It was just before 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and a lively conversation was underway in the Frederick Police Department’s Criminal Investigation Division briefing room.
About a dozen patrol officers, detectives and FBI agents, most of them wearing protective vests over plainclothes, sat around a conference table stacked with takeout pizza boxes and a few bottles of soda. Casual conversation filled the room as pedestrians strolled past a window looking out onto South Court Street, oblivious to the activity on the other side of the one-way glass.
In the middle of one officer retelling a particularly funny anecdote, Sgt. Andrew Alcorn, a supervisor in the criminal investigations division, heard his radio crackle to life and suddenly held up a finger, plunging the room into silence.
Picking up the radio, the sergeant had a quick conversation with the detective on the other end, then turned back to face the room, now full of serious, eager faces.
The punchline would have to wait.
“We got one in the area,” Alcorn said. “Let’s move.”
Hunting a predator
Wednesday’s operation was the culmination of weeks of preparation and careful coordination between the Frederick police, the FBI and the Frederick County State’s Attorney’s Office to crack down on sexual predators who use the Internet to target children.
Beginning at least three weeks before, Detective David Dewees and a handful of other specially trained detectives and federal agents began messaging with multiple adult men while posing as underage teenagers on various dating sites, messenger apps and other social media forums.
“It’s hard because you don’t want to entice them, obviously, because that’s illegal, so you want them to kind of lead the conversation, but they tend to be very cautious,” Alcorn said.
As if on cue, the 24-year-old man Dewees had arranged to meet suddenly changed the meetup location. Instead of meeting at an area motel, the man asked Dewees, who was posing as a 13-year-old girl named Kelsey, to walk to a secluded parking lot behind the Festival at Frederick Shopping Center on Prospect Boulevard.
Less than two minutes later, Cpl. Joe Palkovic and Officer Gerald Green jumped out of an unmarked sedan in the parking lot behind the CVS Pharmacy. Drawing their firearms as they sprinted up a small hill to rush the target’s truck, Palkovic and Green began shouting commands to the startled driver, later identified as 24-year-old Myersville resident Daniel Arthur Kroon, who was quickly taken into custody without incident.
By the time the last car drove up, Kroon was handcuffed and sitting in the back of another unmarked car, hanging his head as the officers took notes and relayed the arrest back to Alcorn.
“He may have been expecting a redhead,” Palkovic told Green, who has close-cropped red hair, with a grin.
“... But I’m pretty sure he wasn’t expecting you.”
The fine line
In many ways, the fairly broad wording of Maryland’s law against the sexual solicitation of minors is helpful to law enforcement, but it can be stricter in others.
Identifying prospective targets was often the easiest part of what Alcorn and his team had to do.
“Sometimes we’ll just create a profile with a photo of an obviously underage girl and we’ll start getting messages almost immediately,” Alcorn said. “And not just ‘Hi,’ and ‘How’re you doing?’ ... We start getting inappropriate messages almost right away.”
Technically, all an officer needs is an agreement by an individual to meet for the purposes of sexual activity, but, in reality, a conviction can depend on proving criminal intent, the sergeant said.
Meeting that standard without enticing a target into breaking the law is the tricky part.
“We need to be able to show in court that they took that extra step and moved forward with their intent,” Alcorn explained. “Because a defense attorney is going to say things like, ‘Well, my client was just talking to them. He was never going to do anything.’”
The easiest way to prove intent in court is to somehow get the target to travel to an agreed upon destination or meeting point. So, while the targets are busy chatting away, the detectives they are communicating with are carefully managing their words and minding the language they use to lead up to a successful arrest.
Talking it through
Sitting in an interview room back at CID headquarters after his arrest, Kroon waived his rights and agreed to talk to detectives.
For Dewees, Kroon’s arguments and explanations played out similarly to what the detective might face in court if the case goes to trial. As other officers watched in a recording room on the other side of a one-way glass window, Kroon immediately denied that he intended to do anything illegal with the girl, still completely unaware that “Kelsey” was in fact Dewees all along.
Detectives had seized Kroon’s phone and were working on getting either Kroon’s permission or a warrant to search the truck for additional evidence, giving Dewees the opportunity to tell Kroon that he had read the conversation he had with the girl.
“The language is pretty explicit and you’re trying to get a 13-year-old girl to meet up with you,” Dewees said at one point. “... I don’t think you’re a bad guy ... but you’re luring this girl out of the confines of her apartment to meet up with you in a parking lot, alone.”
Later, Kroon switched gears, telling Dewees and an FBI agent that he planned to meet the girl to warn her that what she was doing was dangerous. Dewees countered by asking Kroon why he hadn’t tried to inform the police, then again brought up the sex acts Kroon mentioned to “Kelsey.”
“Frankly, that’s absurd. It doesn’t make any sense,” Dewees said. “... What if you had a 13-year-old niece? What if you had a 13-year-old daughter and somebody said these things to her?”
Later, detectives found additional evidence in a search of Kroon’s car and a forensic analysis of his phone. The evidence included condoms, a Santa Claus costume and photos of Kroon dressed up as a clown, according to Frederick County State’s Attorney’s Office’s Chief Counsel Joyce R. King, who spoke at Kroon’s bail review hearing in district court on Thursday.
Two women who were identified as Kroon’s mother and his fiancé during the hearing declined to comment for this story after retired Judge W. Milnor Roberts ordered that Kroon continue to be held without bail.
A new approach
While Frederick detectives have run sting operations for other crimes like prostitution and drug dealing for years, the agency has never applied the tactic to Internet sex predators until now, Alcorn said.
“We’ve always wanted to do something like this, but I think it was our partnership with the FBI and the [Internet Crimes Against Children] program has really provided us with the funding to really put this operation together,” the sergeant said.
During the current 2019 fiscal year, the Frederick Police Department received a $16,015 grant through the Maryland Governor’s Office on Crime Control and Prevention, according to Lt. Kirk Henneberry, Alcorn’s supervisor and the commander of FPD’s Criminal Investigation Division. Approximately $1,194 was spent on specialized training for one of Alcorn’s detectives and $5,555 was for IT products, such as cell phones and other technology.
The remaining $9,266 was being used to make operations like the one run by the department from Wednesday through Friday a reality, Henneberry said.
“What is left is some of the overtime portion that is funding this operation,” the lieutenant said. “... If we had tried to do this in our regular, day-to-day operations, without using overtime, it would have meant taking away from our coverage of the rest of the city.”
While the Frederick County State’s Attorney’s Office will coordinate ICAC grant applications for both the sheriff’s office and city police under a new memorandum of understanding signed by the three agencies on Monday, the most recent operations were funded separately, according to King, who helped coordinate the sting operations on the state’s attorney’s office’s end.
While Frederick police began their operation Wednesday and worked nightly through Friday, the county sheriff’s deputies began conducting stings in a separate operation even earlier.
Even before Monday’s memorandum forming the Frederick County Cyber Crime Task Force, sheriff’s deputies had arrested 29-year-old Virinchi Srinjvas. Srinjvas drove up to Frederick County from Gaithersburg on May 6 after agreeing to meet a sheriff’s office detective posing as a 13-year-old girl for sex, according to charging documents filed in Frederick County District Court.
Sheriff’s office detectives continued their operation last week, arresting 45-year-old Joseph Duane Shirk, a resident of McClure, Pennsylvania, after he, too, agreed to meet a detective posing as a teen girl for sex and drove to the meeting place at 11 a.m. Thursday, charging documents state.
Cat and mouse
Securing funding is necessary to keep such operations running, not only to pay for overtime but for special training, as well.
Besides changing meeting locations, many targets demand “proof” that they are talking to the person the detectives are claiming to be or use vague language and code words to try to avoid directly soliciting sex. Still others, even after agreeing to meet, will drive around the area beforehand looking for undercover police.
“It’s almost like they’re running their own counter-surveillance,” Henneberry said. “And if they see something they don’t like? They’re gone.”
Just as Frederick police thought they had another potential arrest lined up Thursday night, 43-year-old Frederick resident Todd Kenneth Thompson, who had earlier engaged one of the detectives, began to have second thoughts.
Thompson grew suspicious when the detective, posing as a 14-year-old girl, refused to meet him at a grocery store.
“I don’t know if you are police or [a] scammer,” Thompson wrote to the detective through a messenger app, according to charging documents filed in county district court. “[I’m not] going to say anything that will get me in trouble.”
Thompson then quickly changed his mind and agreed to meet the detective somewhere more manageable for police, despite the fact that he told the detective he was caring for a young relative at the time.
Police managed to identify Thompson shortly after 8:20 p.m. as he sat in his car messaging the detective and watching the meeting location from some distance away. Police and prosecutors later said that Thompson had lied to the detective about what kind of vehicle he was driving in what they believe was a last ditch attempt to throw off law enforcement.
Shockingly, the young relative was in the car with Thompson when he was arrested.
A rewarding job
Back at CID headquarters the detectives bought food for the boy and put on a movie for him to watch while they reached out to relatives to arrange to pick him up.
While Thompson was charged with soliciting sex from another minor, the Frederick County Child Advocacy Center and Child Protective Services were also contacted and will be working with the family to ensure the child receives any medical treatment or counseling, Alcorn said. Even more so than with some other types of crimes, detectives can struggle with handling crimes against children, especially if the officers are parents.
“It’s emotionally taxing that we have to confront this head on and it’s kind of disheartening that it’s such an ongoing issue and we’re uncovering it more and more,” Alcorn said. “... But I have a family, I have children, so it’s also very satisfying to know that these individuals who are predatory in nature will not have the opportunity to interact with my family or my children.”
Thompson refused to speak to detectives and requested an attorney after his arrest.
Prosecutors later learned that Thompson was arrested for a similar offense and took a plea deal for a lesser charge in the early 2000s in Carroll County, but Thompson appears to have had the charge expunged after successfully completing his probation before judgement, according to a Frederick County assistant state’s attorney during Thompson’s bail review hearing in district court on Friday.
Thompson, Kroon, Srinjvas and Shirk were all charged with soliciting sex from minors and were each denied bail in separate bail review hearings held earlier this month in Frederick County District Court.
Despite ending their three-day operation with no additional arrests Friday night, Cpl. Joseph Palkovic said he was heartened by the success the agency’s first attempt had seen and excited to begin working more collaboratively with the sheriff’s office in future endeavors.
“I consider what we’re doing here to be the pinnacle of law enforcement work, I really do,” the corporal said. “To everybody in here, this is the most worthwhile and satisfying work because we’re protecting kids. We’re protecting the innocents in the community.”