When security guard Jeffrey Erich Binder was arrested late last month for allegedly soliciting sex from an undercover detective posing as an underage girl online, he said, “Now I gotta tell my work and family that I got arrested for soliciting a 14-year-old for sex.”
That didn’t go over so well with his employer: Walt Disney World.
A spokesperson for the theme park told CNN that the alleged online sex predator is now on unpaid leave “pending the outcome of the charges.”
Binder, 26, was one of 18 suspected online child predators arrested in a massive sting operation conducted by the Polk County, Florida Sheriff’s office from March 29th to April 4th. He was one of two suspects who worked at a Florida theme park, the other being Arthur Joseph Nelson, 19, a janitor at Discovery Cove in Orlando. Discovery Cove’s parent company is SeaWorld Entertainment.
Nelson allegedly sent undercover detectives pictures of his genitals, believing that he was communicating with a 14-year-old girl, and bought condoms on his way to their planned meeting place. After his arrest, he claimed that it was the first time he had “done something like this.” He has since been fired from the SeaWorld sister park.
“This is why we are proactive and conduct operations like this one,” said Sheriff Grady Judd in a press release announcing the arrests. “We have to search out these predators before they get to our children.”
Sheriff Judd’s sting, dubbed “Operation April’s Fools,” involved several Florida law enforcement agencies, including the offices of the State Attorney and the Attorney General. For one week, specially-trained detectives from several departments communicated with suspected child sex predators online by posting fake ads or responding to existing solicitations from men.
Together, the detectives successfully drew several of the men, ranging in age from 19 to 60, to various undisclosed locations for an arrest. Half of the suspects reportedly brought condoms. Some brought narcotics. Others even had candy with them.
Carrie Eleazer Horstman, the Public Information Officer for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, told The Daily Beast that some suspects “wanted to meet the juveniles at a nearby park, or a gazebo in the neighborhood” or another public location but several “came right up to the front door” of a house that detectives were using to make arrests.
Indeed, footage posted by the Sheriff’s office shows several men, including Binder, striding confidently to the outdoor entryway.
In the video, Binder makes a call on his cellphone outside the house and turns around to walk away, only to find himself sandwiched between a police SUV on the lawn and an officer who comes barreling out of the front door.
Another man featured in the video, 21-year-old Michael Fernandez, thought that he was communicating with the father of a 10-year-old girl who would be willing to arrange a meeting between her and Fernandez. In messages sent before the suspect arrived at the house, he allegedly wrote “I like em young” and “I have a sis she 8 but haven’t done nothing yet.” Police said that after his arrest, he claimed he believed the girl was 16 years old even though the chat log clearly indicated that “she” was 10.
Fernandez was one of two men who believed he was speaking with the father of a 10-year-old girl, and moved forward with a meeting anyway. The other, 60-year-old Howard Bishop III, had allegedly told the undercover detective that he was “very much into nudism and quality family fun” before driving to the meeting place with a bag of candy in his car. Bishop III reportedly believed that he had immunity from charges because the “father” said he was not a law enforcement officer.
PIO Horstman said that other suspects in the sting “refused to travel to our location” because “they wanted to FaceTime or Skype naked instead.”
Collectively, the 18 men were slapped with dozens of felony charges—97 in total—for crimes like unlawful use of a two-way communication device, traveling to meet a minor, or using a computer to seduce a child. The Sheriff’s office says that more charges could be forthcoming after they finish searching their phones, computers, and other personal effects.
This is not the first time Sheriff Judd and his team have successfully pulled off this sting. In July of 2014, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office arrested 13 people in Central Florida including two Disney employees and one Universal Studios employee using similar methods. A subsequent six-month-long CNN investigation found that at least 42 theme park employees had been arrested on child sex crime charges since 2006.
“Wherever you find children, you’ll find sexual predators that want to be there,” Sheriff Judd said at the time.
One might think that these sting operations, which are highly publicized after the fact, would become less effective over time. But law enforcement officials know better.
“We believe these operations still work because men who prey on children are so compelled, so ‘addicted’ to having sex with a minor, that their proclivities outweigh their fear of getting caught,” PIO Horstman told The Daily Beast. “This is based on repeated interviews with the suspects after we arrest them.”
Horstman said that many suspects will make statements like, “I knew it was wrong, and I even thought it might be a sting, but I was so focused on having sex with the girl that I couldn’t stop.”
All of the theme parks with employees who have been arrested in these stings have said that they conduct background checks on prospective hires. Binder and Nelson both had one prior misdemeanor arrest each—for domestic violence battery and retail theft, respectively—but neither had previous child sex crime arrests or charges. Ultimately, PIO Horstman said, parents play the most significant role in keeping their children safe from online predators.
“We hope that parents will continue to be the first line of defense in protecting their children, she told The Daily Beast. “If a parent is involved in a child’s online activity, the odds decrease dramatically that a predator will be able to groom and abuse the child.”