Exeter men arrested for teen assault

(Paul Myers)

Visalia, Exeter police officers arrest two men for assaulting a minor, who they lured through social media

EXETER – The recent arrest of two men in Exeter, who were accused of sexually assaulting a Visalia girl by luring her through social media, has highlighted a growing concern for parents in Tulare County.

The accused men in Exeter used a fake profile to convince a 17-year-old girl to meet up with them, who was then taken to Exeter where she was assaulted. Investigators from Visalia and Exeter Police worked together to identify the suspects and arrested Jose Elias Mendoza, 31, and Daniel Montoya, 43, on March 21. Police with search warrants then searched the homes of both men and collected evidence tied to the case.

Predators use social media apps like Facebook and TikTok to convince minors to meet up in person. The predators usually create fake accounts that portray them as young people and sometimes use sophisticated technology such as AI to generate a social media page that is believable to target vulnerable youth.

The Child Crime and Safety Center reports there are an estimated 500,000 predators active online each day. Many of these predators “groom” minors through tactics that include pretending to be their age, offering money, support or drugs, and having affirming conversations. The Office of Justice Programs says in a research paper that children who suffer from low self-esteem and those who take risks are most endangered.

Being a teenage girl and having trouble with school, family, and friends are also identified as risk factors. Previous experiences with child abuse and neglect are common factors in cases involving victims of online grooming.

The crime is relatively rare in the town of Exeter. In 2020, the most recent year of data available, four rape cases occurred, though the overall crime rate is on par with Visalia and Tulare, both of which have significantly higher populations.

According to Lt. Bryan Clower, an officer with the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department’s Special Victims Unit, several detectives actively investigate social media pages to identify online predators.

“With the vast amount of social media platforms that are out there, detectives work cases very routinely,” Clower said. “It is common for our people to be paying attention to what is going on with regards to social media platforms.”

On March 26, one such investigation led to the arrest of former Delano Chief of Police Mark DeRosia. DeRosia had arranged to meet with what he thought was a 15-year-old at a motel but instead was met by officers of the Kern County Sheriff’s Department. DeRosia had been communicating with a decoy as part of a sting operation. 

DeRosia had previously been dismissed from his job with the Delano Police Department in 2017. The department has not provided a reason and has previously stated that his firing was “a human resources issue.” DeRosia is currently out on bail.

“What is important is that parents keep an eye on their kid’s accounts, monitor them and be cognizant of who they are talking to,” Clower said. “We monitor multiple accounts with social media, we get tips from the public, sometimes we will get tips from friends of the kids that will tell us the things that are going on, but more often than not, we have to take a proactive approach to the matter.”

Clower added that parents should reach out to law enforcement if they suspect their child is being groomed by an online predator. He said that more often than not, the predator will pose as a child and parents should be alert to messaging online that is sexual as it could be a warning sign.

The Federal Bureau of Investigations reports that child trafficking cases have risen significantly in recent years. The latest data available shows an 84% increase in the number of prosecutions for human trafficking between 2011 and 2020. A number of these prosecutions involve predators who use social media to identify and groom minors.

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