35 arrested after sting operation in Manatee County

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BRADENTON - Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube describes them as "sick individuals": 35 men now facing felony charges after they were caught in yet another online sting operation aimed at protecting children.

They could be your neighbors, or even your child's teacher. But all they are now is accused: thirty-five men, all arrested last week, all facing felony sex crimes charges following what authorities called "Operation Green Shepherd II".

"There was a maintenance man, someone employed by the Army National Guard, a mechanic, a student," said Sheriff Steube.

Also picked up was Phillip Cornell, a teacher at Chamberlain High School in Tampa.  Daniel Konovalchuk was also arrested, he's a nursing trainee at Manatee Memorial Hospital; and Brion Bennett, a youth choir leader from Ellenton, is also among those facing charges.

"With the number of arrests we make with these and other types of investigations we do, I'm not shocked with anything anymore," said Steube.

The suspects chatted online with decoys posing as 14-year-olds, ultimately agreeing to meet for sex at a house in Manatee County. But instead of finding a child eager to please, suspects found themselves cuffed and booked.

"The idea that we're trying to portray here to the people that go on these computers and prey on our children is that this area of Florida is going to be more difficult for them to do this," said Steube.

Authorities say this type of operation highlights the need for parents to take charge.  "It's a message to parents, you know look, law enforcement is doing their part but parents have to do their part, they're the first line of defense," said Lt. Todd Shear of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.

Experts say when it comes to online safety, parents shouldn't be afraid to step on some toes.  "Pay close attention, simple things like being aware and checking text messages, checking IM's, checking Facebook pages," said Mandy O'Malley of the Child Protection Center of Sarasota.

The Manatee County Sheriff's Office was assisted in the operation by: Department of Homeland Security, FDLE, Bradenton, Sanford and St. Petersburg Police Departments and the Sarasota, Polk, Lee, Seminole, Hardee County Sheriff’s Offices are assisting in the investigation.