Authorities have arrested a police officer, a high school teacher, a minister and 13 others in a sting New Jersey officials said Wednesday was aimed at men who tried to set up sexual encounters with people they thought were teenage boys and girls.
The arrests were made as part of "Operation Home Alone," which targeted people who officials say used social media messaging and dating apps in an attempt to lure children.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said most of the defendants were arrested when they arrived at a residence in Bergen County, where they expected to find the victim home alone. The arrests were made from April 11-15.
Despite the undercover officers identifying themselves as 14- and 15-year-olds, authorities say the men still engaged in conversations about sex and arranged to meet up with them.
"The 16 men we arrested allegedly used social media to stalk victims they believed were vulnerable children who could be sexually exploited," Grewal said. "Parents need to know that the profiles of underage girls and boys we posted on social media to catch these offenders could easily have been profiles of their own children."
He added: "Our message to parents with 'Operation Home Alone' is be on guard. Our message to child predators is law enforcement is working overtime to find you and arrest you."
Besides the police officer from New Jersey, the New York City teacher, and a traveling minister, the defendants also include a dental hygienist, a barbershop owner and drivers for rideshare companies.
The defendants face charges including luring and attempted sexual assault. Two of the men are also charged with having child pornography on their electronic devices, including one who allegedly had more than 13,000 files of suspected child porn on his phone and a second who is already facing sentencing on a prior child porn charge.
The investigation was part of the New Jersey Regional Internet Crimes Against Children task force, which conducted a similar sting last September, "Operation Open House," leading to the arrest of 24 men.