SALT LAKE CITY – While many Utahns have spent the last two months staying home and staying safe as a result of COVID-19, online predators are threatening the safety of our children as they continue to exploit children in Utah and around the country.
Federal prosecutors and the FBI saw the potential risk coming in March. “Due to school closings as a result of COVID-19, children will potentially have an increased online presence and/or be in a position that puts them at an inadvertent risk. Due to this newly developing environment, the FBI is seeking to warn parents, educators, caregivers, and children about the dangers of online sexual exploitation and signs of child abuse,” an FBI national press release cautioned.
“During the pandemic, parents have taken on more and more during stay at home directives. Work, school, and parenting blend into demanding days. With everyone at home together, we may expect that the threat of child sexual exploitation would diminish. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case,” U.S. Attorney John W. Huber said today.
As a parent himself, Huber understands parents are focused on many things. However, it is important for them to remain vigilant in protecting their children from sexual predators. “I can also assure parents, who are feeling the strain in many areas that my office and our law enforcement partners are working as aggressively as ever to target these criminals and keep them away from our children,” Huber said.
"Kids should be aware that the idea of "stranger danger" also applies when they go online because predators will misrepresent themselves to gain their trust," said Paul Haertel, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI in Salt Lake City. "When a child is sexually exploited, there can be life-long consequences, but the crime is preventable. The FBI will do our part to go after those who hurt society's most vulnerable, and we urge parents and caregivers to do their part too through education and awareness."
Online sexual exploitation comes in many forms, according to the FBI national release. Individuals may coerce victims into providing sexually explicit images or videos of themselves. Other offenders may make casual contact with children online, gain their trust, and introduce sexual conversation that increases in egregiousness over time. Ultimately, this activity may result in maintaining an online relationship and the exchange of illicit images, the release says. Others may try to entice minors to meet them for sexual activity. A list of recommendations for parents and guardians is included with this press release.
Examples of recent cases:
Michael L. Travers, age 53, a long-haul trucker from Diberville, Mississippi, was sentenced Tuesday to 17½ years in federal prison by U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart in Salt Lake City. Travers pleaded guilty to one count of production of child pornography in December. As a part of the plea agreement, he admitted that between January and April of 2019, he produced sexually explicit images of Minor A, who was 8 years old at the time. Distribution of child pornography, coercion and enticement, and possession of child pornography counts were dismissed Tuesday as a part of the plea agreement.
The Travers case was investigated by the West Valley City Police Department.
Federal complaints filed on April 27, 2020, charge three individuals with possession of child pornography. The cases include:
Scott Andrew Clark, age 44, of Ogden faces possession of child pornography charges following an investigation by the Riverdale Police Department, the Weber County Sheriff’s Office, and a special agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations, who is assigned to the FBI’s Child Exploitation Task Force (CETF) and the Utah Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC).
Clark came to the attention of law enforcement officers on April 7, 2020, when officers of the Riverdale Police Department responded to a call reporting a suspicious individual sitting in a parked vehicle next to a retail business. An employee of the business made the call after observing the same individual and vehicle the previous day. Officers approached the car and identified Clark, who admitted he was a registered sex offender. He also admitted he was in possession of child pornography. A forensic analysis conducted by the Weber County Sheriff’s Office revealed child pornography on two of the six devices located in Clark’s vehicle. The complaint alleges that there were more than 5,000 images and 200 videos of child pornography recovered on the devices, including images of infants and other children. Clark has a 2003 state court conviction in Utah for attempted sexual abuse of a minor.
Michael W. Fritchen, age 64, of North Salt Lake City, also charged with possession of child pornography, came to attention of law enforcement through a tip from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). The CyberTip reported an image depicting the sexual exploitation of a child approximately 4-6 years old.
An investigation by a Layton City police officer, working as a task force officer with the FBI’s task force, led law enforcement officers to Fritchen, whose criminal history includes a 1993 conviction on several counts of committing an indecent liberties on children. The case was conducted before a United States Air Force general court martial. He received a 10-year sentence.
A forensic review of a desktop seized from Fritchen’s home in North Salt Lake City uncovered more than 13,000 possible images depicting the sexual exploitation of children.
Miguel Angel Jimenez, age 24, of Magna, is charged with possession of child pornography following an investigation by a Layton City police officer working as a task force officer with the FBI’s task force. On Feb. 2, 2020, the Layton officer was conducting an undercover operation portraying himself as a 13-year-old girl when a chat began with an individual later identified as Jimenez. According to the complaint, Jimenez engaged in sexual conversation with someone he believed to be a 13-year-old child and arranged to meet the child for sex on multiple occasions; however, he never appeared at the meeting location.
The investigation continued leading law enforcement to an address in Magna where they found the defendant, a registered sex offender, who was on probation for enticing a minor and possessing child pornography in Salt Lake County. Jimenez was taken into custody when he appeared for a meeting with a probation officer. Numerous files of child pornography were found on his phone, including 773 images of child pornography and 507 videos, according to the complaint.
Clark, Fritchen, and Jimenez each face up to 20 years in prison, with a 10-year minimum mandatory sentence, if convicted of the charges in the complaint. They are currently in state custody.
Complaints are not findings of guilt. Individuals charged in complaints are presumed innocent until proven guilty in court.
Recommendations from the FBI’s National Press Office release issued March 23, 2020:
Parents and guardians can take the following measures to help educate and prevent children from becoming victims of child predators and sexual exploitation during this time of national emergency:
Online Child Exploitation
- Discuss Internet safety with children of all ages when they engage in online activity.
- Review and approve games and apps before they are downloaded.
- Make sure privacy settings are set to the strictest level possible for online gaming systems and electronic devices.
- Monitor your children’s use of the Internet; keep electronic devices in an open, common room of the house.
- Check your children’s profiles and what they post online.
- Explain to your children that images posted online will be permanently on the Internet.
- Make sure children know that anyone who asks a child to engage in sexually explicit activity online should be reported to a parent, guardian, or other trusted adult and law enforcement.
- Remember that victims should not be afraid to tell law enforcement if they are being sexually exploited. It is not a crime for a child to send sexually explicit images to someone if they are compelled or coerced to do so.
Child Abuse Awareness
- Teach your children about body safety and boundaries.
- Encourage your children to have open communication with you.
- Be mindful of who is watching your child for childcare/babysitting, playdates and overnight visits.
- If your child discloses abuse, immediately contact local law enforcement for assistance.
- Children experiencing hands-on abuse may exhibit withdrawn behavior, angry outbursts, anxiety, depression, not wanting to be left alone with a specific individual, non-age appropriate sexual knowledge, and an increase in nightmares.
Reporting suspected sexual exploitation can help minimize or stop further victimization, as well as lead to the identification and rescue of other possible victims. If you believe you are—or someone you know is—the victim of child sexual exploitation:
When reporting, be as descriptive as possible in the complaint form by providing as much of the following as possible:
- Name and/or user name of the subject.
- Email addresses and phone numbers used by the subject.
- Websites used by the subject.
- Description of all interaction with the subject.
- Try to keep all original documentation, emails, text messages, and logs of communication with the subject. Do not delete anything before law enforcement is able to review it.
- Tell law enforcement everything about the online encounters—we understand it may be embarrassing for the parent or child, but providing all relevant information is necessary to find the offender, stop the abuse, and bring him/her to justice.
More information about the FBI’s guidance on child sexual exploitation and protecting your kids