‘Operation Hidden Guardian’ leads to 21 arrests in Columbus area sting
Two of the 21 men arrested in a multi-jurisdictional operation meant to target online predators appeared in Columbus Recorder’s Court Tuesday morning.
Eric Menefee, 50, of Opelika pleaded not guilty to trafficking a person for labor of servitude and sexual exploitation of children. He was booked into the Muscogee County Jail under bonds totaling $50,000.
Gary Whitfield, 28, of Columbus pleaded not guilty to sexual exploitation of children. He was booked into the jail under a $25,000 bond.
The cases were bound over to Superior Court.
Columbus Police Sgt. John Bailey said an undercover officer posing as a 14-year-old girl had multiple conversations with Menefee over the phone and online. He allegedly agreed to pay $100 to have sex with the “child” for five minutes.
Authorities said Menefee was taken into custody after he went to an undisclosed Columbus location thinking he would be meeting up with the girl.
Bailey said Whitfield was also speaking with an undercover agent posing as a child when he agreed to do sexual favors for the “child.” He was taken into custody after going to a location to meet up with someone he believed to be a child, according to police.
Whitfield and Bailey were among 21 men arrested in a multi-jurisdictional operation centered in the Columbus area. Their charges include trafficking a person for labor of servitude and sexual exploitation of children.
A majority of the suspects faced their charges Sunday during a special session held in Judge Gil McBride’s courtroom.
Launched on Nov. 9, “Operation Hidden Guardian” involved investigators posing as children online. They had more than 600 exchanges with people on various online platforms, including social media and chat rooms. Within more than 400 of those exchanges, the suspect initiated contact with the “child” and directed the conversation toward sex.
Some of the suspects allegedly introduced obscene content, exposed themselves and requested child pornography.
The agencies that were involved in the investigation were the Columbus Police Department, Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office, District Attorney’s Office for the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit, United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Child Exploitation and Computer Crimes Unit, and the Georgia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.