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Internet stings send message to predators

By Heather J. Carlson

The Post-Bulletin

MANTORVILLE — On a sunny afternoon when children can be seen playing outside, one Dodge County investigator is trolling the dark side of the Internet.

And it doesn’t take long for him to get a bite.

Dodge County Sheriff Investigator Jeremy Gunderson is logged onto Yahoo! Messenger posing as a 14-year-old girl. Soon a man claiming to be in his 50s is chatting with the undercover investigator. Often Gunderson gives one-word replies like "cool" or "nope." That interaction is enough for the man to start talking explicitly about sex and send a graphic photo.

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"This could have been a real 14-year-old girl living in our county. This could have happened to her," Gunderson said.

In a quest to protect the county’s children from would-be predators, the Dodge County Sheriff’s Office and Kasson Police Department recently launched an Internet sting. As a result, seven men are facing felony criminal sexual charges, and Dodge County Sheriff Gary Thompson said two additional arrests are possible.

The sheriff’s office and Kasson Police Department are quickly building a reputation for their Internet busts. Last year, the departments teamed up on two Internet stings that netted a total of eight men being charged. So why are officials in a county with fewer than 20,000 residents willing to spend the time and resources to nab suspected online predators?

"You’ve got all kinds of predators out there that are just waiting to pounce on these young girls and young guys, too," Thompson said. "We’re not isolated because we are in a small, rural community."

While NBC-TV’s Dateline series "To Catch a Predator" has brought attention to sexual predators in big cities, Gunderson said it is easy to forget that they also prey on children in rural areas.

"We want to send (a message) out to the predators that cops are working, they’re looking and hopefully people have a second thought about coming to these rural places," he said.

Meanwhile, neighboring Olmsted County officials are considering following Dodge County’s lead. Olmsted County Sheriff Deputy Mike Bromberg said his deputies lack the training needed to pull off a successful sting, but the department is considering working with Perverted Justice to do a sting for them. They are the organization that works with NBC’s Dateline.

Dodge officials have received training from the Minnesota Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force on how to pose as underage boys and girls online. They also have resources outlining the online lingo used in chat rooms like "j/k" for joking or "a/s/l" for age, sex and location.

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For five days, officers sat in a room in the Dodge County Courthouse from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m., chatting with up to 15 people at once. In some cases, officers even began text messaging the suspects, and two adult females volunteered to speak on the phone with some of the men, Gunderson said.

A "wall of fame" is now displayed in the room featuring the mug shots of the men charged in connection with the sting.

"Our kids are being exposed to this every day of the week, and we’ve got some parents out there that need to understand that. They need to monitor their kids activity on their computer," Thompson said. "It’s scary."

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