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City of Beaufort Chief of Police Dale McDorman discusses an undercover investigation in Beaufort, South Carolina, Friday, June 10. The one-week, multi-agency operation resulted in the arrest of 10 individuals who established contacts with minor online for the purpose of having sex. Arrest warrants for four other individuals are still outstanding. Photo by Tony Kukulich.

Undercover investigation targets online predators

By Tony Kukulich

A week-long undercover investigation identified 14 individuals who were seeking to have sex with children.

“In March of this year, the Beaufort Police Department hosted an Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force one-week operation where members of the task force communicated with adults and other folks online,” said Chief Dale McDorman of the City of Beaufort Police Department (BPD) during a June 10 press conference. “During this one-week operation we had three individuals travel to Beaufort to have sex with who they believed were 13 and 14 year olds. Shortly after the operation we did have a fourth traveler who came to Beaufort. These were people who came here to victimize the children who live in Beaufort and Beaufort County.”

McDorman announced that 10 individuals had been arrested in connection with the operation and arrest warrants were outstanding for the remaining four suspects. Charges include criminal solicitation of a minor, disseminating obscene materials to persons under 18, second-degree exploitation of minors and attempted promoting prostitution of a minor.

Three of the men arrested were from Beaufort County, while the remaining subjects were located in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and other South Carolina locations. One of the suspects was on federal probation and on a sex offender registry for similar offenses.

“I personally believe that there is a special place in hell for anybody that abuses children,” McDorman said. “If we can do anything that identifies these folks and brings them to justice, we will do everything that we can to get to that end.”

The operation, which was dubbed “Operation Rock the Boat,” was conducted by the BPD, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, and the South Carolina Attorney General’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force. More broadly, the investigation involved the cooperation of a number of other local, state and federal agencies.

“These cases are extremely difficult for law enforcement to work,” said Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner. “Law enforcement officers throughout South Carolina and throughout Beaufort County have families of their own (and) have children of their own. So when they’re investigating cases like this with pychosexual disorder individuals, it’s a difficult thing to do.”

Sgt. Stephanie Karafa of the BPD has been a member of the ICAC task force since 2018. She presented the idea for the operation to McDorman.

“She had participated in other similar operations, and she presented the idea to us,” McDorman explained. “Maybe I was living under a rock. I thought that didn’t happen in Beaufort. I was a little surprised, but I was willing to find out and do what was necessary to do this.”

In her role on the ICAC task force, Karafa can be assigned any one of a number of responsibilities including the investigation of cyber tips or working as a certified chatter.

“That’s when I chat with these individuals who think that they’re ultimately talking with an underaged person,” she explained.

Investigators built fake profiles on social media platforms and waited for the subjects to establish contact through those platforms. Once a crime is committed, the investigation begins to attempt to identify the perpetrator. According to Karafa, the investigations can be difficult. The conversations, she said, can be quite graphic, especially considering that the subject believes they’re talking to a child.

“For me, I get the satisfaction knowing it’s me, and they’re not talking to an actual child.” Karafa added.

McDorman said that about 60 people from various agencies participated in the week-long operation. With charges pending against 14 suspects, the effort to prepare for the prosecution of those cases means that much work remains.

While this investigation didn’t start with a complaint from victims, Kevin Atkins, commander of the South Carolina ICAC task force for the attorney general’s office, said that the involvement of parents in the online lives of their children is the best way to keep their kids from becoming victims of online predators.

“You lock your doors at night, but you hand your kids a phone,” Atkins said. “You open them to the world. You have to be a part of your children’s life and what they’re doing online.”

The following individuals have been arrested by the Beaufort Police Department as a result of Operation Rock the Boat:

  • Zachary Chappo, 36 of Bluffton, South Carolina – Criminal Solicitation and Attempted Disseminating Obscene Material to a person under 18
  • Michael Ford, 51 of Bluffton, South Carolina – Attempted Criminal Sexual Conduct with a Minor and two counts of Criminal Solicitation
  • Michael Mahaney, 59 of Yemassee, South Carolina – Attempted Criminal Sexual Conduct with a Minor Second Degree and Criminal Solicitation
  • Justin Brumfield, 41 of Charleston, South Carolina – Nine counts of Criminal Solicitation and two counts of Attempted Disseminating Obscene Material to a person under 18
  • Leroy Bolger, 73 of Callahan, Florida – Attempted Criminal Sexual Conduct with a Minor and Promoting Prostitution with a Minor
  • Woodrow Brown III, 35 of St. Stephen, South Carolina – Criminal Solicitation of a Minor
  • Drennen Rye, 45 of Savannah, Georgia – Two counts of Criminal Solicitation of a Minor, two counts of Attempted Disseminating Obscene Material to a person under 18
  • Troy Curtis, 33 of Fountain Inn, South Carolina – Three counts of Criminal Solicitation of a Minor, three counts of Attempted Disseminating Obscene Material to a person under 18, Attempted Sexual Exploitation of a Minor
  • Matthew Eli Schmidt, 40 of Kannapolis, North Carolina – Criminal Solicitation of a Minor, Attempted Disseminating Obscene Material to a person under 18
  • Christopher James Hendrix, 50 of Moncks Corner, South Carolina – Criminal Solicitation of a Minor

The four individuals who have not yet been arrested have not been identified by the BPD. The investigation related to this operation is ongoing.

Tony Kukulich is a recent transplant to the Lowcountry. A native of Wilmington, Del., he comes to The Island News from the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent seven years as a reporter and photographer for several publications. He can be reached at tony.theislandnews@gmail.com.

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