Almost all of the men arrested in a November child sexual predator sting led by the Columbus Police Department with the help of multiple law enforcement agencies have had their cases moved into federal court.
Twenty of the 21 suspects arrested in a sting called Operation Hidden Guardian were indited on Nov. 16 by a federal grand jury on charges of attempted online enticement of a minor. The charge carries a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, and a maximum term of life in prison, a $250,000 fine, or both, up to a lifetime term of supervised release, and mandatory sex offender registration.
Reginald Crowell, 36, of Pittsview, Ala.; Jonathan Jenkins, 23, of Columbus; Ke Song, 24, of Auburn, Ala.; Kenneth Jordan, 29, of Columbus; Edwin Nieves, 55, of Columbus; Ji Won Kim, 26, of Atlanta; Christopher McGowan, 32, of Mechanicsburg, Pa.; Collis Eaton, 48, of Midway, Ala.; Derrick Smalls, 38, of Phenix City; Michael Everett, 22, of Columbus; Jimmy Cobb, 35, of Columbus; Derrick Weldon, 30, of Columbus; Harold Bates, 35, of Selma, Ala.; Jarrold Long, 27, of Columbus; William Pruitt, 48, Franklin, N.C.; Eric Menefee, 50, of Opelika, Ala.; Gary Whitfield, 28, of Columbus; Brian Corcoran, 42, of Columbus; Robert Alan Moore, 31, of Ladonia, Ala.; and Uthemes Taylor III, 30, of Columbus are being detained pending March trial dates in front of U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land.
Most of those charged were arraigned last month in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge M. Stephen Hyles, who ordered them held without bond because of the nature of the charges.
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Charges against Austin Pierce, 26, of Columbus, remain in Muscogee County Superior Court. He is charged with sexual exploitation of children and trafficking person for labor or sexual servitude. He also faces an unrelated peeping tom charge from June.
“The federal punishments are more severe than any state charges,” said Muscogee County District Attorney Julia Slater. “We told the feds any case that they think they can prosecute and would like to have, it was fine with our office if they took it.”
The suspects, whose ages range from 22 to 55, allegedly traveled to various areas with the intention of meeting children for sex.
Launched on Nov. 9, Operation Hidden Guardian involved investigators posing as children online. They had more than 600 exchanges with people on various online platforms, including social media and chat rooms. Within more than 400 of those exchanges, the suspect initiated contact with the “child” and directed the conversation toward sex.
The agencies that were involved in the investigation were the Columbus Police Department, Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office, District Attorney’s Office for the the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit, United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Child Exploitation and Computer Crimes Unit and the Georgia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.