A Fort Benning soldier jailed since his Veterans Day arrest in an online child predator sting now faces 10 years to life in federal prison after a jury found him guilty Friday of attempted Internet enticement of a minor.
The jury of seven women and five men deliberated just 90 minutes before finding Derrick Smalls guilty about 2:30 p.m. U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land set Smalls’ sentencing for 2 p.m. May 19.
Smalls, 39, was among 21 suspects charged last year in “Operation Hidden Guardian,” a multi-agency online sting in which undercover officers posed as minors in social media posts to bait men seeking sex with children.
Smalls made a call in response to a Craigslist ad with a pink and black logo showing a crown with the words, “Yes, I’m the Princess” beside the message, “I got Veterans weekend alone yay! W4M Columbus.” Attorneys said “W4M” means “women looking for men.”
Smalls hung up before anyone answered his Nov. 10 call, but he immediately got a text asking “Who’s this?”
That initiated an exchange in which Smalls believed he was texting with a female named “Brianna” who told him she was short, had red hair and blue eyes, liked to run track, and was “new to this online stuff.”
She was no Internet novice: She was Alan Wilkerson, a Tallapoosa, Ga., police officer trained to impersonate a young girl in online chats. Wilkerson was among 50 to 70 law enforcement officers operating out of a rented house on Adelaide Drive in north Columbus, where they sometimes lured the suspects with the promise of sex.
Testifying Thursday in Smalls’ trial, Debbie Garner, the special agent in charge of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Child Exploitation and Computer Crimes Unit, said the four-day operation involved 18 agencies and generated 600 contacts.
But most of those contacts withdrew when told the person with whom they were communicating was age 14 or younger, Garner said: “The good news is most people cease contact.”
Smalls did not. When Brianna told him she had a secret, he replied, “What’s the secret? You the po-po?” The term “po-po” means the police.
“No, I’m not a cop, jerk,” Brianna texted. “Hey, so to be honest, I’m 14 years old. If you don’t want to talk, I understand.”
Replied Smalls: “What’s good. No need playing around. Let’s hook up. I’m 21 so is that an issue.”
Smalls was 38 at the time.
During closing arguments Friday morning, Assistant U.S. Attorney Melvin Hyde quoted text exchanges in which Wilkerson as Brianna asked what Smalls wanted to do if they met.
“I want to do whatever you like and more, so shall we?” he wrote.
“Trust me and be honest and I’ll tell you what I’m comfortable with, babe,” Brianna texted.
Replied Smalls: “Drinking, sucking and f-----g you down.”
Brianna said she was OK with that, but she didn’t want to get pregnant.
“OK you won’t,” Smalls wrote.
It was nearing midnight when he left his Phenix City home to rendezvous with Brianna at a Shell station on Veterans Parkway at Moon Road, where agents hoped to get his tag number. Smalls did not stop at the station, instead going to a car wash next door.
Wilkerson then texted to invite him to the house on Adelaide Drive, where Smalls pulled into the driveway and messaged Brianna to come out. She told him to come in. He stayed in his car.
Then he started backing out of the driveway.
A 5-foot-2, 26-year-old GBI agent named Haylee Peacock then went to the front door, stepped outside under a porch light and waved. She rushed back in as Smalls pulled back into the driveway and started toward the door, where he was arrested shortly after midnight on Nov. 11.
Defense attorney Barbara Agricola told jurors Smalls believed Brianna had lied about her age, which is not uncommon in such exchanges. He thought she was an adult who was just playing games with him, and Peacock appeared to confirm that suspicion, the attorney said: “They put a 26-year-old adult female on the porch.”
Wilkerson only once said Brianna was 14, and the “casual encounters” section of Craigslist requires users to be at least 18, Agricola said, arguing jurors had to acquit Smalls if he believed he was dealing with another adult.
“It’s what he believed. That’s what you’re here to decide,” she said.
Hyde said the law requires only that Smalls take a “affirmative steps” toward inducing a minor to have sex with him: “You can think about it all you want, but you can’t take steps toward doing it.”
Smalls not only responded to the Craigslist ad, he got in his car and drove from Phenix City to Columbus late at night to meet a girl he believed to be 14, Hyde said. And the text in which he wrote what he wanted to do to Brianna made his intentions clear: “Where’s the ambiguity? Where’s the uncertainty?” Hyde asked jurors.
Smalls was convicted just two days after a jury acquitted the suspect in another case stemming from the sting operation. The defense attorney in that trial argued his client was baited by the 26-year-old GBI agent, having seen her picture and spoken to her on the telephone, and never believed he was dealing with a minor.