New Jersey authorities say they have arrested 21 people as part of “Operation Screen Capture,” a monthslong sting on child predators.
Those who were arrested include a woman and a juvenile between the ages of 15 and 71, said the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General.
“Reports to our Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force of potential predatory conduct against children are up as much as 50 percent during the COVID emergency as homebound children, starved for outside contact, spend more time on their devices, and opportunistic sexual predators target them online,” Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said in a statement.
“We urge parents to be vigilant about the online activities of their children and warn children that the strangers they meet on popular social media sites, apps, and gaming platforms may be out to harm them,” he added.
Two men and the woman were “charged with sexually assaulting or attempting to sexually assault children,” while the 18 other individuals were “charged with endangering the welfare of children for possession and/or distribution of child sexual abuse materials,” said the office in a statement.
In one instance, a 40-year-old male from Keansburg identified as Jason Berry allegedly manipulated a 14-year-old girl over social media into sending images of herself to him. The man also apparently convinced the child to carve his initials into her leg.
“Our children are at an increased risk to fall victim to opportunistic online predators during this pandemic, as students have no choice but to turn to their devices to connect with friends and family and in many cases to prepare for remote learning,” stated Colonel Patrick J. Callahan, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police.
Another suspect, Aaron Craiger, a registered sex offender from Oklahoma, allegedly went to a motel in Atlantic City but was arrested by undercover officers.
The other suspect named in the news release was identified as 21-year-old Alize Tejada, of Newark, who is accused of assaulting a young child.
Officials warned that children are at risk from online predators as they spend more time on the Internet during the CCP virus pandemic.
“As children return to virtual learning this fall, they will be spending even more time online, in many cases without any in-person teacher supervision or peer contact,” Attorney General Grewal added. “This may make them even more vulnerable. We want parents to be aware of the dangers—and, as we highlighted in a recent virtual town hall with the State Police and Department of Children and Families, we want everyone to know that there are resources to help children who are struggling with social isolation or who may be victims of trauma or abuse.”
Those who are convicted face sentences of up to 20 years in state prison depending on the charge, officials said.