Utah law enforcement say they need help from parents to keep children safe from online predators

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "We expect you to step up and protect your children," said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill during a joint FBI Child Exploitation Task Force press conference Tuesday to warn Utahns of the "hypersexualized virtual world" and to report the task force"s findings in the fight to prevent children from being lured by internet predators and raped, kidnapped or murdered, Nov. 19, 2019. The multi-agency representatives reported that the task force netted 30 perpetrators in just four days in one month and called attention to the need for parents to police their children"s online prescence.

In just over a month, a Utah FBI task force dedicated to stopping child exploitation arrested 30 men now charged with trying to entice minors for sex online.

Law enforcement officials released the names of those 30 alleged offenders Tuesday to give the public a “snapshot” of the prevalence of these crimes. They said that while they will continue work to arrest and convict child predators, they need help.

“I want every parent and guardian to know what their children and their teenagers, to know what websites they’re on and what they’re doing on the internet, to know who they’re talking about, to know who they’re talking to, where they’re going and who they’re going to meet up with,” Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said.

“Look,” he added, “it’s not a crime to be a nosy parent.”

And doing so could prevent children from being raped, kidnapped or murdered, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said at the news conference.

Utah’s FBI child exploitation task force was formed in June 2016 and includes law enforcement from across the state. FBI Special Agent in Charge Paul Haertel said the task force hadn’t noticed an uptick in these types of crimes, but rather wanted Utahns to know that the activity had been at these levels as long as children have had regular access to the web.

Gill said the case information released Tuesday is just a portion of the 110 cases his office has looked over since he joined the operation — called Operation Chat — less than a year ago.

While law enforcement officials said the details of their methods for conducting the operation were “secret,” a Salt Lake Tribune review of the cases shows that police would find alleged predators by posing as teenagers in online dating applications or social media sites.

Charging documents show that, typically, the accused would contact a person they believed to be a boy or girl, chat, perhaps send sexually explicit pictures, discuss meeting up for sex and be arrested when they arrived at the designated meeting place.

Former Evergreen Junior High teacher Jeffery Luke Zawalski, 38, was named on the list of alleged offenders.

Zawalski has been charged with five counts of forcible sodomy, a first-degree felony; criminal solicitation, also a first-degree felony; eight counts of sexual exploitation of a minor, all second-degree felonies; and two counts of dealing in materials harmful to minors, third-degree felonies.

His was the only case with allegations that a child was abused; in the other cases, police posed as children (or in one case, the relative of a child) to lure alleged predators.

In another case, prosecutors charged Michael Roy Banks, 32, with an alleged past rape after police arrested him in the sting.

According to charging documents, after he’d shown up to allegedly have sex with a 13-year-old girl and was arrested, police found conversations between Banks and a teenage girl on his phone. These conversations indicated he had paid her for sexual contact. Police got a search warrant to look further and found more conversations and nude photos of the girl.

When police interviewed her, she said she met Banks on a dating site and said they’d engaged in sex acts at his home.

He has been charged with first-degree felony rape and second-degree felony counts of enticing a minor, sexual exploitation of a minor and attempted sexual exploitation of a minor.

Anyone with information on alleged child predators can contact the Salt Lake City FBI at 801-579-1400. Tips can also be submitted online at tips.fbi.gov.

Law enforcement urged adults to visit missingkids.com for more information on risk factors and how kids can be exploited online, as well as support services for victims.

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