Operation Park Hopper: Officers arrest 18 for lewd activity during sting operation

- Bicentennial Park, known to be a place for families and children to gather and have some innocent fun, is now also home to not so family-friendly activities, as a 75-year-old Robert Warner told a park visitor that he was there looking for a sexual hook-up with a man, reported by the Volusia County Sheriff's Office.

Police say the park visitor responded by telling Warner that he needed to be careful. Warner said he knew because he had heard about men getting arrested for lewd behavior on the west side of the county. It appears that Warner thought he was safe because he was on the east side of the county in Ormond Beach.

The official police release went on to state that just moments later, Warner pulled out his penis and started masturbating in plain view. He soon found himself in handcuffs and on the way to jail, charged with indecent exposure and committing an unnatural and lascivious act. Unlucky for warner, the stranger he solicited was actually an undercover Volusia County Sheriff’s deputy, part of a nearly week-long undercover sting operation that yielded 18 arrests.

Sheriff Mike Chitwood announced the results of the operation in a news conference Saturday morning, saying the arrests send a message. “These types of activities impact the quality of life of our citizens,” Sheriff Chitwood told the assembled media outside of his administrative office in DeLand. “It’s important that we set the tone that our parks and trails are safe for families and children.”

The Volusia County Sheriff's Office say that they started this sting, titled Operation Park Hopper, in response to complaints about lewd activity taking place at parks around the county.  And it was no coincidence that the sting operation was timed to coincide with the recent close of the school year, when children spend more time at local parks. “The possibility of such (lewd) acts occurring in the presence of a child will increase, requiring immediate attention and enforcement,” deputies wrote in the operations plan that was kicked off on Tuesday. 

It was not long before men began to approach the undercover deputies, strike up a conversation, and focus their talks on sex, says the police. Talks quickly became action when the suspects started doing more than just talking about such acts. 

The operations wrapped up Friday night. Deputies stated that they made arrests at six different parks in Ormond Beach, Port Orange, New Smyrna Beach, Deltona, and DeLand. Nearly all 18 defendants, who ranged in age from 28-78, were charged with indecent exposure and other related charges. Four of the defendants were additionally charged with battery for either groping or rubbing an undercover deputy.

In response to a question from a reporter, Sheriff Chitwood said he simply can’t understand the motivation of people who openly engage in lewd activity while in a public place. “It’s disgraceful,” said Sheriff Chitwood. “There’s a bunch of dirty old men who their thrill is exposing themselves to other men in broad daylight, in the park. I don’t get it. But then again, I think most normal human beings would never get it.”

Some of the defendants proved themselves as especially difficult, as the Sheriff's Office said that 64-year-old Bernard Coker became so aggressive that he caressed the undercover deputy’s crotch and then grabbed the deputy’s arms and tried to pull him towards him. The undercover agent pulled out his badge, identified himself as a law enforcement officer and placed Coker under arrest. Coker, however, didn’t go peacefully, earning him an additional charge of resisting an officer without violence.

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