South Carolina

Sheriff: Deputy was on duty when he tried to have sex with minor in predator sting

Sheriff and Attorney General discuss online child predators, safety

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott and Attorney General Alan Wilson discuss Operation Relentless Guardian and how to protect children from internet predators.
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Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott and Attorney General Alan Wilson discuss Operation Relentless Guardian and how to protect children from internet predators.

A sting by Richland County Sheriff’s Department to arrest child sex predators and people looking to buy sex ended with arrests warrants for 28 people, including one of the department’s own deputies who was on duty when he was arrested.

Operation Relentless Guardian netted 14 child sex predators over five days last week. Deputies arrested five people and nine more have pending arrest warrants, Sheriff Leon Lott said.

At a Tuesday news conference, Lott announced the arrest, standing with officials from 12 other law enforcement agencies that assisted in the operation, including the Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Office, Aiken County Sheriff’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office.

To make the predator arrests, deputies pretended to be girls from 13 to 15 years old and chatted with men over social media and other sites, investigators said. The men solicited sex and arranged to meet at a home that was donated to the department for the operation. When the men arrived, deputies arrested them.

One of the men arrested was former Richland County Deputy Derek Vandenham. Vandenham talked with a girl he thought was 15 years old and solicited sex, according to the department. When investigators found out the man on the other side of the conversation was a Richland deputy, Lott said he was informed and let the undercover work continue. Investigators changed the location where Vandenham was to meet so he wouldn’t know he was about to be arrested.

Vandenham showed up to the house to have sex with the girl while on duty, in his patrol car and in uniform, according to Lott.

“That was something that made me sick to my stomach,” Lott said, “that one of my deputies that I trust, that we put out here in the community, is one of these monsters.”

Lott immediately fired the deputy and informed South Carolina’s police licensing agency so Vandenham can’t become a police officer again.

Lott said the arrest was one the most frustrating moments of his law enforcement career and “disgusted” him.

Deputies arrested four others who showed up for sex with teenage girls or “travelers” as law enforcement called them for the amount of miles they were willing to go to have sex with juveniles, according to Lott. Some traveled hundreds of miles, including one man from Georgia and another from Florida. Another man from Ohio is wanted from the sting.

“Some of them we work with, like a deputy sheriff . . . some of them we go to church with,” Lott said. “But we’ve got monsters that live in our community.”

The men are accused of asking minors for sex, sending nude photos of themselves or attempted sexual exploitation.

“Some people make the argument these are victimless crimes,” Attorney General Alan Wilson said. “When you peddle child porn . . . you’re supporting or creating the market for child porn and you’re creating the market for people trying to go out and solicit sex with children.”

Wilson said people trying to buy sex do a similar misdeed. Those suspects support a market for human trafficking.

“It’s a supply and demand issue,” Wilson said. “Obviously you attack the supply, but sometimes you have to attack the demand.”

Investigators also arrested men soliciting prostitution from women they believed were of age, including the arrest of former state transportation commissioner John Hardee.

The department charged 14 men with solicitation of prostitution. During one arrest, a man tried to escape and attempted to run over four deputies, Lott said. He was charged with four counts of attempted murder. Another man charged was an airline pilot set to fly out the next day, according to Lott.

“The internet is like the new wild, wild West. It’s the new frontier,” Wilson said. “This is the new generation of law enforcement officers who are out there on that new frontier chasing down these types of predators.”

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David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.
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