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More counties replicating GHOST team to catch child sex predators

Shiawassee County preparing to launch new unit after two successful sting operations
Published: Mar. 10, 2021 at 10:23 AM EST
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MID-MICHIGAN (WJRT) - A public safety program started in Genesee County is now expanding across the state of Michigan.

For the last two years, a special operation at the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office has been working to arrest sex predators before they claim any victims.

Now, other counties are putting that plan to use to protect their own communities.

The Genesee Human Oppression Strike Team, GHOST, has a number of undercover officers online pretending to be underaged children. They chat online with upwards of 200 people at a time.

They are ready to take action when one of those strangers crosses the line and offers to meet up for sex.

“Why not be proactive and keep the victim from being victimized,” said Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson.

The GHOST team started in 2019 and busted 21 people during the first sting operation. The suspects were caught at local motels throughout the county, where they’re accused of trying to have sex with teenagers.

“They dehumanize them to the point where it’s just a piece of property, and they wouldn’t do it to their own family they wouldn’t do it to their own kids because many of them have kids, but they will do it to somebody they don’t know because they have to act out their fantasy,” Swanson said. “That’s the danger.”

With each arrest, investigators confiscate all types of items – money, bondage, alcohol, drugs, weapons and more. Swanson said the alleged predators come from all over Michigan only to find out they were arranging sex with a sheriff deputy.

When Shiawassee County Sheriff Brian BeGole found out some of those arrested were from his community, he teamed up with Genesee County authorities. Last fall, their first joint operation led to the arrests of these three people.

“We didn’t know if our first attempt was going to be successful,” BeGole said. “Then all of a sudden, you know the text messages start coming in and I realized that it’s more prevalent than I even believed that it could be.”

Shiawassee County conducted a second sting a week ago, resulting in one more arrest.

BeGole is working with Genesee County officials to set up a new unit in Shiawassee County. Each law enforcement agency in Shiawassee is committing at least one officer to the unit with plants to conduct stings every few months.

Det. Lt. Keith Hansen is overseeing the new team.

“It was an eye-opener to think just how easy it is for these predators to be targeting target our kids,” he said. “And even if a child has access to the internet at all, they almost guarantee they’ve already been subjected to either a sex offender or a predator that’s looking to engage them somehow.”

BeGole said deterrence is the team’s main goal to prevent predators from coming to Shiawassee County and committing crimes.

Swanson admits the GHOST team has learned something new with every operation, helping them tighten the cases.

The Genesee County Prosecutor’s Office received 65 arrest warrant requests and granted 62, resulting in 27 guilty pleas or verdicts. Another 35 cases are pending in the legal system.

“We’ve seen them making moves now that they wouldn’t have made in the past,” said defense attorney Nicholas Robinson, who has been a critic of GHOST investigations.

He believes some of the very first GHOST cases looked like entrapment. He represents more than a dozen people that the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office has caught over the past two years.

“What we’re seeing now is the sheriff’s department is going out of their way to not lure people into a situation,” Robinson said. “They are not the ones to kick off any type of criminal activity. They are simply stepping in and preventing anything that is about to happen.”

That is another reason why BeGole said all of Shiawassee County law enforcement is on board to bring these operations into their communities.

“They progressed through this,” he said. “They’ve worked through their mistakes and now they know exactly what to expect and how to do it. So we’re being taught by some of the best in the business right now and I think that’ll make us a good unit itself.”

BeGole said Shiawassee County has received grants to pay for equipment needed to conduct these sting investigations with help from Genesee County authorities.

Swanson said about 15 other counties have reached out wanting to replicate the GHOST program in their communities. He created a 12-module training series that will walk them through what they need to know.

A film production company is finalizing “The GHOST Playbook.” This project is not being paid for by taxpayers in the county.

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