The St. Lucie County Sheriff Office Wednesday announced the arrest of 23 men for preying on children. It was part of the monthlong "Operation Guardian Angel."
The suspects ranged in age from 20 to 79. The oldest suspect, in fact, was a former member of the Volunteer Observation Patrol at the sheriff's office.
Sheriff Ken Mascara says the suspects would engage in explicit conversations online with deputies posing as 12-16-year-olds.
“In every instance, the undercover deputies repeatedly made it clear they were underage and each time the offender continued to pursue them," said Sheriff Mascara.
At the eventual meet-ups, suspects came with ice cream, condoms, and in one case drugs to “mellow” out the child during the interaction according to the sheriff's office.
Detectives say this is a tough part of their job.
“There’s nothing easy about this. Nothing easy emotionally about this. Nothing easy psychologically about this," said Sergeant Suzanne Woodward.
When arrested, some suspects claimed they came to protect the child; a “superhero syndrome” according to detectives.
“When I interviewed him (one suspect) he said, ‘I knew it was a police sting, I wanted to see what it was all about,' " said Detective Rob Barton.
Two years ago, a St. Lucie County teen disappeared for 48 hours after being lured away by an adult on social media. He was eventually found in Orlando. Detectives say while hundreds of potential predators had reached out, in this case, they were heartened that some in the chat rooms tried to do the right thing.
“There were people that as soon as age was identified, they said, ‘you’re a child you shouldn’t be doing this. Your parents should know what you’re doing.'" said Sgt. Woodward.
Watch a recording of the press conference below.
This is a developing story. More details will be added as they become available.