Above: Madison Police take Matthew S.

Sowers, 47, North Vernon, Indiana, into

custody in the parking lot of the King’s

Daughters’ Health Clinic in downtown

Madison. Sowers, charged with child solicitation and attempted sexual misconduct with

a minor, was one of 13 men arrested after a month-long investigation into cybercrime. Left: Madison Police take Adam Case Gaskins, 41, Aurora, Indiana, into custody at the Broadway Fountain in downtown Madison. Gaskins, charged with child solicitation, attempted sexual misconduct with a minor, possession of methamphetamine and possession of anabolic steroids, was one of 13 men arrested after a month-long investigation into cybercrime. (Madison Courier staff photo by Mark Campbell)
Above: Madison Police take Matthew S. Sowers, 47, North Vernon, Indiana, into custody in the parking lot of the King’s Daughters’ Health Clinic in downtown Madison. Sowers, charged with child solicitation and attempted sexual misconduct with a minor, was one of 13 men arrested after a month-long investigation into cybercrime. Left: Madison Police take Adam Case Gaskins, 41, Aurora, Indiana, into custody at the Broadway Fountain in downtown Madison. Gaskins, charged with child solicitation, attempted sexual misconduct with a minor, possession of methamphetamine and possession of anabolic steroids, was one of 13 men arrested after a month-long investigation into cybercrime. (Madison Courier staff photo by Mark Campbell)
Madison Police Department arrested two men within minutes of each other late Sunday night to close out a month-long cybercrime investigation that has netted 13 arrests overall for child solicitation, attempted sexual misconduct with a minor and drug charges ranging from marijuana to methamphetamine and anabolic steroids — all using social media that almost every local teenager uses numerous times daily on their computer or cell phone.

Similar to other cybercrime stings — Switzerland County Sheriff’s Department has made numerous arrests over the last couple of years — the MPD investigation, called Operation Predator Net, involves a police officer or officers posing as teens on social media where they communicate with adult predators soliciting sex from minors.

According to MPD Chief John Wallace, the scope of the investigation, the resulting charges and the wide area from which suspects were willing to travel to Madison with hopes of having sex with a 14-year-old girl was eye-opening in a time when more and more young people have seemingly unfiltered access to the Internet and social media.

“I never dreamed it would be this big — this many people. It’s just unbelievable,” Wallace said, noting the operation was suggested by the department’s detectives who investigate child abuse and neglect cases but ended up involving the entire department with more than 300 man hours invested to date. “In my 33 years I’ve never been involved in anything like this. This is something they really wanted to do. Matter of fact the entire department has been involved in this operation at some point in time.”

Detective Sgt. Shawn Scudder, who headed up the investigation, said he tackled the operation after he and Jeremey Perkins were assigned to detective division in August. There were no active child abuse or neglect cases at the time so they decided to poke around on the Internet to see who might be lurking and for what.

“We mainly focus on child abuse end child neglect cases but we didn’t have any so I said ‘I’m going to start this and see where it goes’ and it just blew up,” Scudder said Sunday night after arresting a 63-year-old man who had traveled more than 300 miles from Michigan to allegedly have sex with a 14-year-old girl. “I never dreamed it was going to be this big. This has been all that I’ve done for about a month. But kids are all over social media now and so are these predators.”

The investigation quickly had a name and the full support of Wallace, as well as the department and the city administration.

“Our children are our most precious resource — our most valuable and most vulnerable — and we always react to crimes against children after they’ve already been injured physically or mentally, so to speak, but this gives us an opportunity to be proactive,” Wallace said. “We’ll never know how many kids we’ve protected — that’s what I tell these officers who are working their tails off — is that you will never know how many kids you’ve saved from being preyed upon by these individuals. It feels good to be proactive rather than reactive.”

Wallace said officers presenting themselves as a 14-year-old girl chatting on social media would be contacted by men with offers of drugs, alcohol and other enticements. The officers played along and as communications continued, the chatting would lead to proposals to meet — some of the men would even send photos — and those proposals would then develop into more specific plans. In the end, the time and location to meet — either in Madison or Hanover — would be set and a female officer would be at the location when the suspect arrived with the department’s Crime Suppression Team nearby and ready to move in quickly to make the arrest.

“We let them initiate what they wanted to do and once they crossed that line they started sending photos and all that stuff. We don’t bring it up. They get into it and get it started and we just go along with it,” Wallace said. “You’re just taken back by the scope of it during this investigation. The amount of people who are willing to hit upon a 14-year-old is shocking. They know they are hitting on children. They are coming to meet young girls. A lot of them introduce drugs and alcohol as an incentive to the minor. They come down here to meet them and try to get high with them and do other things ... they think they’re dealing with minors who are naive enough that they will fall for it and they’re not mature enough to make their own decisions. And maybe they prey on people who come from homes that don’t have that parental guidance that we need.”

Police made arrests at local parks and landmarks — well-known destinations that a person traveling from out of town could easily find — ranging from Johnson Lake on the hilltop to the Broadway Fountain downtown. One suspect agreed to meet on a weekend in the parking lot at King’s Daughters’ Health’s downtown clinic, ironically right next door to the Madison Police Department.

While the bulk of the arrests involved men from other communities, there were three from Madison, one from Lexington, Indiana, and one from Milton, Kentucky. The case is still under investigation and a warrant has been issued for a 14th suspect who is still being sought in the case.

Most of the suspects were taken into custody without resistance but there were a couple — Jonathan Cruz Smith, 35, of Clarksville on Aug. 15 and Dennis Lloyd Mothersbaugh, 40, of North Vernon on Sept. 7 — who tried to resist but were quickly subdued by the half-dozen armed officers who were in on each take down. Mothersbaugh has previously been in the national news for his 2018 arrest and guilty plea for assault and battery during a 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“To me they all are dangerous,” Wallace said, noting police never know what they are dealing with but that every precaution was taken to make a safe arrest for not only his officers but for the public. “Everyone of these is an unknown. When a person has this mindset, I think they’re capable of anything. If you have the mindset of molesting a child, you’re capable of doing anything.”

Officers searched the men and their vehicles and obviously collected any drugs, alcohol or weapons found during the arrests but they also seized cars, trucks, cash, phones and any other possessions related to commission of the crimes.

The most serious charges were Level 4 felonies punishable by two to 12 years in prison and requirements that those convicted register as convicted sex offenders for the rest of their lives. Any suspect with prior convictions could face habitual offender status and those who were also found to be in possession of drugs could face other enhancements, both of which could lead to even longer prison sentences.

Jefferson County Prosecutor David Sutter, whose office will now take over the cases, said from what he’s seen while reviewing the investigations it looks like MPD has made sound arrests with plenty of documentation and evidence for when it comes time to go to court and he plans to aggressively prosecute all cases.

“I’ve reviewed the cases and they are very strong,” Sutter said. “We’ve got correspondence on social media profiles and messages where they arranged for this to happen and then we’ve got them meeting and following through. I feel very comfortable going into court and proving these cases. We will prosecute these very aggressively.”

Mayor Bob Courtney said the investigation shows what can be accomplished by a fully-staff, well-trained police department under strong leadership.

“We announced in June our Mobilize Madison initiative which emphasized our commitment to public safety, economic opportunity, and quality of life in our community. Our expanded investment in public safety along with the leadership of Chief Wallace and Assistant Chief (Ben) McKay, has doubled investigative resources and put more officers on patrol throughout our community. Today’s announcement is an example of how important our law enforcement is to making Madison the safest community in Indiana,” Courtney said. “According to the Indiana Center for Youth Abuse & Suicide, one-in-five children are solicited sexually while on the Internet and a sex offender can have literally dozens of victims before they are apprehended. Protecting our children is the most important duty we have and we will aggressively pursue crimes against them and punish those to the fullest extent of the law.”

Both Wallace and Sutter said while the current investigation and ensuing court cases will likely take a dozen predators off the street, but it is likely that other predators are still at work and both wonder if parents are doing enough to protect their children from that threat.

“My whole takeaway is to the parents. My God, pay attention to what your kids are doing online. Keep close tabs on what’s going on online. I know sometimes kids will say to parents ‘Don’t you trust me?’ But it’s not about trusting them, it’s about not trusting all the people they’re talking to,” Wallace said.

Sutter agreed and noted that during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, where more families are staying home and students are spending more and more time online taking school classes and interacting with classmates and friends, exposure to predators has also gone up.

“The timing of this investigation is especially important right now because so much of our children’s lives are spent online either taking school courses or interacting with friends socially,” Sutter said. “Everyone’s been online during the pandemic and so many kids are on social media and different Apps that it is important for our parents and our teachers and our school systems to be active in stressing Internet safety.”

“There is an important educational opportunity here that reminds parents to closely monitor their child’s online activity and discuss with them the dangers online activity can present,” Courtney said.

“We don’t know how many more are out there but we suspect that we’re barely scratching the surface,” Wallace said. “It takes the help of the public and the parents have just really got to stay on top of things.”

Wallace noted that while most of the suspects are not from Madison there was a significant number of locals caught in the sting, but that should not necessarily reflect poorly on the community.

“I don’t know if after all this some people will think Madison is a place frequented by child molesters,” Wallace said, “but it’s definitely a place where if you come here and you’re a child molester, you will be caught.”