Operation COVID Chat Down Nets 34 Child Predators

The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office along with other law enforcement led an operation codenamed “Operation COVID Chat Down” that netted the arrest of 34 Central Valley child predators. (Courtesy of Fresno County Sheriffs Office)

The Fresno County Sheriff Department held a press conference Friday, Aug. 7 to discuss a recent operation that targeted alleged sexual predators preying on children.

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims called it Operation COVID Chat Down, an undercover operation led by the Central California Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) and several law enforcement agencies which included the Clovis Police Department.

During the operation 34 Central Valley men were arrested in charges related to arranging to meet with a child for sexual exploitation.

(Courtesy of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office)

Mims said due to school closures and the lack of extracurricular activities children are using more social media platforms.

“A potential danger of being online more is an encounter with a sexual predator who is seeking relationships with children,” Mims said.

The operation took part for a month between July and August of this year and had detectives pose as children between 12 and 13-year-olds to lure predators.

Detectives used several apps to talk with the men and once the predators asked to meet the child a meeting was arranged at a predetermined location and the suspect was arrested. No actual children were used in the operation.

Notable arrests were of a 55-year-old man from Clovis, Thomas Binford, who is a registered sex offender and during the arrest was found with child pornography.

Another man arrested had intentions of having relations with a 13-year-old girl and later told detectives he was HIV positive.

The operation remains ongoing and that more possible arrests can be made.

Mims also mentions that these individuals do not qualify for the zero-bail rule and do not qualify for an early release. She also commented that in 2019 there were 50 arrests total for child predators and this year there have already been more than 90 arrests.

Special Agent Tatum King, who is the representative of Homeland Security investigations in Northern California and the Central Valley, said that there has been a significant surge of online exploitation compared to last year. King also mentioned that this wasn’t just a problem in the Central Valley, but that it was an international problem because the internet has no borders.

“We are going to continue focusing on protecting our children, our most valuable members of our community.” King said.

Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright said that this was a great example of different agencies working together to protect children. He talked about the charges being filed against the accused and went on to mention that keeping children safe was everyone’s responsibility.

“It’s the community’s responsibility to keep our children safe,” Wright said. “It’s your duty, your responsibility to see what they (children) are up to and to make sure they are not victimized.”

Mims commended the investigators in the operation for their efforts on bringing these criminals to justice.

Mims stressed to the community that these criminals are real and they are here in the Central Valley.

“These people are out there, they are real, they exist and they are looking for your children, your grandchildren to exploit,” Mims said. “We are working hard to keep that from happening.”

Jorge Rodriguez has a passion for journalism and wants to bring the community information and great stories. After high school Jorge joined the U.S. Army and while in active duty he was deployed twice to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. While in college he worked for the Fresno City College Rampage and the Fresno State Collegian newspapers. He graduated from Fresno State in 2019 with a degree in print journalism.