By Claire Porter
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Twenty people have been arrested in Virginia and 20 others elsewhere in an undercover investigation targeting online child predators and child pornographers, officials announced Thursday.
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli joined Maj. Ricky Gardner of the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office and Col. Steve Flaherty of the Virginia State Police at a news conference to unveil the results of a collaborative undercover law enforcement effort.
They said it was the first time that the Internet Crimes Against Children task force in Northern Virginia had teamed up with the ICAC task force in Southern Virginia, along with the attorney general’s office.
Both task forces are made up of dozens of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.
The operation was conducted during one week in 2011. The 20 Virginia arrests were made throughout the state, including in Bedford, Fairfax, Prince William, Virginia Beach, Richmond and Loudoun County.
In addition, 20 arrests were made outside Virginia. Officials at the press conference did not specify where those arrests took place but said at least one was in Europe.
Virginia authorities received cooperation from ICAC task forces across the United States as well as law enforcement agencies in Australia and France.
The arrests were part of an investigation called Operation Phalanx, named after an ancient Greek military formation to crush opponents, Cuccinelli said.
“A primary responsibility of law enforcement is to protect our most innocent citizens: our children,” Cuccinelli said. “The Internet can be a great educational tool, but for young people it can also be a dangerous place.”
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 34 percent of children age 10-17 will encounter some type of unwanted exposure to online sex solicitation.
Operation Phalanx is still ongoing, so the officials said they could not reveal all of the details. The agencies are discussing the effectiveness of the joint investigation and whether there will be future collaborations.
The work depended on ICAC-specific digital forensic labs in Richmond, Roanoke and Fairfax.
“We will continue to fight this battle with all that we have, and with God’s help and our General Assembly’s support, we will make a difference,” Cuccinelli said.
Flaherty, the head of Virginia State Police, said he believes that the work of the ICAC task forces “gives children a voice above the Internet din.”
“In Virginia, child exploitation is everywhere, and the Internet knows no boundaries,” Flaherty said. He said it’s still sometimes “like shooting fish in a barrel.”
Since the ICAC task forces began in 1998, they have looked into more than 280,000 complaints of online child predators and arrested about 30,000 individuals.
Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.