GREEN BAY, Wis. - Sixteen men, including two with connections to the Green Bay School District, have been snagged in an extensive online sting called Operation Black Veil II that targeted Internet child sex predators and stretched across several counties.
Eight men were arrested in Brown County, four in Marathon County, and others were taken into custody in Winnebago, Shawano, Outagamie and Door counties.
The school district said two of the suspects have ties to its schools, including a bus driver and a library media specialist at Keller and Wilder elementary schools. The staff member, identified as Jason S. Gehrke, 38, was charged with use of a computer to facilitate a child sex crime, according to Wisconsin Circuit Court Access files. According to officials, he had been with the district for a year and had also worked at Chappell Elementary School last year.
The bus driver, identified by the Brown County Sheriff's Department as 34-year-old Victor Iakimenko, works for contracted bus service. He has been removed from the route transporting children from Keller Elementary and Lombardi Middle schools on the city's west side. Iakimenko, of Green Bay, has been charged with child enticement and use of a computer to facilitate a child sex crime.
A Lamers Bus Line Inc. spokeswoman would not confirm the driver's name but said someone was arrested and has been placed on suspension by the company.
"Our background check policy already exceeds what is required," school bus operations manager Cindy Lawler said. "We do re-check them. The driver had no previous criminal record."
Green Bay schools Superintendent Michelle Langenfeld said during a press conference on Monday afternoon that the district is conducting its own investigation.
Some parents picking up children from Keller Elementary after school Monday said they have faith in school officials and the district.
"I don't believe any of the children are in harm's way," said Danielle Euclide, who has two children attending the school. "We've been with this school for a long time, and we're very fond of the school. I'm sure the district is doing everything it can."
Jenny Martin's son attends second grade at Keller. She said a voicemail from the school wasn't clear about what had happened.
"I think if we had known a little bit more, parents here wouldn't be so excited," Martin said. "I do have faith in the school, and I never thought that it was my kid that was involved. My heart goes out to any parent that would have a child involved in something like this."
A transcript of phone messages from principals tells parents a staff member and bus driver were "arrested for the charges as alleged by the Brown County Sheriff's Department this past weekend" without providing other details. It asks parents to monitor children's online activity.
The district also sent email messages to families.
"Principals at the employee's current and former schools are sending a message to parents," the district said in a press release. "The principals at Lombardi Middle School and Keller Elementary are notifying parents of the children who ride bus 853. If families have any concerns, they should contact their principal so any concerns can be immediately addressed."
School administrators were informed by law enforcement officials of the arrest over the weekend.
"We have a very rigorous background check for all new employees as well as our volunteers," Langenfeld said. "But there's always an opportunity in something like this to review all policies and procedures to make sure we are doing everything possible."
Administrators said they are not aware of any incidents on the bus route with the driver in question.
District officials said they will conduct an internal investigation of the employee. Langenfeld said administrators were not aware of any allegations of additional misconduct.
Police had between 1,200 and 1,500 chats with possible suspects during the investigation that ran from Wednesday to Saturday, Jim Valley, an investigator with the Door County Sheriff's Department, said during a news conference at the Brown County Sheriff's Department on Monday morning.
"With the amount of chats we're doing, I think the problem is very big in this community," he said. "There are plenty of child sexual assault and child abuse cases ... and we're trying to find a means to get to those suspects. This is one means of doing it."
The investigation continues and additional arrests could be made, law enforcement officials said.
By Monday evening, eight men had been charged with crimes; charges against the others were pending. Investigators targeted online ad services as well as social media and other Internet outlets.
"We want (predators) to know we are out there," Valley said. "And they do now."
Charges that have been filed - and those being recommended - run the spectrum from use of a computer to facilitate a child sex crime to child enticement, prostitution and possession of a controlled substance.
Law enforcement officials said they will look for the opportunity to conduct similar investigations in the future.
"It's very disturbing we're having this many contacts with individuals," Brown County Sheriff John Gossage said. "If I had the resources and the ability, I'd do it every day."
The investigation was the third of its kind in the area, following up on a similar investigation in March which resulted in arrests in Green Bay, Appleton, Wausau, Madison and Kenosha.
Langenfeld said student safety is a top priority for the district.
"This is very unsettling and troubling," the superintendent said.
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