SANTA CRUZ — Echoing a popular reality television series, a citizens group set up its own sting operation this week that led to the arrest of a Hartnell College instructor on the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf.
The Santa Cruz Police Department was called to the wharf around 3:30 p.m. Tuesday for a report involving an adult subject live-streaming a confrontation with another man. According to police, an independent civilian investigator had impersonated a 14-year-old girl online in an effort to catch an adult sexual predator.
“Valentin Rodriguez, 62, exchanged multiple inappropriate messages and photographs and eventually solicited what he thought was a teenage girl to meet him in the city of Santa Cruz to have sex,” police wrote in a media release Thursday.
The citizen provided police with “compelling evidence for probable cause to arrest the suspect,” according to the release.
Responding officers also required a live text exchange between the civilian investigator and Rodriguez’s phones in order to verify that the two men had been in contact with each other.
Per policy, the police department immediately notified Rodriguez’s employer, Hartnell College, of the Automotive Technology Department instructor’s arrest, said Santa Cruz Police Department spokesperson Joyce Blaschke. Police detectives also obtained search warrants for Rodriguez’s home and vehicle, in order to conduct forensic investigations on his cell phone, computers and electronic devices.
Rodriguez, a Watsonville resident, was arrested and booked into Santa Cruz County Jail on suspicion of a felony charge of arranging to meet with a minor for sex, where he was later released. As of late Thursday afternoon, no listed charges had been filed by the Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office against Rodriguez.
“This is an ongoing investigation,” Blaschke wrote in the department release. “Detectives are still sorting through digital forensics. It is not known yet if there are actual underage victims who may have been solicited by the suspect.”
Investigators are asking anyone who may have been an underaged victim or known of a victim connected to Rodriguez to contact the Santa Cruz Police Department Investigations Unit at 831-420-5820.
The Santa Cruz operation was organized by a San Diego man identifying himself to the Santa Cruz Sentinel only as “Ghost,” who is behind the online site CC Unit or “Creep Catching Unit.” The entity, founded in 2018, is “a movement out of California that strives to help protect minors from online predators both by catching these predators, and raising community awareness around the issue in hopes of toughening laws and legislation,” according to website ccunitsd.org. Ghost said his CC Unit team have been involved in 281 operations in California and along the West Coast since 2018. He did not have statistics on how many convictions had come out of his efforts.
“I’ve definitely been called a vigilante before. I guess a vigilante paints it in a negative light,” Ghost said. “I see myself more as an activist where I don’t beat them up, I don’t hit them. All I really do is I go confront them, I ask them questions about what they’re doing. And then I gather information and I hand it over to police where they can arrest them. I don’t take the laws into my own hands.”
Ghost confirmed to the Sentinel that he had been inspired by the news magazine Dateline NBC series “To Catch a Predator,” which aired for three years on MSNBC, through 2007.
“We would encourage community members, if they have a line on someone they suspect to be a predator to immediately notify the police department so we can be on the front-end of that investigation,” Blaschke said Thursday. “It’s just safer for everyone involved.”
Contributed by local news sources