Authorities in New Jersey have arrested two dozen men — including a policeman and a firefighter — in a sting operation that targeted alleged predators accused of using online video games like Fortnite to prey on innocent children.
Gurbir Grewal, New Jersey’s attorney general, identified the 24 adult defendants at a press conference Tuesday.
According to Grewal, the 24 men allegedly believed they were talking to 14- and 15-year-olds, but were instead interacting with undercover detectives from the New Jersey State Police’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. The defendants themselves are accused of posing as teenagers in their alleged attempts to lure minors for sex, the attorney general said.
The suspects used a number of online games as well as chat apps and social media to initiate conversations that were allegedly sexual in nature, Grewal said.
“It is a frightening reality that sexual predators are lurking on social media, ready to strike if they find a child who is vulnerable,” said Grewal, urging parents to be vigilant in monitoring their children’s online habits.
“If children appear anxious or evasive when the topic is raised, it may be a red flag,” Grewal said. “It’s critical that parents talk to their children about social media and chat apps to let them know that the people they encounter may not be who they initially seemed to be.”
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Grewal identified 18 apps and games, including Tinder, Wishbone, Kik, Minecraft, and Tumblr.
Games like Roblox, Minecraft and the popular Fortnite — a survival shooter game — permit communication between its online users. All three are available through most wireless providers and on all video game consoles.
Police Officer Allegedly Tried to Meet 15-Year-Old Girl for Sex
Howell Township Police Sgt. Richard Conte, 47, has been suspended from his job following his arrest as part of “Operation Open House” for allegedly arranging to meet with a 15-year-old girl for sex.
Conte, who lives in Farmingdale, New Jersey, was charged with second-degree child luring, as were the other 23 defendants. Some face additional second- or three-degree luring charges.
Also arrested were Richard Hoffman of Mays Landing, New Jersey — a 23-year-old firefighter accused of a trying to lure a 14-year-old girl — and Christopher Vargas of Toms River, New Jersey — a 29-year-old nurse who allegedly tried to meet a 15-year-old boy for sex.
Thomas Graciano, 28, of Brick, was arrested for allegedly trying to lure a 15-year-old boy; Graciano is a physical therapist at a retirement home. Thomas Fuller, a 44-year-old sterilization technician from Toms River, is also accused of trying to lure a 15-year-old boy.
Data entry clerk Anthony Perfidio, 24, of Barnegat, New Jersey, was arrested for allegedly trying to lure a 15-year-old boy as was Brian Degnan, 33, of Toms River. Unemployed Nabindranauth Nandalall, 24, of the Bronx, N.Y., was arrested after allegedly pursuing a 15-year-old girl, which is what detectives have accused consultant William D. Davis, 23, Bayville, of doing.
Security guard Mina Beshay, 27, of Monroe Township, was arrested for allegedly trying to lure a 15-year-old girl, and also faces attempted debauching morals of a child and attempted showing obscene material to a minor charges.
The same charges were filed against both Joshua Rauter, 31, of Little Egg Harbor Township — a public works employee who was arrested for allegedly trying to lure a 14-year-old girl — and Volvi Lowinger, 23, of Lakewood — a college student accused of trying to lure a 15-year-old girl.
In addition, Lowinger faces another charges of attempted sexual assault on a minor. That same charge was levied against Thomas Blumensteel, a 47-year-old hotel manager who lives in Manchester, New Jersey, for allegedly trying to lure a 15-year-old boy while landscaper Zachary Vincent, 24, of Forked River, was arrested for allegedly trying to lure a 15-year-old girl.
Blumensteel is also a registered sex offender who served three years in prison for sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy in 1997, according to investigators.
Joseph Martin, a 35-year-old unemployed man from Seaside Heights, who allegedly tried to lure a 14-year-old girl for sex, is also charged with attempted sexual assault on a minor. That same offense was alleged against mechanic Charles Schlottfeld, 26, of Bayville, who was arrested for allegedly trying to lure a 14-year-old girl, and Douglass Walton, 54, of Hillsborough, who works in produce and was arrested for allegedly trying to lure a 14-year-old boy.
More serious charges face William Singleton, 24, of Pemberton Township, who police allege tried to lure a 14-year-old girl for sex. The restaurant worker also is charged with second-degree attempted sexual assault on a minor.
Also facing an added second-degree attempted sexual assault on a minor charge are Jonathan Vece, 22, of Turnersville, a canvasser arrested for allegedly trying to lure a 14-year-old-girl; 51-year-old Lawrence Ivancic of Toms River, who is unemployed and accused of trying to lure a 14-year-old girl; train conductor Robert Lisicki, 51, of Metuchen, who was arrested for allegedly trying to lure a 15-year-old boy; and Steven Portnoy, 27, an unemployed resident of Egg Harbor Township, who was arrested for allegedly trying to lure a 14-year-old girl.
Dylan Daffron, 28, of Lacey Township, was arrested for allegedly trying to lure a 15-year-old boy. The retail cashier was also charged second-degree attempted sexual assault on a minor, third-degree attempted debauching morals of a child, and third-degree attempted showing obscene material to a minor. The same charges were filed against dry cleaner David Studnicky, 64, of Toms River, who was arrested for allegedly trying to lure a 15-year-old boy.
PEOPLE’s attempts to reach all 24 men for comment Friday were unsuccessful.
None of the defendants has entered pleas to the charges they face, and it was unclear if any had retained lawyers who could speak on their behalf.