three brothers in Cumberland County who allegedly had nearly 5,000 files of child pornography.
“The men we arrested lurked in the shadows of the internet and social media, looking for opportunities to sexually assault young children or to view such unspeakable assaults by sharing child pornography,” Porrino said. “We set up a wide safety net in this operation to snare these alleged predators and to protect children, which remains our highest priority. With our new mobile forensics lab and electronics-sniffing dog, we’re even better equipped to uncover the evidence that will keep these offenders behind bars, where they cannot threaten or further exploit vulnerable victims.”
The operation was conducted by the ICAC Task Force, which is led by the New Jersey State Police and includes the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice (DCJ), U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), all 21 County Prosecutors’ Offices.
Partnering agencies targeted sex offenders who exploited the internet and social media, making arrests in every New Jersey county and deploying, for the first time, a new van equipped as a mobile cyber forensics lab, as well as a new canine trained to sniff out electronic devices, to assist in the execution of search warrants.
“I want to thank all of the many agencies and individuals who participated in this massive, unprecedented and highly collaborative effort to protect our children and communities in New Jersey and elsewhere,” Porrino added.
Porrino made the announcement at the Hamilton Tech Center with DCJ Director Elie Honig, Acting State Police Superintendent Colonel Patrick Callahan, Supervisory Special Agent Craig Vanderhoff of HSI Human Trafficking/Child Exploitation Group, Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo Onofri, Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon Tyner and representatives of other participating agencies. The Division of Criminal Justice exhibited its new cyber forensics van, and the State Police showcased its new electronics detection dog, Mega, both of which contributed greatly to the success of Operation Safety Net.
“We’ve made these proactive child protection investigations a top priority by adding more staff for them at the state level and considerable new resources, including the mobile forensics lab and electronics detection dog,” Honig said. “There’s no question that by collaborating across all levels of law enforcement and arresting these offenders, we protected innocent children who might otherwise have been sexually abused and exploited. We’ve also ensured that all these men who victimized children – or re-victimized them by viewing child pornography – will face justice.”
In addition to investigating numerous cyber tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the ICAC Task Force in Operation Safety Net conducted proactive investigations to apprehend offenders by monitoring peer-to-peer file-sharing networks and identifying the IP addresses of individuals sharing child pornography. Detectives also conducted undercover chat investigations on social media platforms, which led to arrests of alleged hands-on offenders and defendants attempting to lure children.
Two proactive investigations initiated by the New Jersey State Police extended beyond New Jersey’s borders – with assistance from other state and federal authorities – to apprehend defendants charged with allegedly attempting to arrange the interstate trafficking of young children for sex:
Eight other defendants were arrested in New Jersey in Operation Safety Net on charges related to various types of alleged “hands-on” conduct, including sexual assault, luring a child, conveying obscene materials to a child, and manufacturing child pornography.
Operation Safety Net made extensive use of two key new tools: an electronics detection canine and a mobile forensics van. Both contributed greatly to the success of the operation. As electronic devices become smaller and easier to hide, the importance of dogs trained to detect them increases.
There are thumb drives available that are hidden in or disguised as cuff links, bracelets, LEGO blocks, coins and other everyday items. Throughout the operation, the canine was used at State Police and Division of Criminal Justice (DCJ) search warrant scenes. The canine was used for a preliminary walk-through and would identify devices and loose electronic storage media not in plain view. The detectives would then thoroughly search the area where that evidence was found to ensure all digital evidence was recovered.
Rapid triage of computers at search sites – also called forensic previewing – is a critical component of child pornography investigations. Such forensic previewing can result in the immediate arrest of individuals who otherwise might be left to continue direct illicit sexual contact with minors, preventing further abuse of victims. The previewing of computers at search sites has often had to occur in close proximity to the alleged perpetrator and often in potentially dangerous environments.
To maintain the integrity of the evidence gathering process, it is important for the forensic examiner to have the proper equipment to work with and the proper environment to work in. For these reasons, DCJ purchased a customized van, equipped with the appropriate desks and electrical and other equipment, which is used on-site for the forensic previewing of computers and computer-related equipment. This van enabled detectives in Operation Safety Net to safely examine suspected devices within the van and conduct more extensive previews at the scene, increasing the number of charges carrying enhanced penalties.
The charges against the defendants in Operation Safety Net are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.