The Fairfield child predator sting: How it unfolded
FAIRFIELD, Conn. — On a sleepy fall weekend, 10 men —from 19 to 64 years old, one a hometown resident, others from as far away as New York and Massachusetts — planned to visit a home in a quiet neighborhood off Mill Plain Road.
Those plans, however, unfolded in a starkly different way than each man likely imagined.
Instead of meeting with either a 12-year-old girl or a 13-year-old boy that police said the men thought they were communicating with online, through email and texting, the men were cast into the glare of a four-day sting orchestrated by a television personality, in cooperation with Fairfield police and the State’s Attorney’s Office.
The men were charged with various offenses, which depending on the case, ranged from criminal attempt at first-degree sexual assault and enticing a minor to criminal attempt at risk of injury or impairing the morals of a minor.
Among the men, according to court records, was a 32-year-old math teacher from Harrison, N.Y., who police said claimed he only wanted to smoke marijuana with the girl.
And a 28-year-old sandwich-shop manager who allegedly sent the boy a photograph of his private parts and claimed he only wanted to follow up with a kiss.
And the 31-year-old T-shirt printer from Shelton, who later told police he was medically unable to have sex. The box of condoms found in his car? They were old, he claimed.
Then there was 27-year-old Stephen Buchanan, of Stratford, a member of the Connecticut National Guard who fought in Iraq. Police said he tried to convince the Fairfield University student portraying the girl to get into his car, where officers later found a black bag containing a loaded gun, a roll of duct tape, a knife and a box of condoms. Bond for him was set at $1.1 million bond.
Joshua Colon, 32, of Glendale, N.Y., admitted following his arrest that he had previously sodomized a 15-year-old boy, police said.
“Our community is safer today as a result of this operation,” Police Chief Gary MacNamara said.
The police operation was run parallel to the sting conducted by former NBC newsman Chris Hansen for a future program, “Hansen vs. Predator,” that he is preparing. Now the head of his own production company, Hansen News Network, he hopes to revive the program at another network, and chose Fairfield as the first site for the show’s revival.
The sting was based at a Fairfield home, offered to Hansen by a friend. While his production company was inside the house, police officers monitored a live stream of the activities from the home’s garage, as well as back at department headquarters.
There were also officers stationed throughout the neighborhood, police said. The suspects “didn’t get the address until the very last minute,” said police Detective Fred Hine. He said that, in every case, officers were able to identify each man’s vehicle when he arrived in town and they were constantly under surveillance.
MacNamara said Hansen could have run the undercover sting without the Police Department’s involvement, but that would have meant the alleged predators would not have faced criminal arrest as they left the house.
“We had a responsibility,” the police chief said.
Hine said the police had live access to the text messages being sent. “We were confident that it was a controlled approach,” he said.
According to police, the men who were arrested all engaged in sexually explicit language with someone they thought was a child and, in some cases either sent, or requested, nude photos.
During the investigation, which ended Sunday, an array of cameras was hidden within the house and outside as well. Much of the time was spent waiting for the men to arrive. One man, after coming in and briefly chatting with the young man he thought he’d been texting with, left the house when Hansen walked into the kitchen. “Oh, Chris,” he said, and turned and walked out the door, only to be taken into custody by Fairfield police detectives.
The suspects were cooperative with police, said Lt. Mike Gagner, head of the detective division.
They didn’t offer up any explanations to police, Hine said, although many had a conversation with Hansen regarding why they were there. “I can’t say they were surprised to see us,” Hine said, adding Hansen was “non-committal” in his conversation with the men as to whether police would be involved. “When they walked out, they were surprised at the situation they had put themselves in,” he said.
The two young volunteers who posed as the teens the men were texting were not involved in any of the online or text conversations with Hansen’s decoys, police said, and were not in any danger.
MacNamara said the State’s Attorney’s Office was involved during the investigation, as well as a computer forensics expert from the Monroe Police Department.
Fairfield detectives reviewed transcripts from the text and online conversations to make sure that there was a cause for arrest.
While police officials said the four-day investigation was worth it, they acknowledged that it was not something they would have been able to do on their own. “The resources (Hansen) had were incredible,” Hine said. “They were beyond most department’s resources.”
“The Internet allows people to prey on children with anonymity,” MacNamara said. “These cases are very difficult to develop and access, because of that anonymity. They believe they are free of any detection by law enforcement and, at least for these 10 individuals, that was not the case.”
Hansen worked for 20 years at NBC, and in 2004, “To Catch a Predator” became a segment of the network’s “Dateline NBC” program. The segment, while popular, was not without controversy and spawned two lawsuits and questions about the ethics of his sting operations.
In 2013, Hansen himself was in the news regarding an alleged affair the married Connecticut resident had with a Florida television reporter. NBC did not renew his contract that year.
He has had a show, “Killer Instincts with Chris Hansen” on a true crime cable channel, Investigation Discovery. It is unclear where the “Hansen vs. Predator” episodes might be broadcast or when. Funded through a Kickstarter campaign, the show’s website provides no information regarding air dates or where it can be viewed.
MacNamara said his department regularly focuses on ways to protect the community from Internet predators. “We talk about Internet safety, we run classes for parents on Internet safety and always try to remind people to be safe.”
He said the arrests should reinforce, for both parents and children, that “there’s a reason we say to be careful on the Internet.”
At the town’s public schools, Superintendent of Schools David Title said Internet safety is specifically taught to students in grades 5, 6, 7 and 8 as part of the health curriculum. “We also teach it in terms of the library/media center curriculum,” Title said.
“Given the extensive types of technology our children and grandchildren have access to, it is critically important that parents are checking the communications, games and devices they have access to,” said Debra Greenwood, president of the Center for Family Justice, a social-services agency with Fairfield and Bridgeport offices. “Predators find ways to integrate games and websites/viruses that can be intriguing to children and young adults. Knowing who, what and where your children communicate with can save their lives.”
Greenwood said parents shouldn’t just assume this is a topic that is discussed in schools, and added that the center can work with others, or solely, to offer community prevention education for parents. “We tell our children to wear bicycle helmets when riding a bike, we need to teach them about internet safety as well,” she said.
The men arrested and charged with enticing a minor, criminal attempt at first-degree sexual assault and criminal attempt at risk of injury or impairing the morals of a minor were:
Jeffrey B. Sokol, 44, Beacon Street, Brookline, Mass.
Joshua R. Colon, 32, 67th Street, Glendale, N.Y.
Vincent M. Ambrosio, 19, Swenson Drive, Wappinger Falls, N.Y.
Arrested and charged with enticing a minor, criminal attempt at second-degree sexual assault and criminal attempt at risk of injury or impairing the morals of a minor were:
Charles E. Lawrence, 59, Plesko Place, Fairfield
Jesse Velez, 28, Fairfield Avenue, Bridgeport
John M. Dupee, 40, Dover Street, Norwalk
Stephen P. Buchanan, 27, Belair Terrace, Stratford
David N. Tiriolo, 31, East Village Road, Shelton
Michael G. Gentile, 64, Shawe Valley Lane, Brewster, N.Y.
Arrested and charged with criminal attempt at risk of injury or impairing the morals of a minor:
Michael Manzi, 32, Haviland Street, Harrison, N.Y.
STAYING SAFE ONLINE
The Center for Family Justice, with offices in Fairfield and Bridgeport, offers the following tips to teens about Internet safety:
Never give out personal information on the Internet. This includes names, addresses, phone numbers, the name of a school, parents’ work address or phone number.
Never send anyone a picture without checking with parents or guardian first. It may not be safe to let someone online know what you look like.
Never agree to meet a person that you “met” only online. Would you get in a car with a complete stranger? Of course not. It’s important to understand that people you meet online may be very different in real life. Run, don’t walk away, from anyone who suggests you meet in secret. And tell your parents immediately if you receive that kind of request.
Tell your parents or teachers — and show them if possible — if you see or experience something online that makes you uncomfortable. They can take action; including contacting local law enforcement or your local sexual assault crisis center.
Agree on a set of Internet safety rules with your parents and stick to them. Decide what time of day you’ll go online, how long you’ll stay there and the safe places your allowed to visit. If you want to check out something new, talk to your parents first.
Don’t download anything unless you’ve checked with your parents first. While some downloads are OK, some contain viruses that can damage your computer and some may contain illegal material.
Don’t click on links in email from anyone you don’t know.
If you’ve been the victim of an Internet predator get help. The center’s free and confidential sexual violence hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 203-334-6154.