33 arrested on sex charges during Operation ‘Dirty Santa’ in Florida Panhandle

PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Thirty-three people were arrested on sex charges in the Florida Panhandle as the result of a four-day multi-agency operation dubbed Operation “Dirty Santa,” authorities said Monday.

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Panama City Police Department Chief Mark Smith said during a news conference that his department worked with the Bay County Sheriff’s Office, the Panama City Beach Police Department, the Lynn Haven Police Department, the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, three state agencies and four federal agencies, WMBB-TV and WEAR-TV reported.

“This was targeting sex offenders, child pornographers, and travelers who are coming from out of the area to meet minors for the purpose of having sex,” Smith said. “We can see that these arrests are going to grow as the further investigation continues.”

Among the people arrested were five minors, whose identities have not been released, the television station reported.

Smith said seven people arrested came from as far away as Biloxi, Mississippi to have sex with minors, according to WMBB.

In a news release, the charges included failure to register as a sex offender; failure to register an email address; failure to register an Internet identifier, such as a social media account or Internet provider; possession of child pornography; traveling to meet a minor for sex; lewd and lascivious battery; and aggravated sexual battery.

The persons who were identified by authorities ranged in age from 21 to 67, WEAR reported.

Panama City Beach Police Chief J.R. Talamantez said he worked closely with the cases involving people looking to have sex with minors.

“We wait for them to come to us, that’s how easy it is,” Talamantez said during a news conference. “All we did is pretend to be a child on the internet and these predators -- seven of them -- who decided to travel a significant distance to have sex with a child happened within four days.”

Lt. Jeramy Mathis, with the Bay County Sheriff’s Office, said it is important for parents to monitor their children’s activities online, WMBB reported.

“Although the internet is where your children are living their lives, you need to be living that life with them on the internet,” Mathis during the news conference. “You need to know who they are communicating with, you need to know what applications they are using and you need to know who they are speaking with.”

The agency leaders said they are proud of what they can accomplish when they come together as a team, WJHL-TV reported.

“I and the Panama City Police Department are proud to team up with dozens of local, state, and federal law enforcement officers, focused and dedicated to protecting the most innocent,” Smith told reporters. “They left their families to work long hours, at times into the early morning hours to keep other families safe.”

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