PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — A 27-year-old man is in custody after police in Port St. Lucie said he was seeking sex with a 13-year-old girl, ensnared by a group known as the "Predator Poachers."
The suspect, Rodney Hickman of Port St. Lucie, was arrested Thursday night and faces multiple charges in the case.
Police said the investigation began at about 9:17 p.m. when officers responded to the 1900 block of Southeast Hillmoor Drive for a suspicious incident.
When they arrived, officers were met by Hickman and members of the "Predator Poachers," an organization known for creating social media accounts and posing as minors online.
The "Predator Poachers" use these social media accounts to communicate with others and conduct sting operations on adults seeking sex with minors.
Investigations said the group set a time and location to meet and show up with their camera crew to confront the adult about meeting up with minors for sex. They will then notify law enforcement.
In this case, police said on Sept. 9, Hickman initiated a message to an Instagram account that posed as "Lilly," a 13-year-old girl. However, the account was run by an adult with the "Predator Poachers."
As the months went on, detectives said Hickman and "Lilly" began to text back and forth, with Hickman eventually sending a lewd photograph.
Investigators said the communication included texts back and forth where Hickman said he was 27 years old, and "Lilly" said she was 13 years old.
The texting eventually led to Hickman meeting up with "Lilly" Thursday night with the intention of a sexual encounter, according to police.
When Hickman arrived, detectives said he was confronted by the "Predator Poachers" group who then notified law enforcement.
"When we interviewed him, he admitted his intentions," Alex Rosen, the founder of "Predator Poachers," told WPTV reporter Cassandra Garcia Friday night.
Police said the suspect's phone was seized as evidence and will be forensically reviewed.
"The suspect was cooperative, and we were allowed to look at the phone and look at the messages," acting Port St. Lucie Police Chief Richard Del Toro said.
Hickman faces one felony count of obscene communication — traveling to meet after using a computer to lure a child — and one felony count of cruelty towards a child — transmitting information harmful to minors.
Hickman is being held at the St. Lucie County Jail.
Rosen said they've turned in close to 200 predators in 44 states throughout the country since they started the group in 2019.
"Since then, it just snowballed into like, 'Holy cow, these people are everywhere,' and it stopped being like just 15-year-olds," Rosen said. "Now we're getting people like Rodney yesterday who are into infants and toddlers."
While actions by the "Predator Poachers" led to an arrest, Del Toro warned them and others running stings like this that their actions could have serious consequences.
"While the Port St. Lucie Police Department understands the intent of the "Predator Poachers" and similar organizations is to protect children, we do not encourage individuals or groups to conduct these types of operations as they could lead to confrontations and violence that pose a danger to the public and groups performing these types of operations," Del Toro said. "Furthermore, there are strict legal protocols regarding investigations such as this, and the successful prosecution of arrests could be hindered by not following proper procedures and legal protocols."
Del Toro also had a message for parents.
"The biggest thing I would say to parents is monitor what your kids are doing online and social media."