GENESEE COUNTY (WJRT) (6/10/2019) - The Genesee County Sheriff's Office turned to the dark web with a ruse that helped authorities nab 22 accused child sex predators.
But one defense attorney who is representing three of the suspects arrested since April 11 says the sheriff's tactics amount to an illegal entrapment scheme.
Sheriff Robert Pickell said his GHOST team posed as a 14-year-old girl or boy online and messaged the alleged offenders, eventually meeting at a motel in the county. When they arrived, they'd put the person in handcuffs.
"We put it out on the dark web and they come to us. It's like fish coming to the bait," Pickell said.
He said authorities seized a number of items from the individuals, including cash, marijuana, cocaine, alcohol, knives and guns.
Together the group of 22 suspects is facing 66 charges, many of them 20-year felonies. They could spend a combined nearly 1,000 years behind bars if convicted.
"It certainly doesn't surprise me because that's why I formed the Sheriff's GHOST, we know it's out there," Pickell said of the number of suspects arrested.
From the investigation into Michael Foster, Pickell said investigators found a mother, Jennifer Beckman, had been selling sexual favors with her 6-year-old to him. Foster was also sexually assaulting his own 2-year-old daughter.
"The next time you look into your computer and you don't think anyone is watching, look again, because you may see my face at the other end of the computer," Pickell said. "And GHOST, the Sheriff's GHOST, will be right behind me, and it'll be the worst nightmare you ever had."
Defense Attorney Nicholas Robinson is representing Foster, Aaron Ashford and George Huffman. He said they've all pleaded not guilty to the charges and are eager to clear their names.
He raised several concerns about the sting operations.
"This is not an elaborate scheme by my clients. This is an elaborate scheme by the sheriff's department and that's it," Robinson said.
Two of Robinson's clients were caught at the Red Roof Inn in Flint Township. He called GHOST's actions a case of entrapment.
"What they were involved in was something that was completely legitimate and then after the contact was made, the dheriff's department would actually call the next day and say, 'Oh by the way, there's a 14-year-old girl here too,' when again these people were not looking for 14-year-old girls at all," Robinson said.
When his clients were arrested, Robinson said their phones, cars and other property were taken by the sheriff's office.
Information on Foster's cell phone is how Robinson said they're also accusing him of sexually assaulting his 2-year-old daughter and Jennifer Beckman's 6-year-old daughter. The sheriff said Beckman trafficked her to Foster.
"There's nothing in the police report that suggests that he did anything they're accusing him off," Robinson said. "There are a lot of irregularities that happened. There are a lot of questions that need to be asked."
Pickell called Robinson's comments are 'lawyer talk." He said judges and the prosecutor's office signed off on the search and arrest warrants.
Huffman is headed to trial. Witness testimony against Ashford and Foster is expected in the next two weeks.
The suspects range in age from 25 to 71 years old. Of them, 21 have been caught and one man is wanted.
The 22 suspects came from all walks of life, with some working at McDonald's, General Motors, as truck drivers and one was a senior vice president at Comerica Bank.
"You know, that's why I'm warning parents," Pickell said. "You used to only have to be concerned when they were outside, now they have to be concerned when they're up in the bedroom because they're on their computers. And, that's where these pedophiles are."