June 15, 2018 10:28:53 AM
The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.
In the last month, four individuals from Lowndes County have been arrested for internet sex crimes, including a 17-year-old whose case is being handled by Lowndes County Youth Court, and a Columbus man who the FBI has been investigating.
Authorities with Lowndes County Sheriff's Office held a press conference Thursday to release details on four recent local arrests involving children being exploited online.
"In one case, we had at least 20 victims," Lowndes County Sheriff Mike Arledge said. "We're talking about 20 children in the Lowndes County area. During these investigations, there was at least 30 or more search warrants that went before a judge ... for homes or computer equipment.
"That's something that's very alarming and I feel like we need to get the word out to parents and people like that to see what their children are doing," he added. "We live in a different time and they're going to have to help law enforcement out also to watch what their kids are doing."
With the increase in social media and computer technology over the years, more and more children are being targeted for exploitation online, said LCSO Lt. Tony Cooper, a member of the Mississippi Attorney General's Office's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Cooper and Arledge estimated about 75 percent of Cooper's time at work is now spent investigating child sex crimes online.
"With technology, it'll be a never-ending thing," Cooper said. "...Every day there's new apps coming out these kids are talking on. When the kids get there, here come the pedophiles and the bad guys. They're going to go wherever the kids are."
On May 30, FBI and LCSO agents arrested Orlando Webber, of 2201 Hughes Lane, at his home. Webber has been charged with felony stalking.
The FBI is investigating the case, Cooper said, but he confirmed Webber had been meeting underage victims online and stalking them.
"That case has been going on for a couple of years," Cooper said. "There is (a FBI) investigator who has been trying to catch him. The guy kept changing profiles on him. He would pop up here, pop up somewhere else, and was hitting these same victims. The investigator stayed on it and was finally able to track him here to Columbus."
Though initially arraigned in Oxford, Webber's case has been transferred to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. He has a court date set in Evansville, Indiana, for June 26.
The Dispatch has requested Webber's mugshot from Lafayette County Jail, but jail administrators have not yet provided it.
Lowndes investigators also arrested the 17-year-old on June 7 for exploitation of a child. That suspect's name has not been released.
Cooper said the suspect posed as a teenage girl on a Facebook chat and asked underage females for nude photos and videos. Once they provided those, the suspect threatened to post them to the victims' Facebook page, as well as pages of the victims' friends and family, if they didn't continue providing more nude photos and videos.
Investigators worked with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to make the arrest. Cooper said investigators discovered the suspect had threatened at least 20 other local victims, some of whom he guessed may be as young as 10, as well as victims outside Lowndes County.
In the past two weeks, LCSO has also arrested Columbus resident Jamie Tracey, 25, for child exploitation after Tracey allegedly possessed child pornography, and Columbus resident Jonquil Ball, 24, of exploitation of a child after he allegedly asked for sexual videos and photographs from a teenage girl. Tracey has been released on $50,000 bond. Ball is in custody on a hold from the Mississippi Department of Corrections for a sexual battery conviction in 2014.
Cooper said investigators often receive help from patrol officers, school resources officers and even school district staff, who can often identify victims.
"It helps us to get these children identified so then when it goes to trial, ... we can go wherever and testify, 'Yes, that's a child I know that's under the age of 18,'" Cooper said. "It shows that it's an actual child. It helps prove to the jury that there is an actual victim and that we know who it is."
He and Arledge also credited the work of the AG's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which provides training, aid and equipment to law enforcement, as well as the NCMEC, which provided the tip that helped lead to the arrest of the underage suspect.
Tips for parents
The four arrests Arledge highlighted at the press conference are far from the only internet crime cases with underage victims LCSO is investigating. Arledge estimated investigators have worked on 30 or more since the start of the year.
"These are very time-consuming but we are committed to getting these sexual predators and try to help the young kids and get the information out there of what's going on," he said.
Arledge said part of the reason for holding Thursday's press conference was that he wanted parents in the area to be aware of the dangers of predators online and monitor children's social media activity.
"Parents need to know what their kids are doing and need to watch the sites they're getting on," Arledge said.
Cooper added children shouldn't be interacting with anyone online unless they know the person in their day-to-day life.
"They need to know who their kids' friends are on there," Cooper said. "...If you're getting friend requests from people you don't know, don't accept."
Arledge stressed the importance of monitoring children's social media and other internet activity and suggested making -- and enforcing -- rules about when and how the children spend their time online.
"You may not think it's that important, but times are changing, and the predators are out there watching," he said. "And they can watch so much easier when you've got social media."
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