Child exploitation arrests rise in Cleveland as federal agents crack down on predators

Child exploitation arrests rise in Cleveland as federal agents crack down on predators

CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - Federal agents with ICE Homeland Security Investigations caught 47 accused child predators in Cleveland this year, as part of an international effort called Operation Predator.

That's up about 10 percent from 2018.

HSI said child exploitation cases are one of their highest priorities in Northeast Ohio.

Arrests in these cases made up nearly 20 percent of their investigative work.

Most suspects were prosecuted for crimes like possession, production and distribution of online child pornography, child enticement and child sex tourism.

So why are arrests going up?

HSI says partnership task forces like the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, known as ICAC, have helped catch more child predators.

19 News covered one of HSI's cases extensively.

Thomas Close, also known as "Aqua Joe"
Thomas Close, also known as "Aqua Joe"

Last fall, special agents arrested Boy Scout leader Thomas Close, known as “Aqua Joe” in Richland County.

They got a tip videos were taken of boys changing clothes before and after swimming at the YMCA in Sandusky.

According to the federal indictment, Close recorded other videos at a camp and at his house.

We spoke to Carol Skutnik, the Assistant U.S. Attorney on the case, about the investigation in September.

“They have taken pictures that maybe have lockers or an insignia with a Boy Scout logo on it and developed and worked this case, worked this case it seems every waking hour,” Skutnik said.

Close pleaded guilty on charges of sexual exploitation of children and receiving and distributing child pornography this past September.

This fiscal year, nationwide, HSI reported it opened 4,224 child exploitation cases resulting in 3,771 criminal arrests. HIS said it identified or rescued 1,066 victims, an increase of nearly 18 percent over the last year.

You can report suspected child predators and any suspicious activity to the HSI toll-free tip line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or by filling out a tip form online.

You can also report suspected child sexual exploitation or missing children to National Center for Missing & Endangered Children to its 24-hour hotline, 1-800-THE-LOST.

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