UPDATE 8/10/23 6:10 p.m.
Law enforcement in Mason County announced the arrests of three men who allegedly tried to have sex with underage girls they were chatting with over the internet.
A news conference was held earlier Thursday afternoon announcing the three arrests.
They are the latest in a string of arrests in several counties in Northern Michigan in connection with the Genesee Human Oppression Strike Team, or G.H.O.S.T. program.
Mason County Sheriff said he was surprised at how fast it was before they had their first suspect.
“They had almost immediately someone chatting with the 15-year-old decoy. And within a half hour that meeting had taken place and we had one in custody,” said Cole.
Mason County Sheriff Kim Cole said the suspects, Stephen Volpp from Hart, Kenneth Smith from Ormond Beach, Florida who was camping in Oceana County and Gabriel Talevich from the Grand Rapids area, were arrested at Sutton’s Landing Park, near Ludington, the place where they were supposed to meet the 15-year-old. Instead, they greeted by police.
“I’m thankful that nobody in Mason County chatted online with our decoy. But it troubles me to know that people are willing to travel from as far away as Grand Rapids to come here and meet a 15-year-old girl,” said Cole.
He said the men arrested knew what they were doing.
“It was crystal clear that this was a 15-year-old girl that the perpetrators were coming to meet, and that there was a sex act involved and there was a price associated with that sex act,” said Cole.
Cole said the sting was a joint effort with several law enforcement agencies, including the Genesee Human Oppression Strike Team.
“We’re the 53rd county that Genesee County has come in and assisted on. So having their involvement was nice. They have a format in place and I think we’re ready to go on our own next time,” said Cole.
Cole said they plan to do more ghost stings in the future.
“We’re not going to go away. We are going to continue the enforcement aspect of it and we’re going to work with our parents on educating them as to what their children could be getting themselves caught up in online,” said Cole.
Cole said parents need to be vigilant and says it’s a good idea to not let kids have phones at bedtime or in bathrooms.
“Because that’s when problems occur. Kids in bathrooms tend to take photos of themselves and kids late at night. You, as a parent, have no idea who your child’s interacting,” said Cole.
Checking phones daily is another way to keep kids safe. Cole said it might seem strict, but it’s not unreasonable to protect the naïve.
“They want to trust the people they’re communicating with because they don’t know what it’s like to be a victim. As we grow older, we see victims around us. We read about it in the paper, we see it online, we see it on the news,” said Cole.
The suspects were arraigned earlier Thursday in court on charges. Among them, soliciting minor for immoral purposes, using a computer in the commission of a crime and prostitution/engaging in services.
All three suspects are currently lodged in the county jail.
8/10/23 12 p.m.
Law enforcement officials said Thursday that three people have been arrested in an undercover human trafficking sting.
Over the past two weeks, local law enforcement groups posed as 15-year-olds online in order to catch people who are trying to engage in sexual acts with minors.
Genesee County Sheriff’s Office G.H.O.S.T. (Genesee Human Oppression Strike Team), the Ludington Police Department, the Michigan State Police, Mason County Prosecutor, and Mason County Sheriff’s Office were involved in the operation.
9&10 News will have more on this story as officials release more details.