The Boone Police Department recently apprehended a man for attempting to solicit sex with a minor, the eighth of such arrests that have been made since the beginning of 2015.
The statement released by the department said the investigation was conducted in cooperation with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office in South Carolina.
A sexually explicit ad was posted on a popular website by the suspect, John Edward Heelan, which caught investigators’ attention. This led to them arranging a meeting between Heelan and a police officer he believed to be a 14-year-old girl. The police then interviewed Heelan and searched his car, leading to his arrest.
Heelan was jailed for one count of felony solicitation of a child by computer and one count of indecent liberties with a minor. His bond was set at $50,000.
The case is part of a larger effort by the BPD to crack down on sexual offenses against minors, an effort facilitated by the State Bureau of Investigation.
Lt. Chris Hatton, chief officer of the BPD’s investigations division, said the department didn’t realize the extent of the problem until the end of 2014.
“The reason that these are a fairly recent development coming from our office is because, it’s sort of a silent problem,” Hatton said. “It’s a problem that people aren’t coming in to tell you about.”
Hatton said they stumbled upon multiple suspicious listings while going through digital evidence for an entirely unrelated case. Being unfamiliar with investigating such crimes, they went to the SBI for guidance on how to conduct the investigation.
Alan Flora is the special agent in charge of the computer crimes unit of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. Flora said that the SBI gives assistance to departments by providing specialists that can lend their expertise to a local department’s investigation.
Hatton said their initial investigation was closely overseen by the Internet Crimes Against Children task force and involved them posting a fake profile of a 14-year-old girl, which received aggressively sexual messages from a 40-year-old man within a week of its posting.
“When we got that message from him, that solidified our fear … this could be an innocent girl just being on the internet just doing what kids that age do, and here’s a shark in the water,” Hatton said.
Hatton said that after working with the ICAC on several cases, they saw the necessity to send some of their men out to Raleigh to get trained in dealing with these types of crimes.
Hatton said part of the training is conducting investigations to avoid entrapment, a problem Hatton said gets far more attention in entertainment than the criminal justice system and is almost never a major concern in their investigations.
“They are the ones that set up these meetings, they are the ones that drive here,” Hatton said. “They are the ones that initially contact this girl.”
Hatton said they also monitor personal pages for ads that seem to be targeted to young girls.
“To a detective, especially one who is looking for somebody who is trying to find a child online, ‘The younger the better’ just screams out, ‘You need to investigate me,’” Hatton said.
During their investigations, Hatton said they have encountered some very tech savvy suspects, even encountering some capable of digitally hiding their identity, which is a scary prospect for the officers who have to track down the predator and make the arrest.
Hatton said they have also encountered some suspects that lose their nerve before proposing a meet up.
“Guys will contact this young girl and do everything all around the laws,” Hatton said. “They want to talk to this young girl, they want to do things that they shouldn’t be doing with her but they’re scared, they won’t cross the line.”
Flora said that parents should be vigilant in making sure their children are not putting themselves in danger online, consistently monitoring internet usage on whatever devices or apps they frequent.
“I think it comes down to the parent. The main thing is that if the parent is not naive and they realize that this is a real thing then they can make better decisions for their families,” Hatton said. “You can’t just go thinking that nobody is gonna contact your kid, you don’t know that.”
Story by Sammy Hanf, News Reporter