Federal agents identified 123 sexually exploited children -- some as young as 2 -- and arrested 245 suspected child porn producers in a five-week operation that spanned 46 states and six countries and includes the Bay Area, a federal official announced Thursday.
Of the more than 100 abused children identified in Operation Sunflower, 44 were directly rescued from their abusers and 79 were identified as being exploited by others outside their homes or are now adults who were victimized as children. The arrests -- 37 in California, the most of any state -- were mostly executed during the first week of December, but agents are still working on rescuing and identifying victims.
In the Bay Area, agents procured five indictments for individuals from their early 20s to early 50s. The four arrested were from San Jose, San Leandro, San Francisco and Sonoma County, and one remains on the lam.
Fourteen Fresno-area residents were also arrested and three children from that region rescued, including a 7-year-old girl with disabilities.
"Whenever our investigations reveal the production and distribution of new child pornography online, we will do everything we can to rescue the victim and prosecute the abuser even if takes us years or (going) around the world to do it," said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton at a Washington D.C. news conference Thursday.
One of the suspects is Michael Lindsay, 53, of San Jose, arrested
Agents continue to search for additional victims, as evidence suggests Lindsay had sexual contact with additional children, according to ICE.
Of the 123 victims (70 female, 53 male) identified in the operation, five were under the age of 3; nine were 4 to 6; 21 were 7 to 9; 11 were ages 10 to 12; 38 were 13 to 15; and 15 were ages 16 to 17. Twenty-four victims were found to be adults now.
ICE's Homeland Security Investigations agents dubbed the worldwide investigation "Operation Sunflower" to commemorate the anniversary of a successful operation that rescued an 11-year-old Kansas girl from rape. It was the agency's first case in their new Victim Identification Program.
In the 2011 case, Danish police alerted American authorities to a 16-year-old boy soliciting advice on a pedophile chat room and posting images of the 11-year-old girl, saying he planned to rape her. Agents had no idea where the suspect and victim were.
Working with high-tech video equipment, law enforcement was able to extrapolate a sunflower-shaped road sign in a video from a moving car that the suspect posted. The yellow freeway sign was determined to be unique to Kansas.
For days, pairs of ICE agents drove the Kansas freeways before finding the sign on a rural freeway. From there, with the help of local police, they identified a swimming pool featured in another video and then tracked down the victim before any crime was committed. Last fiscal year, 292 victims were identified or rescued from ICE investigations and 1,655 child predators were arrested.
"We are defending the defenseless," Morton said.
Morton asked for the public's help in identifyingthree men and a woman in three unsolved Operation Sunflower cases. In the first case, investigators believe the photographs were taken about 11 years ago with an adult man and woman sexually molesting a girl who looks to be about 13 years old. Agents believe the images may have been taken in Los Angeles, or possibly the San Fernando Valley area.
The other two cases involve white male adult suspects abusing pre-pubescent toddlers. Their whereabouts are unknown.
Anyone with information or tips that can assist in these investigations can call 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or visit www.ICE.gov/tips. Tips may be reported anonymously.
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.