SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — A southwestern Missouri man pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday to exploiting young girls through social media.
This guilty plea resulted from an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the FBI, and the Southwest Missouri Cybercrimes Task Force.
Darren Eugene Schaefer, 36, of Marionville, Missouri, pleaded guilty to using the Internet and a cellphone to attempt to entice a minor to engage in illicit sexual activity.
A task force officer investigated a tip from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in May 2014 that Schaefer was contacting girls on the social networking site MeetMe, asking them if they wanted to meet for sexual acts. Schaefer sent messages indicating that he was interested in sexual contact with seven girls. After contacting the girls using the instant message feature on MeetMe, Schaefer attempted to move the conversations to cellphone text messages.
During online communications between Schaefer and his victims, Schaefer admitted to the victims that he was 35 years old, and stated that he preferred younger females. In one instance, one victim asked Schaefer why he posted his age on MeetMe as 14 years old if he was really 35. Schaefer replied that was the only way he could see girls on this website and communicate with them. One victim asked him if he knew he could get in trouble for what he was doing. He replied he knew he could get in trouble but hoped he would not.
A federal search warrant was executed at Schaefer’s residence June 17, 2014. Schaefer told officers that he talked to hundreds of girls on various social networking websites and that he had contacted underage girls several other times using MeetMe. Schaefer also admitted meeting at least three underage girls for sex over a 10-year period. He reported that he had met all three of them from social networking sites on the Internet. He met two of the girls in Nixa, Missouri, and one at Hood's Truck Stop on Interstate 44.
Officers seized two laptop computers, two external hard drives and Schaefer’s cellphone. The laptops contained 103 images of child pornography. A total of 474 images of child erotica were located on the multiple electronic media.
Under federal statutes, Schaefer is subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison without parole, up to a life sentence in federal prison without parole, plus a fine up to $500,000. A sentencing hearing will be scheduled after the U.S. Probation Office completes a presentence investigation.
This investigation was conducted under HSI’s Operation Predator, an international initiative to protect children from sexual predators. Since the launch of Operation Predator in 2003, HSI has arrested more than 10,000 individuals for crimes against children, including the production and distribution of online child pornography, traveling overseas for sex with minors, and sex trafficking of children. In fiscal year 2014, more than 2,300 individuals were arrested by HSI special agents under this initiative and more than 1,000 victims identified or rescued.
HSI encourages the public to report suspected child predators and any suspicious activity through its toll-free Tip Line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or by completing its online tip form. Both are staffed around the clock by investigators. From outside the U.S. and Canada, callers should dial 802-872-6199. Hearing impaired users can call TTY 802-872-6196. Suspected child sexual exploitation or missing children may be reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, an Operation Predator partner, via its toll-free 24-hour hotline, 1-800-THE-LOST.
HSI is a founding member and current chair of the Virtual Global Taskforce, an international alliance of law enforcement agencies and private industry sector partners working together to prevent and deter online child sexual abuse.