Since 2015, nearly 300 men in cities and towns across Washington State have been arrested in online-predator stings, most of them run by the State Patrol and code-named Operation Net Nanny. The men range in age from 17 to 77, though about a quarter are 25 or younger. As many as two dozen have been rounded up in a single sting and charged with attempted rape of a child, as Jace Hambrick was, even though no actual children were involved. The emails and texts offering sex are written by undercover officers. The “girls” in the photos are not 13. They are police officers, typically the youngest women on the force.
For law enforcement, stings are an efficient way to make high-profile felony arrests and secure convictions. In June 2016, John Garden, a State Patrol detective, emailed a fellow trooper about joining him on a sting in Spokane. “See if you can come play” and “chat some guys in,” he wrote, according to a court filing. The conviction rate in cases that go to trial is about 95 percent, though most don’t get that far. There is such shame associated with a sex crime, let alone a child sex crime, that a majority of the defendants plead guilty rather than face a jury. At least five of the men have committed suicide, including a 66-year-old caught in the same operation as Hambrick who then fled to California. As the police there moved to make the arrest, the man shot himself in the head.
An analysis of court records in Washington State stings, as well as interviews with police and prosecutors, reveals that most of the men arrested have no felony record. A strong predictor of predatory behavior is an obsession with child pornography, but at the time of their arrest, according to the State Patrol, 89 percent have none in their possession and 92 percent have no history of violent crime. They are nonetheless sentenced, on average, to more than six years in prison with no chance of parole, according to my analysis of the 271 arrests I was able to confirm. (State police calculate the average is just over five years.) Once released, the men are listed on the state’s sex-offender registry for at least 10 years — and often for life.