The Highlands County Sheriff’s Officein Sebring, FL, and the United States Marshals Service, in conjunction with the Highlands Probation Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, conducted Operation Disconnect, which led to 37 arrests across Highlands County, FL. Of those arrested, 26 were registered sex offenders who were either banned from having internet access at all or who failed to report their internet usage to the sheriff's office, as part of their probation. Each failure to report is a felony offense.The investigation also revealed several subjects with active warrants in Special Victims Unit cases. Highland County Sheriff’s Office launched the operation to confirm sex offenders had reported their email addresses and social media identifiers as required by Floridalaw.Highland Countywill be offering the much anticipated OffenderWatch Safe Virtual Neighborhood app to help parents concerned about their children being contacted by sex offenders online. Knowing theoffender’sinternet identifiers, together withtheOffenderWatchapp, parentscanbe alerted when their children are contacted by offenders.
Prior tothe operation, the sheriff’s officerequested assistance fromOffenderWatchto obtain a list of offenders who moved into theirjurisdictionfrom out of state over a two-year period.Using that list, the Sheriff’s office was able to confirm that those relocating offenders were properly registered and arrested two offenders who were non-compliant.In August 2020, thejoint agencies received subpoenas to allow a full searchoftheoffenders’ person,placeand property,including electronic devices.In preparing for the operation,thesheriff’s office usedOffenderWatchtosearch for allsexoffenders on probation, collectingtheir reported email,phone,and social media information, along withhome, school and workaddressesand other information.“If I had to compile this information on my own, it would have tripled my time,” said Sgt.Steven Ritenour with the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office Special Victims Unit.Investigatorsused thisinfo(privacy data was removed)to provide alistof offenderinternetidentifiersand phone numbersas part of subpoenasto several social media (i.e. Snapchat, Google, Facebook and Twitter) and phoneproviders.Subscriber informationfrom these subpoenaswas cross-checked against the informationprovided by the offender in the OffenderWatch system and discrepancies noted. The tactical teams executed search warrants andarrested 37 people for over 100 violations and charges.During the operation,electronic devices such as phones, computers and gaming devices were examined for unregistered accounts,which is a violation of the terms of their probation.As a result of the publicityreceived from theoperation,several offenders have come into the office to update their information or turned themselves in.Thesheriff's officehas also received more community tips throughOffenderWatch,andthey expect more arrests to follow.“OffenderWatchwas key. If not for it, I probablywouldn’thave done this operation,” said Sgt.Ritenour.Theoperation was a huge success.Highlands County Sheriff’s Officewasable to effectively track offender movements across jurisdictions, accessoffender recordsvery quickly,produceinformationneeded toobtainwarrants andsubpoenas,conductjointoperations, andeasilyshare informationwithpartner agencies.OffenderWatchsaved many hours byallowingthem to searchfor offenders nationally,reportand export dataon offenders, centralize the collection of investigativefindings,share records with other agencies, and the US Marshals. The net result led to multiple arrests.By enforcing the Floridastatutesrequiring the reporting ofphone numbers, email addresses and social media internet identifiers,Highland County Sheriff’s Office can offer an effectivechild online safety program using theOffenderWatch Safe Virtual Neighborhood App.Contact usto learn more.References:Highlands County Sheriff’s Office Special Victims Unit, in-person interviewwithSgt. Steven Ritenour.Usmarshals.gov. 2020. U.S. Marshals, Law Enforcement Partners Conduct Sex Offender Operation In Southern Florida. Available at: https://www.usmarshals.gov/news/chron/2020/082520.htm.FOX 35 Orlando. 2020. More Than Two Dozen Registered Sex Offenders Arrested For Improper Online Activity In Highlands County. Available at: https://www.fox35orlando.com/news/more-than-two-dozen-registered-sex-offenders-arrested-for-improper-online-activity-in-highlands-county.