The Marion County Sheriff’s Office netted 20 suspects last week in a sting operation aimed at men who were seeking to engage in sexual activity with children. The sheriff’s office (MCSO) had outstanding arrest warrants for three additional suspects at the time of publication.

MCSO collaborated with federal, state and other local law agencies, including the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office and Homeland Security Investigations. Suspects engaged in sexually explicit online conversations with undercover officers posing as children from ages 14 to 16 and described graphic sexual acts they wished to perform with the children, according to MCSO reports.

Fourteen of the suspects were nabbed at locations in Marion County who were expecting to meet children for sexual activities. Nine others allegedly engaged in online communications seeking sexual activity, with some sending sexually explicit photos.

Two of those charged are from the Dunnellon area and another is from Morriston. Jeremy Merritt, 42, of Citrus Springs was arrested on May 18 at the Dunnellon Publix after texting with an undercover officer. He was charged with traveling to meet a minor for illegal sexual conduct, use of a computer to solicit a child, use of a two-way communication device to facilitate a felony, and transmission of harmful material to a minor. He was also charged with violating his probation and for possessing fentanyl and drug paraphernalia.

Kyle Hunt, 22, of Dunnellon was arrested on May 19 at a public location in Ocala after having an explicit sexual communication with an undercover officer posing as a 15-year-old girl. He was charged with four related felonies, including transmitting info harmful to minors and using a computer to seduce, solicit or lure a child.

“I am disgusted and dismayed that there are people in this world who seek to harm innocent children,” Sheriff Billy Woods said in a statement. “I will never stop devoting every resource I have at my disposal to bring to justice anyone trying to harm a child in my county. I am grateful for the dedication of each participant in this operation and their work to get these vile individuals into my jail.”

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