By Tamas Mondovics
In a continued effort to protect children, or more appropriately fight against child sexual predators, law enforcement and protection agencies from across the state came to gather to highlight their combined efforts as well as to announce the “Be Here for Kids” Initiative, a new national child safety campaign.
The announcement at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel, 700 N. Florida Ave., came on the heels of the observance National Missing Children’s Day (May, 25) led by United States Attorney A. Lee Bentley, III Middle District of Florida, who was joined by several federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.
From October 1, 2013, through April 30, 2015, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida, brought 204 Project Safe Childhood cases against 209 individuals.
Representatives from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Tampa Police Department, and the Clearwater Police Department (Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Task Force Against Human Trafficking), were all presents .
Originally created in 2007 by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) as a campaign among federal, state, and local agencies to prevent, enforce, and prosecute crimes of exploitation against children.
Last month the NCMEC’s expanded initiative, “Be Here for Kids,” encourages the public to get involved in the mission to find and protect children.
“Spend 25 minutes and talk to your children about internet safety and about how to stay safe while interacting with adults,” Bentley said, adding, “It may save their lives.”
Bentley emphasized the need for parents and the community as a whole must step up their efforts as child predators are using more cunning and persuasive techniques and technologies to lure and exploit innocent children, she he said, “As a community, we must educate ourselves and others to raise awareness on how to best protect our children against these threats.”
A recent local example of why such effort is vital is the case of United States vs. Melvin Barber Bridgers, III.
A press release stated that from at least December 2012, through his arrest on May 1, 2014, Bridgers used multiple Facebook accounts to pose as a young teenage girl and befriend other girls between the ages of 10 and 16 years old.
After befriending the minors, Bridgers engaged in online chats with them and used manipulation, coercion, threats, and extortion to compel the minors to send him sexually graphic photographs through Facebook.
Bridgers then threatened the minor victims with exposing the sexually graphic photos to their parents, or to other Internet users, in order to extort more sexually graphic photographs and videos from them.
On May 1, 2014, law enforcement executed a federal search warrant at Bridgers’s residence and obtained computer media containing numerous chat logs with the minor victims, as well as over 28,000 images and videos containing child pornography.
Law enforcement agents estimate that over a two-year period, Bridgers attempted to make contact with and sexually extort, or “sextort,” thousands of young girls on Facebook. To date, approximately 129 of Bridgers’s victims have been positively identified, making this one of the largest online child “sextortion” cases prosecuted in the United States.
He was sentenced to 40 years in prison in April 2015.
“Our goal is to protect our children through education by taking the initiative to talk to them about the dangers,” said Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Colonel Donna Lusczynski. “It’s about prevention. Our children are the innocent victims and the ones that need the most protecting.”
To help parents and children be alert, Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge ICE/Homeland Security Investigations, Micah McCombs brought attention to “Operation Predator” an app that can be downloaded to any smartphone.
To learn more about the Be Here for Kids Campaign, visit www.BeHereForKids.org
Homeland Security also has.
Photo: United States Attorney Middle District of Florida A. Lee Bentley, III
Cutline: United States Attorney Middle District of Florida A. Lee Bentley, III talks to the press about “Be Here for Kids” a new national child safety campaign at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel, 700 N. Florida Ave. The effort urges parents to take time and talk to their children about the dangers of child sexual predators.