4 men busted in Harris County online sting

Four men accused of preying on a 15-year-old girl online were busted in a sting by Harris County sheriff’s deputies over the past few weeks.

Steve Robert Howard, 25, of Columbus; Justin Copeland, 21, of Fortson; Kurt Venters, 23, of Phenix City; and John Perrine, 23, of Phenix City each face accusations they contacted the girl’s profile through an online dating website, had lewd conversations and sent obscene pictures, authorities said.

Howard, Copeland and Venters made arrangements to meet with the “girl” for sex, though by then sheriff’s deputies had become involved and were posing as the teen. When the men arrived for their rendezvous, deputies arrested them, said sheriff’s Investigator Glenn Presley.

Perrine never went to a meeting with the “girl,” and deputies arrested him at his home, Presley added.

The girl made a profile on a dating website about a month ago, noting on her page that she was only 15. Presley said website users are supposed to be 18.

“There were several times she talked to them,” Presley said. “You can see their intentions right up front.”

The suspects, who don’t know each other, were four of more than a dozen men who contacted the girl through her online profile.

“It was very lewd language,” Presley said of the suspects. “Like what they wanted to do with her.”

The girl’s mother discovered what her daughter was doing and contacted the sheriff’s office. Investigators then became involved. The girl stopped using her online profile, and investigators began impersonating the girl while chatting with the suspects, Presley said.

“They would ask for lewd pictures,” Presley said. “Then they would send lewd pictures. They would definitely talk about the age. ‘Well, you’re not going to tell anybody? I could definitely get in trouble because of my age.’”

Perrine was the first suspect arrested. A deputy and Perrine discussed meeting, though it never happened. Deputies obtained warrants for his arrest on charges of enticing a child for indecent purposes and furnishing obscene material to a minor. He was arrested May 3 at his home, Presley said.

Venters and Howard’s arrests happened May 8. Copeland followed on May 10. All three are charged with attempted statutory rape, attempted child molestation, and furnishing obscene material to a minor, the investigator added.

All three were arrested at the same location, which Presley declined to name.

“There were some things brought to the scene that would show intent,” he added, declining to give specifics.

The recent arrests mirror the 2006 “To Catch a Predator” sting in Harris County that involved Chris Hansen of the NBC “Dateline” show “To Catch a Predator.”

In that show, Hansen partners with various law enforcement agencies to catch men who contact underage girls online. However, just like in the recent arrests, the “girls” are actually adults posing as juveniles. A meeting is arranged, the suspects arrive and then are caught on video. Hansen interviews some of them on video before the suspects leave the home and are arrested.

Twenty men were arrested in the 2006 sting. Three went to trial and were convicted. The rest, except one, pleaded guilty. The remaining suspect from the 2006 sting failed to appear for his court appearance. He remains at large.