NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Chris Meehan and Jeff Rich can spend hours of their day on social media. Unlike most people, though, they’re using it to chat with potential child predators.

“I’m in different chat rooms now,” said Sgt. Meehan, of the Collin County Sheriff’s Office, navigating a site where pedophiles talk to each other. Det. Rich, with the Plano Police Department, said, “They share fantasies and ways not to get caught.”

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Both of the lawmen work as part of a partnership targeting internet crimes against children.

“Right now I’m posing as an adult male with two daughters,” said Meehan.

Within minutes, several people ask Meehan about one daughter’s age. He responds, “Twelve.” The answer is met with questions about her appearance that quickly turn sexual. “How she’s developed, if she’s developed,” Meehan describes.

The detectives follow up on leads, like an ad that said they were looking for “YOUNG girls in south Arlington/Mansfield… must be 25 or younger (younger the better).”

Meehan and Rich also spend time hanging out on sites that children use. “Pretty much any app that kids are on we have a profile set up,” said Rich. The first message they received on one of the sites was an invite to watch child pornography.

Undercover work like this led to some of the 15 child exploitation arrests announced earlier this month, as part of Operation Medusa. Meehan and Rich helped coordinate over a dozen law enforcement agencies to pull off the sting, which resulted in another two arrests just this past week.

“Both of us think this is one of the most important jobs there is — protecting our children,” said Rich.

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The detectives aim to catch pedophiles early. Experience tells them those downloading child pornography are likely to become abusers themselves.

“What child pornography/child abuse material is… is the graphic depiction of a rape of a child,” said Rich. “We look at it, obviously, for our jobs ’cause it’s part of the investigative process, but it takes its toll on everybody who has to see it.”

At a lab in the Collin County Sheriff’s Office, they can pull data from suspects’ cell phones and laptops and store it in a large secure server. They study the horrific images found for telling details, hoping to find and free child victims.

“Today I was sending out emails to my agency asking for assistance identifying a victim based on the clothes the victim was wearing,” said Rich.
They sometimes pose online as children themselves, requiring them to stay current on kids’ lingo and interests.

“One example — I was chatting with a guy and he asked me who I thought was gonna win one of the talent shows on TV,” recalls Meehan, who’d never watched the show himself. “I had to research it real quick.”

The pair often don’t know who they’re talking to until an investigation is nearly complete. They’ve arrested suspects of all kinds, even some that were well-respected in their communities. “It sometimes is pretty shocking to us who they are,” admitted Rich.

On the internet, though, behind a veil of anonymity, predators openly confess their crimes. “I think to them it’s exciting to tell the story,” said Meehan.

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During our visit, one man they were speaking with admitted to molesting children, after getting “hooked while stationed in the Philippines.” His youngest victim, he said, was 9-years-old. The detectives were able to track his location to the Nacogdoches-area. With some work, he could be one more suspect they help put away.