A sting operation targeting sexual predators of children led to the arrest of six men and one woman, all of whom appeared in Missoula County Justice Court on Friday facing felony child sex abuse charges.
The roundup of the seven alleged sexual predators – including one couple – was the result of a two-day sting in which members of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and several law enforcement agencies posted advertisements on the websites Craigslist and Backpage, posing as an adult female willing to prostitute a 12-year-old female relative.
The sting was a pre-emptive measure to target sexual predators in the community and proactively keep children safe, law enforcement officers involved in the operation said Friday afternoon at a news conference.
“I would like to speak to the men who believe it’s all right to victimize children,” Missoula County Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Dominick said. “I would like to promise them three things: We will find you, we will arrest you and we will lock you away for as long as the law will allow.”
The officers assured members of the media no children were involved in the operation and they would continue to use such stings in the future.
According to the affidavits filed by Assistant Chief Deputy Missoula County Attorney Jason Marks, all of the defendants were arrested after responding to the advertisements and driving to an address given to them by the undercover detective posing as the girl’s adult relative.
Matthew Steven Keith, 22, appeared in Justice Court on Friday facing a sexual abuse of children charge.
According to the affidavit, prior to arriving at the residence the Missoula man confirmed with the undercover detective that he was to have sex with the 12-year-old child.
He was taken into custody Wednesday after allegedly requesting the officer come out of the house to ensure he wasn’t being set up.
Keith told law enforcement he had no intention of having sex with the underage girl, but went to the house to identify the people involved before going to police, the affidavit stated.
Justice of the Peace Karen Orzech set his bail at $25,000.
Jenna Elizabeth Davis, 29, and her boyfriend Chad Lee Briggs, 36, also appeared before Orzech on Friday.
Davis is the only woman charged in the investigation and faces a count of conspiracy to commit sexual abuse of children.
According to the affidavit, the Turah woman responded to an advertisement Wednesday, stating Briggs would be interested in “helping the 12-year-old girl … lose her virginity.”
She told an undercover detective that Briggs, who faces a sexual abuse of children charge, had been involved in a prior sexual encounter with an underage girl and enjoyed the experience, the affidavit stated.
Briggs, of Bonner, then allegedly contacted the officer and assured he would be gentle with the girl and would bring condoms.
About 9 p.m., Davis contacted the officer and said they were on their way, the affidavit stated. She also requested she be present in the room to “help Briggs get ready.”
The couple was arrested upon their arrival at the residence.
In Justice Court, Marks said Briggs had a prior offense involving a child.
Orzech set bail for both Davis and Briggs at $25,000.
Christopher Michael Cooper, 30, was visiting family for the holidays from Fort Lewis, Wash., when he responded to the advertisement, Marks said in court Friday.
Marks argued for $50,000 bail because Cooper led law enforcement officers on a foot pursuit after his arrival at the house about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Public defender Daniel Mandelko argued for a lower bail as Cooper is a member of the U.S. Army and stationed in Washington. The military, he argued, will hold him accountable and force him to attend court appearances.
“No, for him it’s $50,000,” Orzech said. “He lives out of state and I don’t know what assurance the U.S. Army can make to the court.”
Cooper also faces a sexual abuse of children charge.
Neal Lewis Gray, 54, was taken into custody Wednesday after his alleged response to the advertisements. He was arrested with a variety of items used in sado-masochistic sex acts, the affidavit stated.
“He had a long, detailed and disturbing list of what he wanted to perform on the 12-year-old girl,” Marks said in court Friday.
Orzech set his bail at $75,000 – $25,000 higher than what the prosecution suggested.
He faces a charge of sexual abuse of children.
Justin Gale Walker, 28, of Hamilton, was arrested after arriving at the residence about 2:45 p.m. Thursday.
According to the affidavit, Walker insisted on speaking to the girl and had a phone conversation with an undercover detective posing as the 12-year-old.
He allegedly confessed that he had come to the house to have sex with the girl.
Orzech set his bail at $25,000.
He faces a sexual abuse of children charge.
The seventh suspect to appear in court Friday was James Stewart Myers.
After contacting the undercover detective Wednesday, Myers allegedly was told he had the choice of a 12-year-old girl or a 15-year-old girl. Upon arriving at the house, he met the undercover detective and said he wanted to receive oral sex from the 12-year-old girl and gave the detective a $100 bill, the affidavit stated.
He was taken into custody and posted $50,000 bond after his arrest.
All seven defendants’ preliminary hearings are set for Thursday, Jan. 2, at 4 p.m.
The investigation was a cooperative operation between the Missoula Police Department, Missoula County Sheriff’s Department, Flathead County Sheriff’s Department and ICAC.
Missoulian intern Kendra Cousineau contributed to this report.