Thursday, March 10, 2005
Bedford Co. turns up heat on online predators
Shaquille O'Neal says he'll be in Bedford County this summer with Operation Blue Ridge Thunder.
Online predators caught by Bedford County's Operation Blue Ridge Thunder task force are usually surprised to learn that they've propositioned a full-grown detective instead of an underage child, but they are about to be even more surprised.
Now, it's possible that some are coming on to a 7-foot-1, 325-pound center for the Miami Heat.
It's not Shaquille O'Neal. It's Officer Shaquille O'Neal.
The giant basketball player will serve as an honorary Bedford County deputy and spokesman for Internet Crimes Against Children and the Safe Surfin' Foundation, which educates children about the dangers of online predators.
"You know, I've always been the one that's so-called a role model to children, so this is right up my alley," O'Neal said in a voice-mail message left at The Roanoke Times just after 1 a.m. Wednesday.
O'Neal, who has already done some police work in Los Angeles and Miami, says he will be in Bedford County this summer "working some cases and, you know, hanging out with the guys." It is unclear when or how long O'Neal will be in Bedford County.
Operation Blue Ridge Thunder was one of the first 10 task forces in ICAC, which is a branch of the Department of Justice. Bedford County Sheriff Mike Brown scored O'Neal for the job.
"Sheriff Brown knew about my interest in crimes against children because I think he read it," O'Neal said, "and he contacted a friend who knew a friend, and that friend knew my boss, Chief Ron Boy out in L.A."
Brown said he used his entertainment and professional sports contacts in California to contact O'Neal. He then traveled to O'Neal's Florida home and gave him a PowerPoint presentation about Internet crimes against children.
"He kind of smacked me on the knee and said, 'Sheriff, count me in,'" Brown said.
O'Neal will do national public service announcements and fund-raisers, and his face will appear on a "Shaq Pack," an online safety kit for children.
Brown said O'Neal has already worked some cases alongside ICAC investigators.
O'Neal said he first became interested in police work after touring the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where he also first learned about Internet crime. He is now a certified police officer, having graduated from the police academy in Los Angeles in 2000. O'Neal won three NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers before being traded to Miami last fall.
"I was working the streets [in L.A.], was working grand theft auto and I was kind of bored doing that, and then I got transferred to Miami. Now I'm a police officer in Miami Beach," he said.
Oh, and he does that basketball thing there, too.
O'Neal has five children, and he said they are another reason he was interested in assisting Safe Surfin' and Operation Blue Ridge Thunder.
"This is not something I'm doing for money - this is something I've always wanted to do," he said, "and I'm finally doing it, thanks to Sheriff Brown."