Man pleads guilty in case of internet stalking of child

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A Mississippi man who thought he was communicating with a Batesville teen online has been sentenced to 10 years in prison after authorities say he drove three hours to meet the “teenager.”

According to a release from Prosecuting Attorney Eric Hance, Jason James Leija (pictured), 23, of Horn Lake, Miss., pled guilty to Internet Stalking of a Child, a Class B felony, in Independence County Circuit Court. He was sentenced to 10 years in the Arkansas Department of Corrections and an additional 10 years Suspended Imposition of Sentence. He must also register as a sex offender.

Leija changed his not guilty plea to guilty just minutes before his jury trial was to start on Jan. 9. 

Leija met whom he thought to be a 15-year-old girl from Batesville through an online dating app, the release said. After arranging to meet with the 15-year-old in Batesville, authorities say Leija made the three-hour drive from his home in Horn Lake to do just that.

Upon his arrival at the agreed location in Batesville, Leija was instead met by officers with the Independence County Sheriff’s Department, who had been posing as the 15-year-old.

Leija was immediately arrested, the release said. He had no prior criminal history.

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Hance’s office says local law enforcement officers and prosecuting attorneys are taking internet crimes seriously. 

Using new investigative methods, law enforcement is pro-actively seeking a way to stop internet crimes before they happen and offenders are finding out that the price they will pay is a big one, the release noted. 

Independence County Sheriff Shawn Stephens has made targeting sexual predators in this area a priority after being contacted in late 2018 regarding an investigation initiated by the Dallas (Ark.) County Sheriff’s Department, according to Hance’s office. That case involved a resident of Independence County who was allegedly communicating his desire to have sexual relations with a minor female via an online dating app. 

Upon further investigation, that suspect was later arrested and charged in Independence County Circuit Court for internet stalking.  Sheriff Stephens decided his office needed to be proactive about this type of sexual predator and sent two of his investigators to Dallas County for training on internet crimes involving children.

“ICSO [Independence County Sheriff’s Office] investigators then began making cases against internet predators right here in Independence County in an effort to prevent violence or danger to any child,” Sheriff Stephens said. “In this type of investigation, no children are used or put into harm’s way. ‘Sting’ operations such as this are being used by many law enforcement agencies to identify and arrest would-be child sex offenders.”

Prosecuting Attorney Hance also feels that the mission is important.

“The most important job of the criminal justice system is protecting our children,” Hance said. “Parents should know that sexual predators are plentiful and these predators should know that they will be punished when caught.”

Image via Independence County Sheriff’s Department

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