With online solicitation cases, Attorney General Greg Abbott has a preference for Williamson County

Attorney General Greg Abbott has made his office’s prosecution of online child predators a centerpiece of his decadelong tenure as the state’s top lawyer, as well as a promotional sound bite in his run for governor this year.

But a detailed review of Abbott’s record in pursuing online solicitation cases — those in which adults try to meet children for sex using the Internet — reveals that pursuit has occurred in an oddly limited way: In recent years, the vast majority of such cases developed and investigated by his office have been brought in Williamson County, a conservative area long viewed as tougher on crime than neighboring jurisdictions.

The geographical quirk has prompted speculation about Abbott’s motives. “It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if the attorney general’s office selected Williamson County because of its reputation,” said Marc Ranc, a Georgetown attorney who has represented several defendants charged with online solicitation.

Technically, the attorney general’s office could investigate cases anywhere in the state. Officially, as one of the state’s three Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces, it covers a 134-county area — most of Texas except the Dallas and Houston areas, which have their own units. Because solicitation cases require an actual meeting, they could be arranged any place.

Yet almost six out of 10 of all cases over the past decade have been brought in a tight geographic circle around Austin. Since the start of 2012, the concentration of cases has been even more marked: Of the 47 online solicitation cases developed and investigated by the attorney general’s Cyber Crimes Unit, records show more than two-thirds were arranged in Williamson County.

In addition to being an extraordinarily narrow concentration of state resources, one result is that over the past three years, three-quarters of the defendants accused by Abbott’s office of stalking children online have been from the Austin metropolitan area, in effect making his office more a local police unit than state agency.

While there is nothing improper about the unit’s limited focus, it raises questions about the agency’s commitment to pursue offenders statewide. A listing of the office’s child pornography investigations, by comparison, shows those cases are dotted throughout the state.

Capt. Kimberly Bustos, who runs the unit from the attorney general’s Austin office, said there has been no orchestrated effort to limit its online solicitation cases to the Williamson County area. “We have a lot of tactical considerations we make,” she said. “We just go where they take us. A lot of times (the defendants) pick the location. Our focus is wherever it needs to happen, whenever it needs to happen.”

Williamson County is undeniably convenient. The Cyber Crimes Unit’s main office is in Austin, so arranging a meeting with an online predator at public parks in Round Rock or Leander — both regular destinations, court documents show — is simple for the unit’s downtown office. Mounting an investigation across the state, by comparison, can be more expensive.

David Boatright, the attorney general’s chief of criminal investigation until his retirement in 2012, added that much of the selection of Williamson County for the office’s operations likely has to do with the eagerness of local law enforcement to support the state unit’s operation. “There’s a strong collaborative effort with the district attorney’s office and a strong law enforcement commitment,” he said.

Eight men were arrested and charged in June 2013 with online solicitation of a minor as part of an undercover operation by the unit, the FBI and the Round Rock Police Department.

However, police representatives from Round Rock and Leander, where a significant number of state solicitation stings have occurred, said that, while they support the Cyber Crime Unit’s operations in theory, they actually have very little to do with them.

“We really have no participation in the investigations,” said Leander Police Department Lt. Billy Fletcher. “They just use our facility to interview suspects. They just kind of show up with a prisoner.”

Former Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who left office at the end of 2012, declined to comment. But his successor, Jana Duty, said that, given a choice of locations, it would make tactical sense for the attorney general’s team to leverage her county’s reputation in its online solicitation stings.

“I think we’re known as a conservative county, and it would make sense to bring those cases to our county where you know you’d get a longer sentence,” she said. “I appreciate the faith he has in us.”

A growing police force

The attorney general’s Cyber Crimes Unit occupies a warren of offices and cubicles in the agency’s downtown Austin headquarters. On a recent afternoon, Sgt. Aaron Dobbins initiated a chat with a person describing himself in a Craigslist ad as a 30-year-old man.

When Dobbins wrote that he was a 14-year-old girl, the man asked for a photo but then logged off. “I lost him,” Dobbins said.

The unit receives about 160 tips a month from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which acts as a national dispatch service for child Internet crime information. (The Texas branch of the organization referred questions about Abbott’s prosecutions to the national office, which declined comment.) State investigators also initiate their own cases, either by scanning Internet sites known to be popular with child-sex predators, or by creating online profiles as teenage boys or girls to see who might be willing to meet.

Some stings go down quickly. In August 2012, court records show, a state investigator posing as a 16-year-old girl contacted Nicholas Templin, 24, of Austin, who’d offered to trade a car ride for sex on Craigslist at 2:37 p.m. He was in custody less than 90 minutes later after showing up at a liquor store on Lavaca Street. Other meetings can take months to arrange.

Since it was started in 2003, the Cyber Crimes Unit has increased in size slowly. Today, it has 21 full-time employees, including investigators and forensic specialists. It has an annual budget of about $1.1 million.

Although the Texas attorney general has always had limited crime-fighting authority, most of the office’s 4,000 employees, including about 700 attorneys, engage primarily in civil matters, collecting child support payments, writing legal opinions and defending state agencies against legal challenges. Yet the growth of the Cyber Crimes Unit is emblematic of Abbott’s dramatic expansion of his office’s criminal prosecution efforts.

In 2002, the year before Abbott took office, then-Attorney General John Cornyn employed 36 sworn peace officers, who made 99 arrests. By 2010, when Abbott last ran for office, the attorney general’s police force had more than tripled in size, to 141 officers who made 795 arrests that year. Last year, the number of commissioned officers had swelled to 160, making 1,067 arrests.

The push into criminal law has at times put his office at odds with the state’s district attorneys, who prosecute the bulk of Texas crimes.

In 2009, an attorney general-supported bill would have created a state racketeering offense that trumped local criminal prosecutions. Worse, from the view of local district attorneys, all assets seized during the racketeering action would have gone back to the attorney general’s office. Prosecutors vigorously opposed the bill, and it died before reaching a full vote in the Texas Senate.

‘About indefensible’

Though a relatively small operation compared with the agency’s total arrests (many more are made through its Fugitive Unit), pursuing sex crimes against children has been a cornerstone of Abbott’s tenure. He promotes his efforts regularly, and the arrests of those accused of online solicitation and child pornography-related crimes are diligently chronicled on the agency’s website, often accompanied by video showing the defendant’s reaction when the attorney general’s police confront him.

Police and prosecutors laud the focus, saying the office performs essential and difficult work. Political opponents, however, note that the crimes also offer low-risk political dividends. Sex crimes against children are slam-dunks with both the public and juries, who in most instances are presented with a self-written record of a defendant’s guilt.

“Generally speaking, these are difficult cases to defend,” said Robert Phillips, who has defended several online solicitation cases brought by the attorney general in Williamson County. “There’s a tight paper trail.”

Confronted with a transcript of their illegal desires, as well as the humiliation of a public prosecution, many defendants quickly plead guilty. “They rarely go to trial,” said Ranc, the Georgetown defense attorney. “It’s about indefensible.”

Abbott’s office claims 130 guilty verdicts or pleas out of 167 online solicitation cases, with several still pending. “I can’t think of a case where they showed up and they weren’t convicted,” said Bustos.

The prosecutions haven’t been glitch-free. Last October, the state’s highest criminal court tossed out a law banning sexually explicit cyberchats between adults and children as unconstitutionally vague. Abbott’s office protested, saying it endangered 20 of its online solicitation cases in which adults had talked dirty to someone they thought was underage, but had not actually traveled to meet the teen.

Mark Bennett, the Houston attorney who challenged the law, said some previously prosecuted cases could be challenged based on the decision. “There’s nothing more un-American than punishing people for behavior that is not illegal,” he said.

Recently, Abbott’s office was forced to drop two of its still-active cases because of the decision.

A review of the attorney general’s online solicitation cases also shows that about half of defendants settle their charges for sentences involving no prison time. Defense attorneys said it wasn’t unusual to strike a deal for probation only, particularly for a first offense.

Boatright, the former criminal bureau head, said the sentences were acceptable because they typically included a requirement that defendants register as sex offenders. “What’s important to the protection of children is that these predators are identified,” he said.

Back in the attorney general’s office, Bustos disagreed. “It’s not enough,” she said. “They’re still out there. They’re going to do it again.”

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