The Petaluma police department conducted the operation with help from other agencies and a volunteer group called Perverted Justice.
"All of them got bail later," Captain David F Sears of the Petaluma police department, told Rediff India Abroad. "They may get a jail term for less than a year. Those who came on work visas will be deported after the jail term," he said.
The arrests were the culmination of a six-month inquiry. The suspects arrived at a designated location in Petaluma to have sex with minor children, the police said.
The accused used Internet chat rooms and instant messages to make contact with minors. But most of these messages went to volunteers of Perverted Justice posing as minor girls. They asked the victims to come to a particular location where the police were waiting for them.
The investigation began in March when the Petaluma police department began working with Perverted Justice. The police had no idea about the predator or his background. But many of them turned out to be educated people, the police noted.
"I have no explanation why highly educated people commit such acts," Captain Sears said.
Sexual predators using Internet chat rooms to identify and meet children for sexual gratification has become a major concern for law enforcement agencies around the nation, the police said. Suspects routinely contact potential victims using various instant messaging services and electronic mail. They engage in chats that can shift from the innocent to the sexual. They have been known to converse with children for months while 'grooming' their potential victims, the police said.
Perverted Justice is a nationwide volunteer organisation that monitors online chat rooms and web sites to identify and expose such predators. The group consists of trained adult volunteers who enter chat rooms posing as minor children. Once contacted by adult suspects, the volunteers chat with them and try to ascertain their motives.
If sexual contact is the suspect's goal, the volunteer will continue communication, eventually ending in an arranged meeting between the suspect and the minor child alias of the volunteer.
Perverted Justice volunteers act as witnesses and cooperate with investigation by testifying in court, if necessary. These operations have been very successful in numerous areas around the US.
After several incidents involving Indians, Skand Tyal, then the Indian consul general in Houston, issued an advisory in April 2004. He said he was acting in an unusual way because of the number of people involved in cybersex cases. "It seems to me that Indian students in particular are not quite aware of the severity of the offense, and there have been at least three cases in the recent past where so-called minors have actually turned out to be law enforcement officials," he had told this reporter then. "I am surprised that these people, who are so smart and are here to study disciplines like computer engineering, should be so careless about this."'
The Houston consulate also advised that anyone in a similar situation should not sign any documents, such as a waiver of the right to contest, or agreeing to be deported, without first checking with an attorney or the consulate.
The relatives of some victims also questioned the modus operandi of the authorities.
"These young people have not committed any crime. At best, the officials can prove that they had such an intention in mind," the sister of one person arrested, had said. "These people do not know any of their constitutional rights. So when they get caught, they panic and sign whatever papers are given to them, instead of calling for a lawyer." She wants the community to be aware of these issues.
"The younger people commit such mistakes and they pay with their future and life for such a small thing. It is really sad," she said.