Patrick J. Naughton, the former leader of Walt Disney Co.'s online efforts who last week was arrested on sex charges by the FBI, couldn't seem to avoid undercover agents in the seedy chat rooms he is accused of frequenting.
Just last month, he had at least two undercover agents competing for his virtual affections. Both were posing as 13-year-old girls from Los Angeles, and both were coyly traipsing through a chat room known to be a place where older men solicit underage girls like wolves trolling for Little Red Riding Hoods.
FBI officials say it's possible he was also unwittingly carrying on with undercover agents from other FBI offices around the country. Hundreds of officers conduct identical stings every day on behalf of agencies ranging from the U.S. Customs Service to the Redondo Beach Police Department.
Whether the Internet has truly spawned more pedophiles, molesters and other sexual predators is debatable. But there is little doubt that the Internet has become law enforcement's favorite tool for catching them.
Agents posing as teens almost certainly outnumber actual teens in many of the Internet's seedier chat rooms these days. And though would-be sexual predators are surely aware of this ploy, the number of them stepping into these digital traps continues to soar.
The 34-year-old Seattle resident is just one of roughly 230 suspects nationwide targeted by the FBI for alleged attempts to solicit sex from minors just in the past six months.
Earlier this week, charges were filed against an El Toro High School math teacher and longtime wrestling coach alleging that he used the Internet to arrange a meeting for sex with a person he thought was a 13-year-old girl.
Enoch "Jerry" Jarrett, 50, was arrested last week by the FBI's Sex Assault Felony Enforcement team, a spokeswoman said. He is free on a $50,000 bond and is set to be arraigned Oct. 7 in West Los Angeles Municipal Court.
The 230 cases are more than double the number from all of last year, illustrating the growth in the Internet as a hangout for sexual predators.
Heavy Online Focus, Offline Problem
No one argues that trying to protect children from online predators is not worth the effort. But given that only a small fraction of molestation victims meet their molesters on the Internet, some children's advocates and legal experts wonder whether the heavy online focus is out of proportion to what is still mainly an offline problem.
"In the past 10 years we've handled about 4,000 cases" of sexually abused children, said Erin Sorensen, director of a children's advocacy center in Chicago. "Maybe five of them were molested by people they first met on the Internet."
Agencies in Southern California and elsewhere report similar statistics. Perhaps the percentage of cases involving Internet contacts will climb as more households go online. But experts say the overwhelming majority of child molestation crimes will probably always be committed by relatives, coaches, church leaders and other adults who hold positions of trust in children's lives.
Internet cases "play on people's fears," Sorensen said. "You go to any conference on sex abuse these days and the heaviest attended workshops will be on sexual molestation and the Internet. But children are still at the most risk in their own homes."
Law enforcement leaders say they understand that and place a high priority on prosecuting adults who abuse children at home, in school or other community settings. The trouble is it's often impossible to spot those situations before it's too late.
"You can't walk down a street and ask people, 'Are you interested in having sex with children?' " said Patricia Donahue, an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles who prosecutes child exploitation cases.
But on the Internet, suspects practically identify themselves by flocking to chat rooms whose names clearly indicate a sexual preoccupation with children.
In the Naughton case, for instance, Agent Bruce Applin merely logged on posing as a teenage girl and electronically strolled into the chat area frequented by adult men seeking underage girls.
At 3:39 p.m., Applin said, he received a private message from Naughton, who called himself "Hotseattle" and said he was interested in meeting to "kiss, make out, and play and stuff."
After six months of online flirting, Naughton was arrested at the Santa Monica Pier on Sept. 16 after showing up for what authorities say he thought was going to be a sexual rendezvous with his online correspondent.
Naughton could not be reached for comment.
Merely chatting on the Net about sex is not illegal. But under a 1994 federal law, it is a crime to travel from one state to another with intent to have sex with a minor. Naughton faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
Compared to other types of criminal investigations, such as banking fraud or drug smuggling, running Internet sex stings is almost effortless.