‘Operation Hidden Guardian’ leads to 21 arrests in Columbus area sting
A federal judge has sentenced a former elementary school bus driver and custodian arrested in an internet child sexual predator sting in Columbus in 2017.
U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land sentenced William Gerald “Bill” Pruitt of Franklin, N.C., to 10 years in prison after a jury in March found Pruitt guilty on one count of enticing a child for sex.
Pruitt had the last case still pending from “Operation Hidden Guardian,” in which 21 suspects were arrested from Nov. 9 to Nov. 13, 2017, some of them lured to a house undercover agents rented in Columbus’ Maple Ridge neighborhood.
In the multi-agency Internet Crimes Against Children sting, agents posed as minors looking for social contacts online, one posting to Craigslist an ad from “Brianna,” who claimed to be 14 years old.
Pruitt contacted “Brianna” on Nov. 10, 2017, and despite being informed repeatedly of her reputed age, he turned the message exchange toward sex, asking her to send nude photos and used pantyhose to his mother’s house, where he could retrieve the undergarments for his own use, investigators said.
Two days later, he told her he was driving from North Carolina to Columbus to have sex with her. Agents arrested him when he arrived at the Maple Ridge house, where he told them “he had been battling sexual fantasies with similar-aged girls,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Besides enticing a child for sex, Pruitt, then 48, was charged attempting to produce child pornography. A Columbus jury on March 7 found him guilty on the enticement count and not guilty on the pornography charge. He was sentenced June 6.
‘I done it’
“I think my civil rights was violated,” Pruitt told Land as he sat with defense attorney Jennifer Curry in federal court.
Land informed him a sentencing hearing was not the place to appeal his conviction; that would have to come later.
“I’m sorry that I was online and that I done it,” Pruitt said then.
Two men who knew Pruitt came from North Carolina to speak on his behalf, and a woman who lives there wrote a letter vouching for his character.
One man said he’d known Pruitt 12 to 15 years and worked with him in a Baptist relief organization. He noted Pruitt had been around children often, as a school bus driver and custodian, with no complaints about his work conduct.
Pruitt was fired from his school jobs after his arrest, according to the North Carolina newspaper The Sylva Herald, which reported he had been working at Smokey Mountain Elementary School in Whittier.
Curry told Land that Pruitt failed three different school grades when he was growing up, and she believed he needed a follow-up psychological evaluation and treatment for mental health issues.
During his trial, Pruitt took the witness stand and blamed his arrest on a man named “Steve,” whom he said had stolen his phone, contacted “Brianna,” taken photos of Pruitt without his knowledge, and sent the images to the undercover agent.
Land told Curry he had no choice but to sentence Pruitt according to federal guidelines, which mandated a minimum prison term of 10 years.
Pruitt was among three “Operation Hidden Guardian” suspects who went to trial. He and a second defendant were convicted. A third was acquitted after his defense attorney successfully argued his client simply didn’t believe the female undercover agent he talked to on the telephone was a minor.
Most of the other cases were resolved through guilty pleas.
During the sting, undercover agents had more than 600 contacts with suspects via text, chat rooms or social media sites, and in more than 400 of those exchanges, the suspects initiated the contact and directed the communications toward sex, investigators said.