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Prominent Member of Nearby Community Arrested for Internet Sexual Exploitation of a Child

By Raina Lucero

June 18, 2024

In a methodical operation to protect children from online predators, the Kiowa County Sheriff’s Office successfully arrested Ernest “Chad” Hart, a resident of Lamar, Colorado on May 8, 2024. The arrest follows an extensive undercover investigation targeting individuals exploiting the anonymity of certain messaging applications to prey on minors.

Ernest “Chad” Hart, a 67-year-old community organizer from Lamar, Colorado has held many positions of note including, former president of Non-profit tourism advocacy group Canyons & Plains, serving on Prowers County Planning Board and has been a government employee for Farm Service Agency in Lamar for an undetermined amount of time. A statement from Brandon Terrazas Executive Officer for Farm Service Agency stated, “Mr. Hart is no longer employed with FSA and hasn’t been for years.”

Despite his unassuming nature, the arrest affidavit for Mr. Hart, was in fact acting with the intent to lure, seduce, and molest a 14-year-old girl whom he believed lived in Eads, Colorado with her mother and sister.

The Kiowa County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) initiated a sting operation on March 29, 2024, led by Sergeant Avery Snover. The investigation utilized the messaging app Kik, which is popular among users of all ages due to its anonymity and privacy features. Unlike traditional messaging apps, Kik does not require a phone number for registration; users create a username to communicate. This level of anonymity can make it an attractive platform for individuals with malicious intent.

According to the arrest affidavit the Kiowa County Independent obtained from the Kiowa County Clerk of Courts for Hart, Sargent Snover stated, “When doing sting operations, KCSO does not instigate or start conversations and allows suspects to create and begin any conversation they would like. KCSO then responds however the conversation goes with how the suspect changes the conversation topics. The chat techniques are within the training and experience the affiant (Snover) has gained by conducting various other undercover stings and attending training.”

The affidavit goes on to explain that Sergeant Snover created an undercover profile posing as a 14-year old girl using an AI-generated image. This profile was introduced in a public Kik group titled “Southeast Colorado Plains Singles” with a message stating, “Hi, I’m 14 and female looking for friends.”

On April 6, 2024, a user named “coloradofun4u” responded to the decoy profile. This user, later identified as Ernest Hart, initiated private conversations that quickly became explicit despite repeated reminders of the decoy’s young age.

The profile “coloradofun4u” featured an image of mountains and trees and had been active for 1889 days, indicating a long-term presence on the platform of more than 5 years.

During the investigation, over 30 pages of chats were produced, primarily within the Kik app and on Hart’s cellphone. Many of the transcripts between Hart and the decoy were graphic in nature and indicated that Hart wanted to meet the decoy at Cobblestone Inn and Suites in Eads while the decoy’s mother was at work. According to the affidavit, early in the conversations, Hart sent a mirror picture of, what appears to be an older male that’s taking a picture of his back side to include his buttocks and a side view of his arm and chest. Later Hart repeatedly requested the decoy to send “fun pics” back to him.

On May 8, 2024, surveillance units were deployed as Hart was expected to travel to Eads as per his arrangement with the decoy to meet. At approximately 1600 hours, Hart was spotted driving eastbound on Highway 96. Upon his arrival in Eads, he circled the Cobblestone area before heading to the Eads rest stop area on Highway 287. Law enforcement officers conducted a high-risk stop, apprehending Hart without incident. His vehicle was towed and sealed as evidence.

Upon arrest, Hart was read his Miranda Rights and voluntarily agreed to an interview. He admitted to messaging the undercover profile and expressed concern about meeting a minor. Hart consented to a search of his cellphone, revealing extensive chats and a gallery of nude images, most appearing to be of adults. Further investigation will seek to confirm the nature of these images.

During the interview, Hart disclosed the presence of medication related to erectile dysfunction in his vehicle. Hart was taken to Bent County Jail where he eventually was released on bond. He will be back in Kiowa County Court room on July 23, 2024, for a pretrial hearing.

Hart faces the following charges at this time:

  • Enticement of a Child (18-3-305(1))
  • Internet Luring of a Child (18-3-306(1)(3))
  • Internet Sexual Exploitation of a Child (18-3-405.4(1)(a)(b))

A statement from Kiowa County Sheriff Bryan Williams on the matter states, “The investigation is ongoing, and additional evidence may be obtained through further searches and digital forensics. The KCSO continues to urge parents and guardians to remain vigilant about their children’s online activities and to report any suspicious behavior to local law enforcement.”

Adolescents are frequently targeted by online predators. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), approximately 1 in 7 youth internet users (ages 10 to 17) receive unwanted sexual solicitations online. Additionally, a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that nearly 20% of adolescents have been targeted by online predators at some point.

Predators often use social media, chat rooms, gaming platforms, and messaging apps to initiate contact, build trust, and eventually exploit young individuals. The anonymity and privacy features of these online platforms make it easier for predators to approach and manipulate their targets without immediate detection.

Given the widespread use of the internet among adolescents and the increasing sophistication of predators, it is crucial for parents, educators, and policymakers to be vigilant and proactive in protecting young people from online dangers.

Adolescents are particularly vulnerable on platforms like Kik due to several factors:

  • Anonymous Interactions: Users can interact without revealing their true identities, making it easier for predators to disguise themselves.
  • Public and Private Groups: Kik allows users to join public and private groups, such as the “Southeast Colorado Plains Singles” group involved in a recent case. In these groups, children can unknowingly engage with strangers who may have harmful intentions.
  • Direct Messaging: Once contact is made in a group, individuals can transition to private messages, further increasing the risk of exploitation.

This case serves as a powerful reminder that threats can often be hidden in plain view, not just lurking in the shadows.

All persons are considered innocent until proven otherwise.

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