Last ‘Hidden Guardian’ sex sting case results in conviction of North Carolina man

‘Operation Hidden Guardian’ leads to 21 arrests in Columbus area sting

An undercover operation led to the arrest of 21 people accused of preying on children online for sex, authorities said. The multi-jurisdictional operation was centered in Columbus, Georgia, and launched in November 2017.
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An undercover operation led to the arrest of 21 people accused of preying on children online for sex, authorities said. The multi-jurisdictional operation was centered in Columbus, Georgia, and launched in November 2017.

The deliberations took longer than the testimony, but a federal jury in Columbus finally found a North Carolina school bus driver and custodian guilty of enticing a minor for sex last week in another case stemming from a 2017 sexual predator sting called “Operation Hidden Guardian.”

After responding to a Craigslist ad and flirting via text with an undercover agent posing as a 14-year-old girl named “Brianna,” William Gerald Pruitt, 49, traveled from Franklin, N.C., to meet the girl at a house in Columbus’ Maple Ridge neighborhood on Nov. 12, 2017, where he was arrested at the door — one of 21 suspects nabbed in the sting orchestrated by the Georgia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

Most of the suspects later pleaded guilty, but Pruitt was at least the third to go to trial. Defense attorney Jennifer Curry said her client’s was the last case from the sting to be resolved. In two other cases tried, one defendant was acquitted and the other convicted.

Prosecutors alleged Pruitt, who worked for schools in Franklin, persisted in his pursuit of “Brianna” even after being told up front that she was only 14. He said he wanted to have sex with her, tried to get her to send him a nude photo, and offered money for her to send her used underwear to his mother’s house, where he could retrieve it for his use, authorities said.

After just one day of testimony on March 4, the jury started deliberating at 11 a.m. the next day and did not reach a verdict until 3:30 p.m. Thursday. Jurors found Pruitt not guilty of attempting to produce child pornography by soliciting the nude photo, Curry said.

She said that when the agent posing as Brianna refused to send Pruitt a nude photo, Pruitt asked for a picture of her face. He received an image of a female GBI agent who clearly was an adult, Curry said.

When arrested at the house GBI agents rented for the operation in Columbus, Pruitt readily admitted to the communications. Curry argued he did not understand what they told him about his right to avoid incriminating himself and to have an attorney present during questioning.

Pruitt was in special education classes through high school, failed the third, seventh and ninth grades, and never passed his reading comprehension test, the attorney said.

Curry argued Pruitt lacked the capacity to grasp the consequences of his confession, and in her closing argument compared Pruitt’s case to that of Brendan Dassey in the Netflix crime documentary series “Making a Murderer,” in which Dassey’s conviction as an accessory to a murder later was overturned, a federal judge finding Dassey’s confession was coerced.

But Curry did not file a motion to suppress Pruitt’s statement to investigators. Pruitt denied having seen the photo the agent texted him. When he took the witness stand, he blamed his actions on someone named “Steve” and claimed he falsely confessed because he feared being shot.

U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land set Pruitt’s sentencing for 2 p.m. June 6. He faces a minimum of 10 years in prison and a maximum life sentence.

“Operation Hidden Guardian” started Nov. 9 and ended on Nov. 13, 2017. Undercover agents posing as minors online had more than 600 exchanges with contacts via text, chat rooms or social media sites, authorities said.

In more than 400 exchanges, a suspect initiated the contact and directed the communications toward sex, investigators said.

But some defense attorneys alleged entrapment, and some residents living near the rental house agents used objected to authorities luring sexual predators to their neighborhood.

One of the suspects who went to trial was acquitted after his defense attorney successfully argued the defendant simply didn’t believe a female undercover agent he talked to on the telephone was a minor.

Tim Chitwood is from Seale, Ala., and started as a police beat reporter with the Ledger-Enquirer in 1982. He since has covered Columbus’ serial killings and other homicides, following some from the scene of the crime to trial verdicts and ensuing appeals. He also has been a Ledger-Enquirer humor columnist since 1987. He’s a graduate of Auburn University, and started out working for the weekly Phenix Citizen in Phenix City, Ala.