South Florida Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force nabs high-profile child predators online

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. -- You may have seen them on the evening news, in the halls of your children's school, or living right next door.

But behind closed doors, they sit down at their computers to indulge a secret pastime: preying on children.

Some download child porn. Some share photos of their genitals with children or masturbate over a webcam connection with a child. Others encourage children to send naked photos of themselves or to meet up for sex.

What these child predators don't realize is that undercover police officers also sit down at their computers every day — posing as children to catch them.

Palm Beach County Assistant State Attorney Gregory Schiller said he's prosecuted more than 150 child predators since he joined the South Florida Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force three years ago.

The Palm Beach County division of this task force — which includes detectives, prosecutors and forensic computer technicians — is responsible for the recent high-profile arrests of former WPTV-Ch. 5 weatherman Robert Lopicola and then-Polo Park Middle School principal Scott Blake.

"When you see these guys going through the jail, it's because we're after them every day," said Lt. Richard Pisanti of the Broward Sheriff's Office, the headquarters for the South Florida Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

Detectives catch predators by going online undercover, monitoring peer-to-peer porn downloading, and investigating tips received by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Most tips come from Internet service providers, which are required by federal law to report suspicious behavior, Pisanti said, adding that Florida is one of the most aggressive states in pursuing child predators.

The state is home to three of the county's 61 Internet crimes task forces, all funded by a grant from the Department of Justice.

A Florida task force was one of the original eight in the county started about a decade ago, Pisanti said. It was later divided into three separate task forces.

The South Florida task force covers from St. Lucie County to the Keys and from the Atlantic Ocean coast to the Gulf of Mexico.

Local participants include the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, and the Boca Raton, Delray Beach and Boynton Beach police departments.

When they're not catching bad guys, task force members educate the public, teach police officers how to fight Internet crimes and teach groups such as teachers how to spot warning signs of exploited children.

Schiller speaks to students and parents every week during the school year, teaching them how to protect themselves online and even report tips themselves at cybertipline.com.

He also stresses the need for parents to be proactive because online predators can find children on any Internet-equipped device, including smartphones and gaming systems.

"If it goes online, it is a computer," Schiller said, "and that's very, very scary."

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