NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – They come from all walks of life and they share something terrible in common – preying on children for sex and other types of abuse.
Some of them live in big cities – others in small towns. Some are trusted authority figures, such as teachers or coaches – even family members. Others lurk in the privacy of their home, using the internet to feed an insatiable appetite. They work to build trust before doing something unspeakable.
“You see it on the news and you think, eh, it won’t happen here, but it does. It happens every day throughout the state of Tennessee, the U.S., the world,” says special agent Robert Burghardt with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
“These individuals can groom our children, kinda become their best friend – maybe have the same likes or interests,” he adds. “And over time they build that relationship and eventually they can possibly meet up and have sexual intercourse or persuade or solicit images of a child naked.”
On February 14th, Metro Nashville Police charged a man with sending an inappropriate video of a six-year-old girl into a chat room. 25-year-old Jonathon Ladd is charged with especially aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor. The girl is said to be the daughter of a friend. The arrest came after Metro Police say an out-of-state undercover FBI agent monitored the chat and alerted them.
Local, state and federal authorities all work extensively to target predators. It’s a never-ending task. “The team here at TBI is dedicated – men and women. We investigate and are on the clock 24/7,” Burghardt says. “Whenever a tip comes in, even at three in the morning, we’re up working it trying to find the individual or the possible child being harmed.”
In January, TBI agents and Sumner County investigators arrested a man on multiple counts of sexual exploitation of a minor following a tip from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which works closely with law enforcement across the country. 27-year-old Ryan Randolph is accused of uploading multiple files of child pornography to an online platform. Randolph faces 30 counts of sexual exploitation of a minor.
The damage is lasting. “The things we see a human should probably never see in their life,” says Burghardt. “They’re exploited for the rest of their life.”
Earlier this month, seven people were charged in Maury County in connection with a disturbing sexploitation ring involving children. Investigators are still looking into the group that allegedly traded graphic images that possibly involve juveniles from Middle Tennessee. The Maury County Sheriff’s office, working with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, identified the group after disturbing images of child sex acts showed up on social media sites and cell phone video. According to arrest affidavits, members of the gang were reportedly exchanging lewd pictures of children engaged in sex.
Around the same time, two people in Perry County were arrested after the sheriff there says investigators found heinous child exploitation images. A citizen tip led the authorities to 47-year-old Brian Mock and 41-year-old Marie Almond at a home on Shelton Street. Investigator Matt Votaw says that’s where they uncovered images of young children that were so disturbing, it’s hard to talk about. “Horrendous, unspeakable, just gut-wrenching,” he explained.
Several other recent cases extend beyond the internet lurkers. In December, a music producer in Franklin was indicted on more than a dozen charges stemming from reported sex crimes against at least two children. Police there say they began investigating 50-year-old Samuel Sylvester after a client of his came forward with disturbing allegations. Sylvester, known professionally as “Sammy,” was arrested following a grand jury indictment on charges including seven counts of statutory rape by an authority figure, seven counts of sexual battery by an authority figure, aggravated sexual battery and two counts of child rape.
According to investigators, the charges stem from incidents involving two children, ages 12 and 16. The children were not related to Sylvester and had no connection to each other, police added. Detectives said they are concerned there could be more victims because Sylvester worked with children.
News 2’s Alex Denis is investigating new trends and tactics being used by adults who prey on children. She has spoken extensively with authorities who opened up to her to reveal new information on the scope of these disturbing sex crimes. Her special reports “Unspeakable Crimes: What Parents Need to Know,” air all day Thursday, February 20th, in every newscast on News 2.
Each story digs deeper into a dark world to help parents understand the important steps they need to take to protect their children.