TRENTON –Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and Acting Bergen County Prosecutor Dennis Calo today announced arrests of 16 alleged child predators in “Operation Home Alone,” a multi-agency undercover operation targeting men who allegedly were using social media in an attempt to lure underage girls and boys for sexual activity. The defendants will be prosecuted by the Attorney General’s Office and the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office.
The underage “children” were, in fact, undercover officers. Most of the defendants were arrested when they arrived at a residence in Bergen County, where they allegedly expected to find their victim home alone. Instead, they found law enforcement officers prepared to arrest them and process any evidence seized. Those arrested include a Ridgewood police officer, a Bronx, N.Y., high school teacher, drivers for two rideshare companies, a minister, a finance lead for an internet service provider, a bank branch office manager, a barbershop owner, a dental hygienist, two takeout food deliverymen, and others.
The operation was led by the Division of Criminal Justice (DCJ), Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, and New Jersey Regional Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force, which is led by the New Jersey State Police. The ICAC Task Force includes DCJ, U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the FBI, all 21 County Prosecutors’ Offices, and many other state, county and local law enforcement agencies. The additional participating agencies are listed below. Attorney General Grewal made the announcement at the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office with Acting Prosecutor Calo, DCJ Director Veronica Allende, Colonel Patrick Callahan of the New Jersey State Police, Special Agent-in-Charge Gregory Ehrie of the FBI Newark Field Office, Assistant Special Agent in Charge Richard Reinhold of U.S. Homeland Security Investigations in Newark, and leaders and representatives of the other participating agencies.
“The 16 men we arrested allegedly used social media to stalk victims they believed were vulnerable children who could be sexually exploited. Fortunately, their victims were really undercover officers prepared to put them in handcuffs,” said Attorney General Grewal. “Parents need to know that the profiles of underage girls and boys we posted on social media to catch these offenders could easily have been profiles of their own children, who might also be targeted by predators on chat apps and popular gaming sites. Our message to parents with Operation Home Alone is be on guard. Our message to child predators is law enforcement is working overtime to find you and arrest you.”
“Operation Home Alone is a great example of our collaborative efforts to guard children from the ever-present danger of online predators,” said Director Veronica Allende of the Division of Criminal Justice. “We will continue to partner with the State Police, the County Prosecutors, the ICAC Task Force, HSI, the FBI, and law enforcement at all levels to apprehend these sex offenders who exploit the anonymity of social media to prey on those who are most vulnerable.”
“While it is a primary function of law enforcement to protect all of our residents, the focus of this particular initiative was the protection of our most vulnerable – our innocent children,” said Acting Bergen County Prosecutor Dennis Calo.
“As law enforcement, we would like nothing more than to be there for every innocent child, awaiting these predators when they arrive,” said Colonel Patrick Callahan of the New Jersey State Police. “Unfortunately that is not the case, so we need parents and guardians to remain vigilant and keep the lines of communication open with your children. Familiarize yourselves with the social media sites and gaming platforms that they are using to help protect them from those who would seek to victimize them. Although we cannot be outside every doorstep, this investigation should send a clear message that we will use all means at our disposal to keep our children safe.”
“This is once again a great example of how interagency cooperation has resulted in removing dangerous individuals from the community,” said Brian Michael, Special Agent in Charge, HSI Newark. “The horrendous activities of these individuals, which could have been carried out on actual children if not for the efforts of law enforcement to pursue and arrest them, show clearly that such predators are being monitored on a continuous basis.”
“One of the unfortunate consequences of the internet is the potential opportunities created for the depraved members of our society to prey on vulnerable victims,” said Special Agent-in-Charge Gregory W. Ehrie. “The exploitation of children requires swift and intense law enforcement action, such as what was executed during Operation Home Alone and, before that, Operation Open House. We at the FBI are always prepared to assist our local, state and federal law enforcement partners. Predators should heed this warning: we will continue these targeted efforts and you may be the next arrest we make.”
The arrests in Operation Home Alone were made over a five-day period from April 11 through April 15. Seven defendants travelled to the undercover house from locations in New York State, and one traveled from Philadelphia. The defendants are variously charged with second-degree luring, second-degree attempted sexual assault on a minor, and third-degree attempted debauching the morals of a child. Two men face third-degree charges of attempted showing obscene material to a minor for allegedly sending photographs of their genitals to undercover detectives. Two men are charged with having child pornography on their electronic devices, including one who allegedly had more than 13,000 files of suspected child pornography on his phone and a second who was already facing sentencing on a prior child pornography charge filed by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office.
The undercover law enforcement members who conducted the chats with the defendants were specially trained members of the ICAC Task Force. The defendants typically initiated contact based on profiles posted on social media platforms by the undercover detectives and agents. The social platforms that were used in these encounters included Kik, Skout, Grindr, Tinder, MeetMe, and Adam4Adam. Once chatting began, the undercover officers clearly identified themselves as underage girls or boys. Despite that information, the defendants allegedly engaged the purported “children” in conversations about sex and made arrangements to meet the “children” for sex.
“Parents need to be aware of their children’s activities on the internet, and if children appear anxious or evasive when this topic is raised, it may be a red flag,” said Attorney General Grewal. “It is critical that parents talk to their children about social media and chat apps to let them know that the people they encounter may not be who they initially seem to be.”
In past cases, the ICAC Task Force has made arrests of alleged child predators who used the following chat apps: Kik, Skout, Grindr, Whisper, Omegle, Tinder, Chat Avenue, Chat Roulette, Wishbone, Live.ly, Musical.ly, Paltalk, Yubo, Hot or Not, Down, and Tumblr. Arrests also have been made involving the gaming apps Fortnite, Minecraft, and Discord. Attorney General Grewal urged parents to familiarize themselves with these apps and warn their children about sharing information with strangers.
The defendant who is a police officer, Peter Tuchol Jr., was placed under arrest on April 15 at the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office—Paramus. Thirteen other defendants were arrested at the undercover residence in Bergen County. One defendant was arrested at a shopping mall, and the remaining defendant was arrested at his own residence. Those who went to the undercover residence allegedly expected to find their victims home alone. Instead, they were arrested upon arrival, sometimes by teams that included the very officer who portrayed the child they targeted for sex.
The undercover residence was staffed with dozens of law enforcement officers and evidence technicians. Attorneys were stationed at the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office. Electronic devices that were seized from the defendants were previewed at the scene by evidence technicians when defendants gave consent. Attorneys and detectives drafted search warrants for other seized digital devices. All of the devices were taken to the forensic computer laboratory at the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office for full forensic examinations. Those examinations, which are ongoing, will enable investigators to determine if the devices contain evidence of any prior encounters by the defendants with underage victims, which might constitute additional cases of luring, sexual assault or child endangerment.
The defendants were lodged in the Bergen County Jail until detention hearings were held during the past week. One defendant, Michael Mancini, was ordered detained in jail pending trial. The other defendants were released subject to stringent pre-trial monitoring conditions, including at a minimum reporting regularly to Pre-Trial Services staff and prohibitions from using the internet except for work or having any unsupervised contact with children under 18.
The following 16 men were arrested in Operation Home Alone. They allegedly believed they were communicating with a minor as described in parentheses. The defendants are charged as indicated. The cases will be prosecuted by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office (BCPO) or Division of Criminal Justice (DCJ) as indicated.
Second-degree charges carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $150,000, while third-degree charges carry a sentence of three of five years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000. Fourth-degree charges carry a sentence of up to 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
The charges against the defendants in Operation Home Alone are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Because they are indictable offenses, they will be presented to a grand jury for potential indictment.
Attorney General Grewal commended all of the individuals and agencies who conducted Operation Home Alone. He thanked the members of the DCJ Financial & Computer Crimes Bureau who led and coordinated Operation Home Alone for the Division of Criminal Justice, including Bureau Chief Julia Glass, Deputy Bureau Chief Jillian Carpenter, Deputy Attorneys General Lilianne Daniel, Alyssa Bloom and Supriya Prasad, and Executive Assistant Francine Venceller.
Attorney General Grewal thanked all of the members of the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office who supervised and conducted Operation Home Alone, under the leadership of Acting Prosecutor Calo, including Senior Assistant Prosecutor Brian Sinclair, Assistant Prosecutor Megan Kilzy, Lieutenant Jeff Angermeyer, Detective Sergeant Dave Agar, and Detective Sergeant Diane Armbruster. He also thanked Assistant Prosecutor Deborah Freier of the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office.
He further commended all of the members of the New Jersey Regional ICAC Task Force who worked on Operation Home Alone, under the leadership of ICAC Commander Lt. John Pizzuro of the New Jersey State Police Internet Crimes Against Children Unit (ICAC Unit). He also thanked the members of the New Jersey State Police ICAC Unit and the New Jersey State Police Polygraph Unit.
Attorney General Grewal thanked the following federal, state, county and municipal agencies that assisted in Operation Home Alone, including numerous members of the ICAC Task Force:
ICAC Task Force Members: