RCSD: “Operation Relentless Guardian” results in arrests for online sex crimes

Five have been arrested for having sexual dialogue with undercover officers posing as teenage girls

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WOLO) —Law enforcement agencies across the state are cracking down on prostitution and online sex trafficking. 

As part of “Operation Relentless Guardian”, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott announced the arrests of more than a dozen people for crimes related to soliciting sex over the internet.

In order to combat a growing number of internet sex crimes in South Carolina, several Richland County deputies joined forces with several law enforcement agencies to stop the problem right at the source.

“We were in chatrooms, various sites. We communicated with these travelers. They sent nude pictures, they solicited sex from a 15-year-old girl. They did everything that you’d think a monster would be,” said Sheriff Lott. 

Sheriff Lott announced the arrests of five people for sex crimes involving minors, with nine more warrants pending.

Some of them traveled from states like Florida and Georgia under the pretense of meeting a teenage girl for sex.

According to the Sheriff’s Department, fourteen people over the course of five days were communicating with undercover officers posing on the internet as young girls. The department says individuals did several things during these interactions, like soliciting sex, sending nude photographs to the girls, and arriving at a location with the intent of having sex.

Attorney General Alan Wilson says more than a thousand people have been arrested for these crimes since he took office in 2011.

“The internet is the like the new Wild, Wild West. It’s the new frontier, and this is the new generation of law enforcement officers who are out there on this new frontier, chasing down these types of predators,” Wilson said.

One of the people arrested was former Richland County Deputy Derek Vandenham, who was fired after being arrested on charges of criminal solicitation of a minor and attempted criminal sexual conduct (CSC) of a minor in the second degree.

“That was something that made me sick to my stomach to know that one of my deputies that I trusted and that we put out here in this community was one of these monsters. This was one of the most disgusting things that I’ve had to deal with was to have a deputy do something like this,” Sheriff Lott said.

As a result of these arrests, Sheriff Lott is calling for parents to be more diligent about what their children do online.

“You have to be a parent. You have to monitor your children and what they’re doing. We can’t continue to have this go on in our community,” Sheriff Lott said.

Sheriff Lott also announced that the operation led to the arrests of 14 people, including former South Carolina DOT commissioner John Hardee, who were attempting to solicit a prostitute.

In a statement, the South Carolina Department of Transportation says the SCDOT Commission will talk about possibly changing the name of an expressway named after Hardee at their next meeting on September 19.

Some of the agencies who took part in the operation include the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office, U.S. Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Marshals, Greenville County Sheriff’s Office, Horry County Sheriff’s Office, York County Sheriff’s Office, Marion County Sheriff’s Office, Bishopville Police Department, Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Office, Aiken County Sheriff’s Office, and the Mount Pleasant Police Department.

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