COLUMBIA, SC — A South Carolina sheriff’s deputy was arrested along with four others during an undercover child sex-trafficking sting operation after he solicited sex from a girl he thought was 15, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said. Warrants were issued for nine others Lott described as “monsters who … prey on our children.”
The deputy, 34-year-old Derek Vandenham, was immediately fired, Lott said at a news conference Tuesday. Vandenham is charged with solicitation of a minor and second-degree attempted criminal sexual conduct with a minor between the ages of 11 and 14.
In Operation Relentless Guardian — a sting that included Richland, Orangeburg and Aiken counties, and the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office — deputies pretended to be girls under the age of 15 and chatted with men on social media and other internet sites, Lott said at the news conference.
Lott said he allowed the five-day operation to move forward when he learned that Vandenham was one of the men chatting with the undercover deputies, but moved the location where he was supposed to meet the girl so he wouldn’t know he was about to be arrested.
The deputy, who has been with the department since 2015, was on duty, wearing his uniform and driving his patrol car when he showed up to meet the girl, Lott said.
“One of the most disgusting things that I’ve been having to deal with is to have a deputy do something like this,” Lott told reporters.
“In my more than 40 years of law enforcement, never have I run across such a disgraceful act from one of our own,” he said.
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“That was something that made me sick to my stomach,” Lott said, “that one of my deputies that I trust, that we put out here in the community, is one of these monsters.”
Lott described the 14 men who were charged or are subject to charges as “travelers” who drive hundreds of miles to have sex with teenage girls. Those arrested included men from Georgia and Florida, and an arrest warrant has been issued for an Ohio man.
The undercover operation also included a prostitution sting targeting men “promoting human sex trafficking,” Lott said. “That’s their job.”
Fourteen men were arrested in that phase of Operation Relentless Guardian.
Lott said those charged include John Hardee, a former commissioner for the South Carolina Department of Transportation, and an American Airlines pilot who was due to fly out of the state the next morning. One of the men is also facing four attempted murder charges after he tried to run over four deputies with his car, and another suspect is a repeat offender who was last arrested for prostitution in February, Lott said.
The sheriff issued a stern warning to parents to be mindful of what their children are doing online.
“Parents, you have to know what your children are doing. You can’t allow them to go online and go to websites and chat rooms and ignore” he said. “That computer or that phone they have is not something that is a distraction they can use so you can your free time.
“You have to be a parent. You have to monitor your children and what they are doing.”
Child-sex and human trafficking can be stopped, he said, “but parents, the adults have to be part of it.”
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson called the internet “the new wild, wild West.”
“This is the new generation of law enforcement officers who are out there on that new frontier chasing down these types of predators.”
Wilson dismissed the argument made by some that the crimes the men are charged with are “victimless” if both parties consent.
“When you peddle child porn . . . you’re supporting or creating the market for child porn and you’re creating the market for people trying to go out and solicit sex with children,” he said, adding that soliciting sex with adults supports the market for human trafficking.
“It’s a supply and demand issue,” Wilson said. “Obviously you attack the supply, but sometimes you have to attack the demand.”