Authorities throughout Southern California Thursday announced the arrests of more than 275 child predators that included a teaching assistant for special needs kids, a retired sheriff's deputy, a U.S. Army soldier and a Los Angeles Fire Department explorer.
The monthlong "Operation Broken Heart" took place in May and involved a taskforce of dozens of local, state and federal authorities who worked in concert, sweeping sex offenders, parolees and probationers for allegedly violating their terms, targeting child sex traffickers, pimps, child porn traders and sex tourists traveling abroad and on the Internet.
In a technique reminiscent of the infamous show "To Catch a Predator," the Los Angeles Regional Internet Crimes Against Children task force had its investigators pretend to be 12 to 14-year-old children online and arrested many individuals when they showed up to engage in sex acts with children.
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"Allowing your child to go on the Internet or social media unsupervised is like letting them walk down a dark alley in the middle of the night in a bad part of town," said Claude Arnold, a special agent at the Department of Homeland Security.
A number of the 275 people arrested were seemingly mainstream individuals, many in positions of trust and with easy access to children, officials said.
The number of arrests and potential allegations are expected to grow as forensic investigators continue their analysis of seized evidence. Law enforcement conducted the operations in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
"The only thing that will broadly prevent victimization of children in this regard is parents," said Bill McSweeny of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
Among those arrested:
— A teacher's assistant was arrested by the Los Angeles Police department after allegedly showed up to a meeting believing he was going to have sex with two children.
— A retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy was arrested by ICE Homeland Security Investigations for allegedly distributing child pornography through several websites. The case was initially brought to their attention by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security after informed of an investigation by the Serbian Ministry of Interior.
— Multiple parolees who were in and around parks and children were arrested by California parole officers for violating terms of their release.
— A master's student in health care management was arrested by Alhambra police for allegedly arranging to meet with a 14-year-old child for sex.
— A 64-year-old computer programmer was arrested by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies after allegedly traveling to a park to try to meet with a 15-year-old child for sex. A search warrant issued for his home and business indicated he'd exchanged emails with multiple other children and had posted 100 advertisements looking for sex with young girls.
— A U.S. Army soldier on leave responded to two separate undercover investigators posing as young girls and was arrested after showing up to engage in sex acts.
— A salesman who was also a Los Angeles Fire Department explorer, a prelude to a possible career with the department, was arrested after allegedly using an online media sharing program to download child porn videos.
— A former substitute teacher allegedly posted a personal ad seeking sex with a father and a son. He was arrested after allegedly traveling to meet with what he believed was an 8-year-old boy.
NBC4's Jason Kandel contributed to this report.