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TOMS RIVER - “At my shore house for one week, looking to meet new friends," said the ad posted on Doubles List, a website for people looking to meet up.
The ad said it was posted by someone who was 19, seeking “FWB," or friends with benefits, between the ages of 18 and 70.
Someone with the email address email@example.com responded to it, saying he was from the Manasquan area, not far from the Toms River location of the person he was corresponding with.
“I’m clean, down-to-earth and available," the response said, with a picture attached.
Soon, the person who took out the ad said, “I’m 15. Is that bad?"
Despite that, the person who responded to the ad continued the correspondence, eventually arranging to meet up.
Detective Anthony Lacher of the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office gave that account about the string of correspondence Thursday at a trial before Superior Court Judge Michael T. Collins.
The detective was posing as a 15-year-old girl named Taylor. He said he noticed an emblem that appeared to be that of someone involved in law enforcement or emergency services in the picture the person sent him. He showed it to a supervisor, who recognized the person as Richard Conte, a sergeant in the Howell Police Department who was commander of Monmouth County’s Emergency Response or ‘SWAT’’ Team.
When Conte, then 46, showed up at a location in Toms River for a rendezvous with someone he thought was the 15-year-old girl, law enforcement swooped in and arrested him, Deputy Attorney General Robert Guarni said in his opening statement to the jury.
Conte was agitated and said, “This is not something you come back from," Guarni said.
Guarni said the “htesu" in Conte’s email address stood for Howell Township emergency services unit."
Conte, a former volunteer fire chief for the South Wall Fire Department, has been suspended from his $139,000-a-year police job since his arrest in Toms River on Sept. 6, 2018. He is charged with child luring, attempted criminal sexual contact, attempting to impair or debauch the morals of a child and official misconduct.
Guarni said Conte, now 50, of Farmingdale, used a cellphone issued to him by the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office for his role as commander of the county SWAT team to correspond with and arrange a rendezvous with the person he thought was a minor.
Guarni said Conte, after being told that "Taylor" was 15, repeatedly asked her how old she was.
“Six times you will hear that Taylor tells the defendant she’s 15," Guarni said.
At one point, “Taylor" responded, “I’m 15. OMG. Why do you want me to say I’m older?" Guarni told the jury.
Conte continued chatting with her, knowing she was underaged, he said.
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Defense attorney Richard Incremona said at least one detective will acknowledge the chat was not preserved, and some who worked on the case filed reports about it many months later, claiming they didn’t even have notes to refer to when they wrote their reports.
“You’re going to ask yourself, as you should, does that make sense?" Incremona said in his opening statement to the jury.
Lacher, being questioned by Deputy Attorney General Rachel Weeks, testified that part of his chat as “Taylor" with Conte was not preserved. He had logged out of the conversation when the case was transferred to another detective, and a portion of the chat was lost in the process, he said.
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He testified about both the portions that were lost and those that were saved.
Lacher said that, while posing as Taylor, he said he was 15 and asked Conte if that was bad. Lacher said Conte responded, “Yes, 15 is bad. Sorry, not interested in someone that young. You have to be at least 18. … or at least be 16."
He asked how long until she would turn 16, and the answer was “almost a year," Lacher testified.
Lacher relayed the following chat:
“Is that bad?" Taylor asked.
“It is bad for an older man," Conte responded in the Sept. 2, 2018, chat.
That didn’t deter Conte from contacting “Taylor," Lacher said. The following day, Conte made contact while he was on duty, he said.
Conte asked her how her parents would feel about what she was doing, if she was having conversations with anyone else, if she was still at the beach and how the ocean was, Lacher testified.
Up until that point, the conversation was saved via screen grabs, he said. But the remainder of Lacher’s conversation with Conte was lost.
Lacher then testified about the lost portion of the chat.
“He asked me if we were able to meet that night," the detective said. “I said I was unable to — something along the lines that my mom would be home or would be around."
Lacher at the time of the investigation was a Wall police officer assigned to the county Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Because Conte was a supervisor for a police department in a surrounding community, the case was transferred to a detective in the Prosecutor’s Office, and part of the chatter was lost in the transfer, he said.
Conte’s arrest was part of a 2018 sting dubbed “Operation Open House," which resulted in arrests of 24 men accused of using social medial to lure underage boys and girls for sex.
Kathleen Hopkins, a reporter in New Jersey since 1985, covers crime, court cases, legal issues, unsolved mysteries and just about every major murder trial to hit Monmouth and Ocean counties. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Howell NJ police sergeant on trial for luring what he thought was teen