'Alicia's Law' paves way for local online sex stings
HUDSON — Online predator investigations in St. Croix County didn't start and stop with the Super Bowl.
A joint operation among state officials and local law enforcement agencies made headlines and netted multiple arrests when the massive sporting event descended on the Twin Cities earlier this year. As it turned out, it was just the beginning of such investigations in the area.
"The officers cut their teeth during the Super Bowl operation," said St. Croix County Sheriff Office Lt. Brent Standaert.
Now they're ready to sink them in, thanks to new training and resources.
Officers from around the county were trained this month by the state justice department's Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) division. The training was administered through Alicia's Law, the 2016 bill that streamlines the process for law enforcement agencies to arrest online child predators.
The training adds the St. Croix County Sheriff's Office, and New Richmond, Hudson and River Falls police departments to a list of more than 270 affiliates in a Wisconsin network
"We have to rely on our local partners," said Jesse Crowe, special agent in charge for the justice department.
Once trained, the officers were able to access different online platforms and take on a persona that officials said has led to at least two investigations.
Standaert said the training was eye-opening for the officers.
"They were, quite frankly, shocked at how much is out there," he said.
In addition to the training, the sheriff's office also received more resources, thanks to a local business donation. Roberts-based Laptop Chips donated 10 Android-powered tablets to the department after owner Erik Salomonsen got connected with Standaert through a mutual acquaintance.
Salomonsen said a short chat was about all it took to get on board.
"We wanted to do whatever we could to be part of their cause," he said. "It's a sad, scary place — social media. I hope the county is able to get some success with this program."
Standaert said the advent of Alicia's Law, which dedicates funding for ICAC training and overtime, allows investigators at "the average agency" to work on cases they wouldn't otherwise.
St. Croix County Sheriff Scott Knudson said those cases represent proactive policing, the same way officers would do patrolling areas in squad cars.
"That same kind of thing's going to be happening at a desk here," he said.
As to how often online predator policing will be done, Knudson didn't specify, but said the gravity of the problem dictates a more regular presence.
"There are resources that will be utilized much more often than they have in the past," he said.
The devices provided by Laptop Chips allow officers to do the investigations on something other than standard-issued department computers, which Standaert said would likely flag the lurid conversations that often comprise an online predator sting.
That, he said, and the tablets "give us the anonymity we need," much like an unmarked police car does on the streets.
Local cops can either target predators from the area or hone in on suspects from anywhere. If investigations lead outside the region, local cops can send out ICAC notifications to agencies in their respective communities to help close the investigative circuit.
Standaert said it was just that kind of notification this year that led St. Croix County officers to Glenwood City teacher Peter Gaustad after learning from Missouri authorities that he allegedly lured a child into an online sexual relationship.
"The network," Standaert said, "is getting more robust."