ST. GEORGE — A three-day undercover sting operation spearheaded by the FBI Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Force has resulted in the arrest of five suspects, including two registered sex offenders.
In an email to St. George News, Sandra Barker, public information officer for the FBI, said the arrests were part of a coordinated law enforcement operation between the FBI’s child exploitation task force and the State Bureau of Investigation. The undercover operation took place over a three-day period last week and targeted individuals suspected of soliciting minors online to engage in sexual activity.
A photo of Dane John Bowler, 42, is posted on the Utah Kidnap-Sex Offender Registry following a 2007 federal conviction for enticing a minor, date, location of photo not specified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Department of Corrections, St. George News
The first arrest took place on the evening of Nov. 6 when 32-year-old Dane Bowler, of Veyo, arrived at a prearranged site to meet up with a 13-year-old to have sex, investigators say.
Prior to this, according to a probable cause statement, an undercover agent posing as a 13-year-old received a private message through an online chat platform from Bowler. During the online conversation, Bowler reportedly made arrangements to meet with who he believed to be the adolescent for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity.
Task force agents set up surveillance in the area of the arranged meeting site and watched as Bowler parked and sat in the vehicle while messaging the decoy that he was there.
The suspect was taken into custody and interviewed by agents. Authorities say Bowler admitted to talking to the 13-year-old online, sending sexually explicit messages, setting up a prearranged site and then driving there to meet the youth.
Bowler, who already was a registered sex offender, told agents he had a previous arrest and conviction for enticing a minor over the internet — a crime for which he spent several years in prison.
The registry requirement sprang from a federal case filed in 2007 wherein the suspect was convicted of coercion and enticement of a minor. He served more than five years in federal prison and was released in 2011, court records indicate.
The case was filed the following day and Bowler was formally charged with enticement of a minor. The charge was enhanced to a first-degree felony due to the prior conviction.
On the evening of Nov. 6, 46-year-old Danton Steele was arrested at a hotel on Town Center Drive in Washington City when he arrived to meet up with who he believed was a 14-year-old reportedly being trafficked for sex.
Steele, a resident of Washington City, made arrangements to meet the youth and was arrested when he arrived at the hotel. During a search of Steele, agents recovered a cellphone that contained the message thread and $100 in cash, which also turned out to be the amount Steele allegedly agreed to pay the teen.
Steele was arrested and charged with one count of enticing a minor over the internet and aggravated exploitation of prostitution.
On Nov. 7 shortly before 3 p.m., agents arrested St. George resident Nicholas Wayne Renfroe, 36, when he reportedly arrived to meet up with what he believed to be a mother and her 9-year-old child.
According to the report filed by the FBI agent, Renfroe began communicating with the mother on a social media application known to authorities as a platform where the sexual exploitation and rape of children is frequently arranged.
During the online chat with the decoy, Renfroe reportedly made arrangements to sexually abuse the child and have sex with the mother.
When Renfroe arrived at the prearranged site, he was arrested. During a search, agents recovered a cellphone with the online conversations, along with “candy for the 9 year old victim,” condoms and other items.
Renfroe was booked into jail seven hours later and faces first-degree felony attempted rape of a child and second-degree felony enticing a minor for sexual activity.
Meanwhile, a 53-year-old Washington City resident, Todd Robert Michels, was arrested later that afternoon when he arrived at a prearranged site to sexually abuse a 7-year-old boy, the report alleges.
The previous day, Michels began communicating with what he believed to be the father of the child and expressed an interest in abusing the youngster.
“Michels clearly detailed his intentions of sexual activity to the agent,” as noted in the report.
The meeting location was arranged and instead of meeting the father and child, the suspect was met by agents and taken into custody.
During an interview, authorities say, Michels initially told agents “that he intended to save the child from any harm,” and then later, he admitted he had struggled with fantasies involving children for a long time and needed therapy.
He also said he was a suspect in a previous investigation conducted by the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force for possession of child sexual abuse material.
Michels was booked into jail shortly before 7 p.m. facing attempted rape of a child and second-degree felony enticing a minor for sexual activity.
On the night of Nov. 7, Payden Irvin Davis, 29, of Santa Clara, also a registered sex offender, was arrested when he arrived to meet up with what he believed to be an 11-year-old boy.
Screen capture of Payden Irvin Davis, 29, that is posted on the Utah Kidnap-Sex Offender Registry following a 2019 federal conviction for possession of child pornography | Image courtesy of the Utah Department of Corrections, St. George News
The encounter was arranged during an online chat on social media that started the day before when Davis sent a message asking the decoy, “Can I have sex with your son?”
Davis reportedly sent a “selfie” that helped agents to positively identify the man as Davis.
During the arrest, Davis told investigators he was in the area to “surprise his ex-boyfriend, but said he had second thoughts, which is why he pulled into the provided meet-up location. Davis also reportedly admitted to using the social media site in question and sending selfies of himself to multiple people.
Agents then discovered that Davis was on federal probation on a 2018 case involving one count of possession of child pornography that was filed in the U.S. District Court in St. George in June of that year.
Davis was sentenced to serve 36 months in federal prison in February 2019 and was placed on 10 years post-prison supervision. He was released on Aug. 27, 2021.
Seven months later, the federal probation officer filed a revocation petition after Davis was arrested in March 2022 for possession of child pornography during an ICAC operation. Federal court records also indicated that Davis failed a polygraph. He appeared at the revocation hearing in March and was placed in federal custody on a temporary detention order before being released in June, according to documents filed by the federal parole officer.
Within four months of his release for possessing child pornography, he would encounter FBI agents at the prearranged spot to reportedly have sex with a child.
Following the arrests, all five suspects are being held without bail.
This report is based on statements from court records, police or other responders and may not contain the full scope of findings. Persons arrested or charged are presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law or as otherwise decided by a trier-of-fact.
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