About 30 investigators are huddled behind computers, logged into social media apps, posing as children and talking to strangers.
Those strangers are around the Dallas-Fort Worth area. One as far as Cleburne. Another from Arlington.
They think they’re talking to a 15-year-old girl. Or a 13-year-old boy.
It’s Thursday afternoon, the first day of the Fort Worth Police Department’s two-day online solicitation sting. They’re looking for child predators — men and women who seek out minors for sex.
Think “To Catch a Predator.”
The department allowed a reporter and videographer from the Star-Telegram to sit in on the sting to see what goes into the online solicitation operation, as long as certain details weren’t published to protect the integrity of future stings.
Sgt. Rachel DeHoyos supervises the operation. She sits in the center of the command room. She uses a spreadsheet to keep up with the names, screen names, locations and descriptions of the “bad guys.” (DeHoyos said most of the people they catch are men, but they will occasionally catch a woman.)
Similar operations are conducted about three times a year. DeHoyos wishes she had more investigators on her team because the stream of online predators seems never-ending, she said.
In front of her, a large projector displays live video of the two “takedown” locations, where the predators will eventually go, thinking they’re meeting up with children. Instead, an arrest team awaits, hiding so as not to spook the predators.
“We started talking with these guys weeks ago,” DeHoyos said.
One detective, Domingo Martinez, has at least three conversations happening at once. He’s pretending to be a 13-year-old girl. After six years on the job, he has figured out how to successfully be a teenager.
“Most of what happens is in the bad guy’s imagination,” he said.
They always give the men a chance to leave the conversation, but most don’t. The detectives never make the first contact. It keeps the investigators from crossing into the territory of entrapment, and they work with the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Martinez has mugshots of the men and women he’s arrested hanging on a “Wall of Shame” in his office. There are at least 50 of them.
“That’s not even the tip of the spear,” DeHoyos said. “I never realized how many children are victims. This is just a small part of a huge problem … We have to be the voice for these kids.
“They could have done this hundreds of times before we catch them. They’re monsters. That’s what they are.”
Sometimes, they’ll catch the same man more than once.
Detectives from Homeland Security, the Secret Service, the Texas Department of Safety and the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office are also involved in the operation.
Three members of the the department’s Special Response Team sit in a parked vehicle near the meetup location.
They communicate with the command room as they wait patiently for a suspected predator to show up.
About an hour after the operation starts, they get their first person — a bald guy wearing a green shirt.
It’s a quick catch that the detectives in the command center watched live on a projector.
“Good job, everyone,” DeHoyos told them after the arrest, clapping.
The undercover detective who messaged the man took him into the interview room about 15 minutes after the arrest. Three other detectives watched their conversation from a video feed in a nearby office.
The man admitted that he went to the meetup with the intention to have sex. He knew the child was a minor and knew the age of consent is 17. He also has a teenage son, he added.
After their first catch, the officers wait in their vehicle for about two hours until the second takedown.
The sun is starting to set, so they talk about getting their night-vision equipment out. They’re on duty until 11 p.m., but the operations ends up stretching to 2 a.m.
Then they get a description of another predator. Minutes later, the man pulls into the meetup location in a white Dodge truck. The officers quickly move to block the driver from leaving.
In seconds, the man is out of his truck and handcuffed.
Minutes later, the officers are back in their vehicle, waiting for the next arrest.
The operation netted nine arrests total. Fort Worth police provided the following information about the men who were arrested and the allegations against them:
▪ Jose Manuel Guzman Hernandez, 29, who believed he was meeting a 13-year-old girl. He is a Mexican national and now an ICE detainee, police said.
▪ Gilmar Coutinho Da Rosa, 39, who also believed he was meeting a 13-year-old girl and is on probation for sexual assault with a child.
▪ Mikel Adam Couch, 25, who believed he was meeting a 15-year-old girl. Couch also faces a charge of possession of child pornography. Detectives said they found four videos of child pornography on his phone.
▪ Jason Alan Hamner, 40, who believed he was meeting a 14-year-old girl.
▪ Stephen Polo Romo, 22, who believed he was meeting a 15-year-old girl. Romo initiated contact with an undercover officer by asking how much money was needed to have sex, police said. He was also charged with prostitution of a child under 18, and child pornography was found on his phone, police said.
▪ Christopher Dave Dieterich, 37, who believed he was meeting a 15-year-old girl.
▪ Gerald Eugene Weishuhn II, 37, who believed he was meeting a 13-year-old girl.
▪ Stephen Kyle Honza, 35, who believed he was meeting a 15-year-old girl.
▪ Christopher Alan Hodge, 43, who believed he was meeting a 15-year-old girl. Hodge also had a warrant out for his arrest for assault against a family member.
The department’s last sting resulted in eight arrests. Even if the predators are no-shows, detectives sometimes have enough evidence to write warrants for arrests.
“It takes a lot of work,” DeHoyos said. “My guys do incredible work. But nobody wants to hear about the kids who have been victimized. No one wants to hear that this is actually happening.”
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
How we did this story
The Fort Worth Police Department invited reporter Nichole Manna and videographer Yffy Yossifor to witness their online solicitation operation.
The newspaper agreed to certain terms to protect the integrity of future stings, including not publishing this report until after the two-day operation ended.
The Star-Telegram agreed not to disclose the location where the meet-ups occurred, the apps detectives used to talk to targets or details of what the undercover vehicles look like. We were also asked not to take video or photos of the interviews between detectives and suspects.
The Star-Telegram also agreed not to show the faces or names of those targeted. Reporters independently verified the names of those arrested through the jail booking report.