GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The Clay County Sheriff’s Office receives “hundreds” of tips about sexually abused and trafficked children. More alarming is the fact those represent a small portion of …
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The Clay County Sheriff’s Office receives “hundreds” of tips about sexually abused and trafficked children. More alarming is the fact those represent a small portion of the victims.
That’s why the Clay County Sheriff’s Office became one of seven law enforcement agencies to join forces to create the largest task force in the country to combat human trafficking and child exploitation.
Operation Lightshine is a group organized by former U.S. Marine Matt Murphy, whose sister was murdered by a man who sold women and drugs.
Murphy and Tim Tebow, who won a Heisman Trophy and two national championships with the Florida Gators, have worked tirelessly to stop the scurge of child exploitation and trafficking. Both delivered powerful messages during’s Thursday’s announcement at the Old County Courthouse.
“I had the privilege of growing up, whether it was at Normandy Baseball Park, at Lakeshore, or it was at Trinity (Christian) or at Niece (High) or it was even at the University of Florida, to be fortunate at times to every now and then win an MVP for being the most valuable player of a baseball game or a football game or even basketball for me. Bu if that's one of the coolest things that I did in North Florida, that would be a really big mess for me.
“ But as cool as those MVPs are, they mean nothing compared to what this group is fighting for, and that's a way way, way more important MVP.
“You see, I was competing for the MVPs and being the most valuable player, which ultimately one day means nothing. What this group is fighting for (are) real MVPs – meaning the most vulnerable people who desperately, desperately need us. Need you. Need all of us to work together to put the mission above the credit.”
Clay County Sheriff Michelle Cook, Murphy, Sheriffs Gator Deloach of Putnam, Bill Leeper of Nassau, T.K. Waters of Duval, Robert Hardwick of St. Johns counties, Florida Department of Law Enforcement Science Applications International Corporation’s Mike Williams, Homeland Security Investigations Tampa Special Agent John A. Condon, Florida Rep. Sam Garrison, U.S. Attorney for Middle District of Florida Roger Handberg and Tebow jointly announced the creation of the INTERCEPT Task Force to “protect our most vulnerable,” Cook said.
The task force’s purpose is for law enforcement agencies in Northeast Florida to pool their resources and information to catch and punish people who exploit children.
“We are putting ourselves in a position to protect our children, our most vulnerable,” Cook said. “We will have investigators assigned to this, and together we can have a more-involved investigation.”
Cook said another aspect of INTERCEPT is attracting more attention to the horrific child exploitation industry. By making a “big splash,” Cook said she hopes more people will be willing to report suspected abuse. And since agencies will work together, tips can be handled more efficiently – and quickly.
“We need to be successful,” Cook said. “We need to provide very safe places for our children.”
According to Operation Lightshine, there were more than 132 million child sexual exploitation incidents reported in the United States in 1998. By 2002, that number grew to more than 363 million.
INTERCEPT also will work to tear down the barriers known as sextortion. Operation Lightshine said sextortion is a form of child sexual exploitation where children are threatened or blackmailed, often with the possibility of sharing with the public nude or sexual images of them by a person who demands additional sexual content, sexual activity or money from the child.
The National CyberTipline monitors social media and emails for sexual images of children. Many of Clay County’s cases started with such a tip.
According to CyberTipline, it received 262,573 reports of online enticement in 2016. Between 2019 and 2021, those numbers more than doubled.
Also, more than 3.8 children have been forced into sexual exploitation – and less than 1% of those cases have been investigated.
All seven law enforcement agencies have one person assigned to INTERCEPT full-time.
Tebow’s organization spans around the world. But he said the Northeast Florida INTERCEPT organization means the most because it’s home.
“I was called to do this. Well, you know was calling is? The best definition I've ever heard is an urgent and defined invitation to accept responsibility for a particular task … an urgent and defined invitation to accept responsibility for a particular task. This is urgent, and I also believe it's defining that God hasn't just ask us, but commanded us to care for and take care of the most vulnerable. And it's an invitation to every single one of us, but are we going to accept responsibility for this test for all of the MVPs, for the hurting boys and girls? Here in our backyard? We're fortunate to serve in 79 countries around the world. No one's more important or less important, but this one does mean a lot to us because it is home. It is our backyard.
“I'm so grateful that this group of men and women has accepted that responsibility urgently and also knowing that there's a lot at stake, like every boy and girl that is early. And that's why to me, this isn't a press conference. This is a rallying point.”
The task force has already been working on cases for six months, CCSP Undersheriff Ron Lendvay.