BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB) – Across the country and right here at home, predators aren’t always hiding in a white van, but behind their profile pictures online.
“The internet is not a safe place,” said Panama City Beach Police Chief J.R. Talamantez.
Talamantez said these criminals that are preying on children online don’t always seem dangerous.
“They can look like a friend, a neighbor, a family member, a doctor, a police officer, firefighter.”
Chief Talamantez said they’re investigating new cases all the times. He said predators are exploiting children from the comfort of their couches, some with evil intentions.
“These individuals have taken pleasure on viewing the rape of children and there’s no worse criminal in my mind.”
He and other investigators said it’s a dark reality that many don’t truly understand, since they don’t see what he has to see. Evidence material includes children being raped, tortured and victimized.
“If you know what they are taking pleasure from, you won’t be making excuses for them,” said Talamantez. “They’re monsters and we’re gonna treat them like that, meaning we’re going to find you. We’re going to put you in jail.”
Across the bridge at the Bay County Sheriff’s Office, Lieutenant Jeremy Mathis said the same thing.
“When you meet these kids and you see the nothingness in their eyes, that’s, that’s when you derive that passion from it,” said Lt. Jeremy Mathis.
He’s worked with Talamantez on multiple cases like this in the community. He said catching these type of criminals is a priority among local agencies.
“It’s not something that gets swept under the rug. It’s not something that we don’t look into, it’s a very, very, important component of our job,” said Mathis.
They do this often times by posing as kids online and pretending to be a child to lure a predator to their arrest. That’s given them insight into the minds of the perpetrators.
“So many of these guys online are a totally different person than they are offline,” said Mathis.
“They will say all the right things at all the right times and make that child feel like they’re special,” said Talamantez.
Talamantez said they target vulnerable kids and teens often struggling at home or school and looking for an outlet. Then, using social media, they learn about the child, and get the victim to trust them, before exploiting them.
“By the time that you call us, that predator in one way shape or form has probably already contacted your kid,” said Talamantez.
They said there’s also no typology for the criminal. It can be anyone from anywhere, especially strangers, kids think they know online.
“That’s the stranger danger that parents need to be talking to their kids about now,” said Mathis.
In 2017, Tyndall Air Force Base Colonel Michael Garrett was charged with trying to meet a 14 year old boy for sex through text messages. Garrett was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the crime. His name is one of several carved into a baseball bat in Talamantez’s office.
“They’re not all on there, some of the worst of the worst.”
Talamantez said he started doing that as a way to reflect on the successful arrests while the difficult work continues daily.
He and Mathis said parents need to be paying close attention to their kids’ phones and social media. They also need to have serious conversations about the dangers of the internet.
“That discussion does not need to be sugar-coated,” said Mathis. “It needs to be very open and very honest about what’s happening.”