One night last November, a Fort Benning soldier living in Phenix City went on Craigslist looking for a new home and got into the website’s section for casual sexual encounters, where he saw a posting from Brianna.
It had a pink and black logo with a crown that said Brianna was a princess, and she was to spend Veterans Day weekend alone, adding “yay!” She was looking to meet some guys. Her posting was marked W4M, meaning women looking for men.
The soldier, Derrick Smalls, then 38, called the phone number on the ad, then hung up.
Then the number texted back: “Who’s this?”
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That’s how his text exchange with Brianna began. As they flirted, she mentioned she had a secret. The secret was that she was 14, and “new to this online stuff.” She would understand if he wanted to end their conversation.
“What’s good. No need for playing around. Let’s hook up,” Smalls replied. “I’m 21, so is that an issue.”
As they continued on, Brianna repeatedly asked what Smalls wanted to do. Finally he answered, “Drinking, sucking, and f-----g you down.”
When Brianna took the witness stand to testify Thursday in federal court, it was obvious she had lied: She was not 14; she was not new to online stuff; she was not a girl; and she wasn’t a princess, either.
She was Alan Wilkerson, a balding, bearded, Tallapoosa, Ga., police officer assigned to serve as online bait for sexual predators during last year’s Internet sting titled “Operation Hidden Guardian,” which netted 21 suspects here in Columbus.
Smalls, 39, was one of them. He’s now on trial in U.S. District Court, charged with attempted Internet enticement of a minor.
Wilkerson and other witnesses testified Thursday to how undercover agents lured Smalls to a home they’d rented on Adelaide Drive in north Columbus, their operations center for “Hidden Guardian.”
Calling himself “Dave,” Smalls continued texting with Wilkerson, whose training in such chatting taught him to give certain cues to sound like a child. He said he had red hair and blue eyes and liked to run track. He misspelled words and used “lol” a lot.
“What does ‘lol’ mean?” Judge Clay Land asked. It’s short for “laugh out loud.”
When Smalls told Brianna what he wanted to do to her, Wilkerson replied, “Sounds OK to me. I just don’t want to get pregnant.” That’s the kind of thing a teen girl would worry about, the officer said.
To confirm Smalls’ true identity, Wilkerson arranged a meeting at a Shell station on Veterans Parkway at Moon Road. Brianna wasn’t there, but agents looking for the suspect could get his tag number and run it, if he pulled in.
Then Wilkerson invited him to the rented house. Smalls pulled into the driveway, but had second thoughts. Brianna texted him to come in. He told her to come outside.
Then he backed out of the driveway.
The officers inside told a 26-year-old, 5-foot-2 Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent named Haylee Peacock to step outside the door and wave at Smalls, who then pulled back in and came to the door, where he found guns in his face, and soon had handcuffs on his wrists.
When they took him to a back room for questioning, he claimed he’d come there to warn the girl’s parents about her online solicitation.
“I was going to wake the parents and speak to the parents,” he said on the recorded interview Assistant U.S. Attorney Melvin Hyde played for jurors in the courtroom.
He kept repeating that, but his interrogators didn’t buy it. Eventually he began to agree with their suggesting he messed up: “I made a mistake. I should have known better. … I took inappropriate action. … I made a mistake all the way around.”
Defense attorney Barbara Agricola told jurors in her opening statement that they’d see her client was just repeating what the agents said, because he nervously believed they only wanted him to admit an error in judgment.
She emphasized that Wilkerson only once said Brianna was 14, and people on such hookup sites lie all the time. She claimed Smalls thought Brianna was just playing games with him, hence his reply that he was only 21.
She noted also that Smalls tried to back out, when he got to the rented house, and came in only after he saw a 26-year-old woman at the door.
Of his lewd comments to Brianna, she said he believed he was speaking to an older woman playing a sexual game: “He talks dirty to her like he thinks she wants.”
Smalls is from Charleston, S.C., and came here in the Army, where he has served 16 years and had six deployments, she said. He is married and has three children, and his family is in Kansas, a long separation.
“As you can imagine, that takes a toll on a marriage,” Agricola said. “They’ve gone down different paths.” So Smalls became isolated here: “He’s alone. He’s lonely.”
But that’s all, she told jurors: “Ladies and gentlemen, Derrick is not a predator. He’s just not.”
Predators come in different sets, said Hyde: Some are pedophiles, a medical diagnosis of people who sexually are attracted to children. Others are “opportunists”: They have no craving for sex with kids, but if an underage partner is available, they will proceed.
Smalls continued to pursue Brianna after being informed of her age, not only texting his intentions but driving at midnight from Phenix City to meet her in north Columbus, Hyde noted, adding that Smalls conceded this during his recorded interview: “He said ‘OK, I just wanted some companionship.’ ”
Agricola acknowledged that Smalls said, “I was looking for companionship,” but claimed he again was just repeating what an agent had suggested.
The trial resumes Friday at 9 a.m.