The sting operation that led to last week’s arrest of a former Wake County principal charged with soliciting a 14-year-old for sex online is not typical police work in Boone, a college town of about 20,000 in the mountains.
But it is the Boone Police Department’s third such arrest in 2015, thanks to a statewide task force that provides resources and training to local police departments to fight sex crimes online.
From the undercover detective’s initial contact with David Dennis – a response to a personal ad Dennis allegedly posted online – to his eventual arrest, the department worked with the State Bureau of Investigations Computer Crimes Unit, which is based in Raleigh. The Computer Crimes Unit heads the task force in North Carolina and is part of a national network of task forces run and funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Computer Crimes Unit has nine agents and works to fight child exploitation online with 150 law enforcement agencies statewide, including Raleigh and Durham police, the Wake County Sheriff’s Office and several others in the Triangle. In its last fiscal year, the SBI and the local agencies made 76 arrests on charges alleging crimes against children online.
North Carolina’s task force receives about $400,000 every year from the national network, Internet Crimes Against Children, or ICAC, which is part of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
The Computer Crimes Unit uses that money to train officers to respond to crimes against children online and provide laptops and other equipment that facilitate that work. As part of the training, agents teach police officers to pose as underage girls and chat with older men online, according to Eric Hicks, head of North Carolina’s task force.
“We’ll teach them how to work these cases and just kind of get them started,” Hicks said.
The tactic was used to arrest Dennis, who spent 18 years as a principal at public schools in Durham, Raleigh and Cary, where he retired as principal of Cary High School in 2007. At the time of his arrest, he was director of Campbell University’s special education teacher certification program.
Dennis proposed a meeting with the Boone detective that he believed to be an underage girl, according to the Boone Police Department. He was arrested by a Boone detective and an SBI agent when he showed up to the meeting. He was released on $200,000 bail.
Some departments, like Boone’s, are especially active in working with the SBI to arrest suspected online predators. Hicks said that the difference in activity is a product of time and resources and that some small departments that are short on cash are especially grateful for ICAC support.
“They don’t have money to spend on an extra laptop for undercover chats or something,” Hicks said. “Little stuff like that we give them is a big deal for those departments.”
Cris Hatton, investigations commander for the Boone Police Department, said it is pursuing similar cases, but the department does not have the resources to devote someone to them full time. Hatton said the sting operations allow the department to prevent crimes instead of reacting to them.
“When the police can be proactive, it stops people from being victims,” Hatton said.
The undercover operations are just one part of the work of the task force and the local law enforcement agencies it works with. Agents also follow up on tips from Internet service providers, processed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, about content online that indicates sexual exploitation of children.
Begun in 1998, the ICAC task force network received $27 million from the Department of Justice in 2014.
Some ICAC task forces and their affiliate departments have been criticized for being too aggressive in their undercover programs, which are similar to those made famous in the TV show “To Catch a Predator.”
A 2014 investigative report by WTSB-TV in Florida found that a central Florida task force was making an especially high volume of arrests and that officers sometimes broke rules to keep numbers high. One sting in Clearwater, Fla., in January 2014 resulted in 35 arrests. Officers posted innocuous ads on adult dating websites, according to the report, and convinced targets to break the law after claiming to be underage.
Edwin “Trey” Gennette, 46, was arrested in Florida in 2011 after responding to a Craigslist ad claiming that two sisters were seeking a sexual partner. The undercover agent who posted the ad posed as a 19-year-old and pushed Gennette to agree to a sexual encounter with her and a 14-year-old sister.
Gennette was arrested when he drove to a scheduled meeting but was eventually cleared of all charges when a state district court ruled that the officer’s conduct constituted entrapment under Florida law.
Hatton said that Boone undercover agents are careful not to be overly aggressive, and strictly follow the ICAC guidelines, which the state task force distributes. In at least one instance, a man immediately ceased communication with a detective when the detective claimed to be a minor, Hatton said.
“That is how a law-abiding person answers that,” he said.
Hicks said that some affiliated departments are not active with chat cases because of the expense and a relatively low success rate.
“A lot of these chat cases don’t work out,” Hicks said. “They are very time consuming.”
But Gennette said that agents who work with the ICAC task forces too often go too far, as the judge ruled in his case. He said that he “lost everything,” and he believes agents should not post on sites such as Craigslist and adult dating websites, which are not known to attract large numbers of children.
“It’s a dirty program,” Gennette said.
Hatton thinks the program is necessary to protect Boone children. He said that before the program started, the department had not heard complaints in the community about online sex crimes like the one Dennis is accused of, but since realizing they take place, the department has committed to working with the task force to stop the crimes. He said that a Boone detective will undergo national ICAC training soon, which will make the department less reliant on North Carolina’s task force.
“I think we forget that there are people out there who are willing to do this to kids,” Hatton said. “And they use the Internet to do it.”