Captain of Operations Kyle Hodge of Hernando Police Department said that though 23 alleged child predators were charged as a result of Operation Masked Justice, there are probably many times that many people in the region who could be charged with the same crime — if the department had the manpower.
A single investigator worked part-time on the cases for the recent sting operation that led to the 23 arrests, according to Hodge.
“We could do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Hodge said. “If we could have worked this full-time for eight or nine months, I believe we would have arrested 100 people, easy.”
The Hernando Police Department and Mississippi Attorney General’s office announced on Aug. 21 the completion of an investigation dubbed “Operation Masked Justice” that resulted in the arrest of 23 suspected child predators in DeSoto County.
The individuals arrested were either soliciting minors for sex or asking them to produce child pornography, according to a statement from Attorney General Lynn Fitch.
Investigators with the Hernando Police Department have been conducting undercover operations related to the investigation for nearly four months.
Investigators from the Cyber Crime Division of the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office worked alongside HPD to apprehend seven of the 23 suspects over a three-day period.
The suspects, ranging in age from 23 to 59 years old, traveled within Mississippi as well as the neighboring states of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee to commit the alleged crimes. All charges related to the operation will be presented to the District Attorney’s Office for prosecution in DeSoto County. Trials for those arrested are set to begin in October.
When working these cases, investigators use social media and internet forums to track and engage with suspects. They also use computer generated images and other photo editing software to craft undercover identities of children younger than 16 to be used in the sting operations.
“We make the ages very clear. There's not a question. We don’t leave any room for doubt,” Hodge said.
Hodge said one of the main goals with operations like this is to make parents aware and vigilant in monitoring their children’s use of social media.
“I don't want everybody to lock their kids in their room and not let them do anything, but it's definitely something to be aware of… I grew up in DeSoto County so you know, there’s still thinking that Hernando’s this little town and not much is going to happen here, but you know, we're just surrounded by everything, so it's definitely there,” Hodge said.
The operation was coordinated by the Office of Attorney General Lynn Fitch, Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, Hernando Police Department, Pearl Police Department, Clinton Police Department, Brandon Police Department, Flowood Police Department, Richland Police Department, the Florence Police Department, United States Department of Homeland Security, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.