BENTON — Southern Illinois law enforcement agencies contributed to a nationwide sting operation leading to the arrest of dozens of traffickers and abusers and rescued or identified more than 100 victims.

A news release Tuesday from U.S. Attorney of the Southern District Steven D. Weinhoeft indicates that Operation Independence Day was conducted nationwide by all FBI field offices with the help of local law enforcement.

The operation targeted the use of dating apps like Grindr, Meet Me and others to catch child sexual predators and traffickers. In Southern Illinois, the following were arrested for crimes allegedly committed in Williamson County:

  • Lawrence A. Bangs, 39, of Herrin
  • Jesse A. Cantu, 43, of Mount Vernon
  • Jorge L. Leal, 34, of Marion
  • Bret M. Feldscher, 27, of Herrin
  • Neal J. Keane, 28, of Tucson, Arizona
  • James M. Davis, 63, of St. Louis
  • Hank D. Yoast, 46, of Herrin
  • Rick E. Garner, 43, of Sesser

The men were arrested between July 19 and 21 and cases have been filed in the U.S. Southern District in Benton. Each were indicted and were separately charged with attempting to entice a minor to engage in illicit sexual acts.

According to criminal complaint documents obtained through federal court document database Pacer, federal agents occupied a house that was to be the meeting place for the men. Fake profiles were set up on each platform with names like “Bailey” and “Cory” and a monitored FBI undercover employee operated the accounts. When the men showed up to meet the minors, they met federal agents instead.

“I’m not going to say sex bc that can get me into trouble,” Davis allegedly messaged to the fictitious minor.

In 1992, Davis was convicted of sexual assault of a 15-year-old boy in Missouri and, according to the complaint, was listed on Missouri’s sex offender registry.

According to court documents, Keane was arrested after making contact with two undercover FBI employees, a male and a female, and was arrested after agents found Keane waiting outside a gas station where he was allegedly waiting to pick up “Bailey.”

Court documents for other defendants revealed similar narratives.

The news release said each man, if convicted, faces a minimum penalty of 10 years imprisonment and could receive as much as life in prison. It also details that a conviction could come with a possible lifetime term of supervised release and a fine of up to $250,000.

A news release from the FBI said the operation found 103 juveniles who were identified or recovered and 67 suspected traffickers were arrested. The sweep resulted in 60 new federal investigations.

The FBI was assisted by the the United States Marshals Service, the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department, and the Herrin Police Department.

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