‘The Invictus Project’ to tackle child trafficking

ASHEBORO — At a joint press conference, the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office announced a new task force and plans for a fusion center in Randolph County, all dedicated to combating child trafficking and exploitation.

In August of this year the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office worked with 17 other agencies on an operation that led to the arrest of nineteen individuals who allegedly traveled to Randolph County with the intent of sexually exploiting minors.

“That operation opened the eyes of several people across the state,” said Randolph County Sheriff Greg Seabolt at the press conference. “The operation proved that child abuse, trafficking, and exploitation are much more prevalent than most people know or are willing to admit.”

North Carolina is ranked ninth in the nation for human trafficking with sex trafficking being the most common. The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation estimates that they will receive more than 27,000 Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) tips in 2023. With only 250 investigators trained to take ICAC cases in the state, which comes out to 108 tips per investigator, on top of their other non-ICAC cases.

“Our children are our most precious resource and deserve our best efforts to protect them from the evils of society. In many cases, persons convicted of child sex offenses admit that they have abused other children,” said Seabolt. “It is only logical to assume that these individuals will continue to abuse children until they are caught. It is therefore imperative that we take a proactive approach to catch these predators and prevent future abuse to every extent possible.”

To combat the problem, an interagency task force called The Invictus Project has been created, comprised of Randolph, Forsyth, Alamance, and Davidson Sheriff’s Offices, the district attorney, State Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and NGO partners like Lantern Rescue. The combined agencies operate out of a fusion center in Randolph County.

A fusion center acts like a shared workspace for law enforcement with the idea of bringing law enforcement agencies, investigators, resources, and tools under one roof to encourage sharing of information and expertise. They can also provide access to the latest tools and technology to solve cases more effectively.

“This is a technical fight, and this fight is done on forensic side for the most part, and these digital forensic tools are expensive,” explained Ray Dawson with Lantern Rescue, a non-profit focused on tackling child exploitation. “When we’re able to bring all of these tools to one location with the expertise that law enforcement personnel already have to be able to collaborate and work together, we just become a more effective fighting force.”

The Invictus Project will have a full-time lab staffed with a technician, analyst, and administrative assistant to provide administrative and technological support.

While each agency is responsible for providing its own personnel and equipment, Randolph County Commissioners have already approved funding to go towards the Fusion Center.

It will be the first of its kind in the State of North Carolina to use this full-time proactive model, both with partnering with surrounding agencies as a force multiplier, and using tactical apprehension methods to apprehend child predators.

In addition to fielding cyber tips, the task force will operate undercover operations to identify and apprehend online child predators and search for victims. The education and training of officers on topics centered around cyber investigations, human trafficking, child exploitation, and undercover chat operations will also be a priority.

“We want to send a message to all predators out there, all the perverts, that if you come to Randolph County, Alamance County, or any county in the Triad — they are not welcome,” said Sheriff Seabolt. “We want to help these kids before it happens, because when it happens, they become victims. We don’t want any more victims.”

By Scott Pelkey