Operation Independence Day Leads to Federal Charges for Eight Men Attempting to Meet Minors for Sex
FAIRVIEW HEIGHTS, ILL. – Eight men were federally indicted today after attempting to have sex with children under the age of 18, U.S. Attorney Steven D. Weinhoeft announced today. The cases are part of "Operation Independence Day," a nationwide initiative to combat child sex trafficking.
"Those who exploit children gain access to kids through various means, including social media apps. Cases like these remind us that serious dangers are no further away than a child’s cell phone," U.S. Attorney Weinhoeft said. "The beginning of the new school year is a great opportunity for parents to take a closer look at their children’s internet activities and start a conversation about how to stay safe online."
This year, Operation Independence Day consisted of 161 law enforcement operations executed during the month of July throughout all 56 FBI field offices. In addition to working with U.S. Attorney’s Offices, the FBI collaborated on the initiative with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and over 400 federal, state, local, and tribal agencies who participate in the FBI’s child exploitation and human trafficking task forces. More information about Operation Independence Day is available at www.fbi.gov/oid2019.
The Department of Justice announced today that the FBI-led initiative resulted in the recovery or identification of 103 child victims and the arrest of 67 sex traffickers nationwide. In Southern Illinois, Operation Independence Day led to the arrest and indictment of eight men. U.S. Attorney Weinhoeft said, "Sex trafficking and child exploitation continue to impact our communities, and we will aggressively enforce the law against those who would prey upon children."
Earlier today, the following eight men were indicted in the Benton Division of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, each separately charged with attempting to entice a minor to engage in illicit sexual acts:
• Lawrence A. Bangs, 39, of Herrin, Illinois
• Jesse A. Cantu, 43, of Mt. Vernon, Illinois
• Jorge L. Leal, 34, of Marion, Illinois
• Bret M. Feldscher, 27, of Herrin, Illinois
• Neal J. Keane, 28, of Tucson, Arizona
• James M. Davis, 63, of St. Louis, Missouri
• Hank D. Yoast, 46, of Herrin, Illinois
• Rick E. Garner, 43, of Sesser, Illinois.
The men were all charged from July 19-21 in connection with an online, undercover investigation. No actual minors were harmed. Each of the offenses is alleged to have occurred in Williamson County, Illinois. If convicted, the defendants each face a minimum penalty of 10 years imprisonment and could receive as much as life behind bars. The offense also carries a possible lifetime term of supervised release and a fine of up to $250,000.
Pending trial, all eight men will be held without bond or released on electronic monitoring and other strict conditions mandated by the Adam Walsh Act.
An indictment is merely a charge against a defendant. Under the law, a defendant is presumed to be innocent of the charge until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to the satisfaction of a jury.
These cases fall under the umbrella of Project Safe Childhood, a nationwide initiative launched in 2006 by the Department of Justice to combat the growing epidemic of child sexual exploitation and abuse. Led by the United States Attorneys’ Offices and the Criminal Division's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, Project Safe Childhood marshals federal, state, and local resources to locate, apprehend, and prosecute individuals who sexually exploit children, and to identify and rescue victims. For more information about Project Safe Childhood, please visit www.usdoj.gov/psc. For more information about internet safety education, please visit www.usdoj.gov/psc and click on the tab "resources."
The investigation was conducted by the FBI, with the assistance of the United States Marshals Service, the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department, and the Herrin Police Department.