A 39-year-old Florida man was arrested in Vancouver after officers witnessed him bicycle to the home of a 14-year-old girl he’d allegedly been grooming online.
The Kalama Police Department started a child sexual exploitation investigation Wednesday involving the girl and a suspect, later identified as Samuel Aaron Leonard of New Port Richey, Fla., the Vancouver Police Department said in a news release.
Leonard communicated with the girl over various social media platforms for several months and was posing as a 20-year-old online.
The Vancouver Police Department’s Digital Evidence Cybercrime Unit was asked help with the investigation as the primary Department of Justice Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force affiliate in Southwest Washington.
Cybercrime detectives and Kalama police officers met with the victim and her family, and then assumed the girl’s identity online. The undercover sting was meant to positively identify and expose Leonard, police said. During chats with Leonard, officers learned he was currently in Vancouver, making plans to meet the girl.
Police were granted emergency warrants to surveil Leonard and examine his online accounts.
Leonard was located in downtown Vancouver, and officers watched him while detectives continued texting with him, according to the police department. Leonard messaged that he was on his way to the girl’s home to drop off a cellphone, and was observed leaving his hotel on a bicycle.
He arrived at the girl’s home in Vancouver, where he was seen hiding a plastic bag in the backyard. He was arrested without incident and officers retrieved the bag, which contained the cellphone, packs of gum, chocolate bars and a love letter, police said.
“The love letter found in the bag detailed the man’s obsession for the girl and how he had immediately gone to her house after arriving in Washington on a bus. He also explained that he purchased her the cellphone so they could communicate secretly. The letter went further to detail that he even watched the victim’s younger brother playing in the yard,” the police department said.
Police searched three phones belonging to Leonard and found sexually explicit chats with the girl and detectives posing as the girl, thousands of depictions of child sexual exploitation imagery and a map app he used to find the girl’s house, according to police.
Law enforcement searched Leonard’s hotel room and found what was described as a “kidnapper’s kit.” The kit contained handcuffs, duct tape, rubber gloves, a blindfold, lubricant and a sex toy, several large knives, a hatchet and a .45-caliber handgun and ammunition, police said.
Detectives plan to also search an additional phone, Leonard’s laptop and a thumb drive.
Leonard was booked into Clark County Jail on suspicion of communication with a minor for immoral purposes, first-degree possession and first-degree dealing of child sexual exploitation imagery and sexual exploitation of a minor.
“Significant follow-up will be conducted by (the cybercrime unit) in the coming weeks, including computer forensics on numerous cellphones, the laptop and the thumb drive that all appear to have depictions from hundreds of other minors the suspect was communicating with across the United States,” the police department said.
The case will likely be referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office Western District for consideration of federal charges because Leonard traveled across state lines to facilitate his alleged crimes.
It could easily have had a tragic ending had alert parents and siblings of the victim not been paying close attention and alerted authorities, police said.