Arrests of 21 accused sex offenders prompt warning for NJ parents
Launched in response to a dramatic increase in potential online threats against children during the coronavirus pandemic, a New Jersey operation has nabbed 21 individuals accused of sexually exploiting children over the internet.
Three defendants remain in custody pending trial on the charges against them for the sexual assault or attempted sexual assault of children. (See the full list of defendants below.)
Jason Berry, of Keansburg, allegedly manipulated a 14-year-old girl he had met on social media into sending him naked pictures of herself engaging in sexual acts. Berry allegedly had the girl carve his initials into her legs and then sent the girl's revealing photos to her mother.
Oklahoma resident Aaron Craiger, a registered sex offender, thought he was headed to New Jersey to meet two men who could offer him sex with underage girls, according to officials. In reality, he had been communicating with undercover investigators and was arrested at a motel in Atlantic City.
Alize Tejada, of Newark, allegedly videotaped herself performing a sexual act on a very young child she was caring for, and posted the video on social media.
Officials say Operation Screen Capture should serve as a reminder to parents that they need to be vigilant in order to protect their own children from becoming victimized.
"We began this operation in March at the start of the COVID-19 state of emergency. This was no coincidence," Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said during a virtual news conference on Wednesday. "During this pandemic, people are spending more time online. On the one hand, home-bound children are spending more time on their devices, both for virtual learning and for recreation. And at the same time, predators are also spending more time online, taking advantage of this situation."
Cyber tips to the New Jersey Regional Internet Crimes Against Children Children jumped 50% between March 1 and July 31 of this year, compared to the same time frame last year, Grewal's office said.
Apps and gaming systems continue to be prime hunting grounds for child predators seeking victims, Grewal said. Children are also vulnerable on social media, he added.
"With all that parents have to worry about during the COVID-19 crisis, we hate to add to your worries, but the trend of increasing reports of potential threats to children can not be ignored," said Veronica Allende, director of the Division of Criminal Justice. "You may think nothing can happen with your children being home all day, but please be vigilant."
Officials on the webinar offered the following advice for parents:
- Teach your children that the people they encounter online may not be who they seem.
- Familiarize yourself with popular apps and gaming platforms that predators have used to target young victims during Operation Screen Capture and prior investigations.
- Check the security setting on your child's phones and see if they're able to be contacted by strangers through apps, games and social media.
- Constantly remind children not to share personal information with strangers on the internet, either through email or chat, or even through a screen name that could unwittingly reveal gender or age. Children should also be told to never take inappropriate photos and videos of themselves.
- Be weary if your child is secretive or protective about their phone or computer.
"Ideally, in a perfect world, computers and gaming devices should be kept in a central location where parents can monitor them, and children shouldn't have their phones with them in their bedroom at night," Grewal said. "A simple suggestion is to create a family charging station where all mobile devices are stored at bedtime."
19 men, 1 woman, 1 juvenile charged
Operation Screen Capture arrests were made between March 18 and July 31.
The defendants' ages range from 15 to 71.
"It's important to note that our investigations did not stop when these defendants were arrested," Allende said. "We obtained search warrants for seized digital devices, including the defendants' cell phones."
Those devices were taken to various computer forensic labs, to see whether they contain evidence of previous encounters with underage victims or sharing of child sexual abuse materials. Such discoveries could lead to additional charges.