Officials arrest 24 alleged child predators in New Jersey operation

TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey officials announced arrests of 24 alleged child predators in “Operation Open House,” a multi-agency undercover operation targeting men who allegedly were using social media in an attempt to lure underage girls and boys for sexual activity.

The underage “children” were, in fact, undercover officers. Most of the defendants were arrested when they arrived at a house in Toms River, N.J., where they allegedly expected to find their victim home alone.

Instead, they found dozens of law enforcement officers prepared to arrest them and process any evidence seized.

Those arrested included a Howell Township, N.J., police sergeant, Richard Conte, 47, who allegedly attempted to meet a person he believed to be a 15-year-old girl for sex. He allegedly claimed in online chats that he was 19 and he had condoms in his pocket when he was arrested.

“It is a frightening reality that sexual predators are lurking on social media, ready to strike if they find a child who is vulnerable,” Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said. “To counter that threat, we are working collaboratively and aggressively across all levels of law enforcement to apprehend these sex offenders. We want child predators to know that we are on social media too – and the child they target may be the undercover officer who puts them in handcuffs. That is the message of Operation Open House.”

Investigators said they found the predators looking for kids on adult dating apps and through popular kids games.

“As far as some of the games — like for example ‘Fortnight,’ ‘Minecraft,’ ‘Roblox’ — we’ve had all kinds of cases where individuals are posing as someone else other than a 14-year-old in order to gain someones trust,” State Police Lt. John Pizzuro, commander of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, told FOX8 sister-station WPIX.

The arrests in Operation Open House were made over a five-day period from Sept. 5 through Sept. 9. In addition to a police officer, those arrested included a nurse, a firefighter, college students and a registered sex offender.

The undercover law enforcement members who conducted the chats with the defendants were specially trained members of the ICAC Task Force. The defendants typically initiated contact based on profiles posted on social media platforms by the undercover detectives and agents. The social platforms that were used in these encounters included Kik, Skout, Whisper and Grindr. Once chatting began, the undercover officers clearly identified themselves as underage girls or boys. Despite that information, the defendants allegedly engaged the purported “children” in conversations about sex, and all 24 defendants are alleged to have made arrangements to meet the “children” for sex. The chats were conducted over a period of several weeks leading up to the “meet-up” week when arrests were made.

“Parents need to be aware of their children’s activities on the internet, and if children appear anxious or evasive when this topic is raised, it may be a red flag,” Grewal said. “It is critical that parents talk to their children about social media and chat apps to let them know that the people they encounter may not be who they initially seem to be.”

In past cases, the ICAC Task Force has made arrests of alleged child predators who used the following chat apps: Kik, Skout, Grindr, Whisper, Omegle, Tinder, Chat Avenue, Chat Roulette, Wishbone, Live.ly, Musical.ly, Paltalk, Yubo, Hot or Not, Down, and Tumblr. Arrests also have been made involving the gaming apps Fortnite, Minecraft, and Discord.

Grewal urged parents to familiarize themselves with these apps and warn their children about sharing information with strangers.

The following 24 men were arrested in Operation Open House. All face second-degree charges of attempted luring or enticing a child with a purpose to commit a criminal offense against the child. They allegedly believed they were communicating with a minor as described in parentheses. The defendants face additional charges as indicated.

  1. Mina G. Beshay, 27, of Monroe Township, N.J. (Girl, 15) Beshay is a security guard. Additional charges: Attempted Debauching Morals of a Child (3rd degree), Attempted Showing Obscene Material to a Minor (3rd degree).
  1. Christopher Vargas, 29, of Toms River, N.J. (Boy, 15) Vargas is a registered nurse.
  1. Joshua Rauter, 31, of Little Egg Harbor Township, N.J. (Girl, 14) Rauter is a municipal public works employee. Additional charges: Attempted Debauching Morals of a Child (3rd degree), Attempted Showing Obscene Material to a Minor (3rd degree).
  1. Joseph Martin, 35, of Seaside Heights, N.J. (Girl, 14) Martin is unemployed. Additional charge: Attempted Sexual Assault on a Minor (2nd degree).
  1. Richard Hoffman, 23, of Mays Landing, N.J. (Girl, 14) Hoffman is a firefighter and a college student.
  1. Volvi Lowinger, 23, of Lakewood, N.J. (Girl, 15) Lowinger is a college student. Additional charges: Attempted Sexual Assault on a Minor (2nd degree), Attempted Debauching Morals of a Child (3rd degree), Attempted Showing Obscene Material to a Minor (3rd degree).
  1. Thomas Graciano, 28, of Brick, N.J. (Boy, 15) Graciano is a physical therapist in a retirement community.
  1. Thomas Blumensteel, 47, of Manchester, N.J. (Boy, 15) Blumensteel is a hotel manager and a registered sex offender. He was sentenced to three years in New Jersey State Prison in 1997 for aggravated criminal sexual contact for sexually assaulting a boy, 13, whom he was supervising as a church counselor. Additional charge: Attempted Sexual Assault on a Minor (2nd degree).
  1. Richard Conte, 47, of Farmingdale, N.J. (Girl, 15) Conte is a police sergeant with the Howell Township Police Department.
  1. Thomas Fuller, 44, Toms River, N.J. (Boy, 15) Fuller is an assistant manager/sterilization technician. Additional charge: Attempted Sexual Assault on a Minor (2nd degree).
  1.  Zachary Vincent, 24, of Forked River, N.J. (Girl, 15) Vincent is a landscaper. Additional charge: Attempted Sexual Assault on a Minor (2nd degree).
  1. William Singleton, 24, of Pemberton Township, N.J. (Girl, 14) Singleton is a restaurant worker. Additional charge: Attempted Sexual Assault on a Minor (2nd degree).
  1. Jonathan Vece, 22, of Turnersville, N.J. (Girl, 14) Vece is a canvasser. Additional charge: Attempted Sexual Assault on a Minor (2nd degree).
  1. Lawrence Ivancic, 51, of Toms River, N.J. (Girl, 14) Ivancic is unemployed. Additional charge: Attempted Sexual Assault on a Minor (2nd degree).
  1. Robert Lisicki, 51, of Metuchen, N.J. (Boy, 15) Lisicki is a train conductor. Additional charge: Attempted Sexual Assault on a Minor (2nd degree).
  1. Dylan Daffron, 28, of Lacey Township, N.J. (Boy, 15) Daffron is a cashier at a retail store. Additional charges: Attempted Sexual Assault on a Minor (2nd degree), Attempted Debauching Morals of a Child (3rd degree), Attempted Showing Obscene Material to a Minor (3rd degree).
  1. Steven Portnoy, 27, of Egg Harbor Township, N.J. (Girl, 15) Pornoy is unemployed. Additional charge: Attempted Sexual Assault on a Minor (2nd degree).
  1. David Studnicky, 64, of Toms River, N.J. (Boy, 15) Studnicky is employed as a dry cleaner. Additional charges: Attempted Sexual Assault on a Minor (2nd degree), Attempted Debauching Morals of a Child (3rd degree), Attempted Showing Obscene Material to a Minor (3rd degree).
  1. Anthony Perfidio, 24, of Barnegat, N.J. (Boy, 15) Perfidio is a data entry clerk.
  1. Brian Degnan, 33, of Toms River, N.J. (Boy, 15) Degnan is a data entry clerk.
  1. Nabindranauth Nandalall, 24, of Bronx, N.Y. (Girl, 15) Nandalall is unemployed.
  1. William D. Davis, 23, Bayville, N.J. (Girl, 15) Davis is a consultant.
  1. Charles Schlottfeld, 26, of Bayville, N.J. (Girl, 14) Schlottfeld is a mechanic. Additional charge: Attempted Sexual Assault on a Minor (2nd degree).
  1. Douglass Walton, 54, of Hillsborough, N.J. (Boy, 14) Walton is employed in produce. Additional charge: Attempted Sexual Assault on a Minor (2nd degree).

Second-degree charges carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $150,000, while third-degree charges carry a sentence of three of five years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.