INDEPENDENCE COUNTY, Ark. (KAIT) - A Horn Lake, Mississippi man has pleaded guilty to internet stalking of a child.
According to Prosecuting Attorney Eric Hance, 23-year-old Jason James Leija pleaded guilty to internet stalking of a child 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.
Leija must also register as a sex offender.
Prosecuting Attorney Hance said in a press release that Leija changed his not guilty plea to guilty, minutes before his jury trial was to start on Jan. 9.
In the release, police say Leija met whom he thought to be a 15-year-old girl from Batesville through an online dating app.
Investigators say that after arranging to meet with the 15-year-old, Leija made the three-hour drive from Horn Lake, Miss. to Batesville to meet.
Leija was instead met by officers with the Independence County Sheriff's Office, who had been posing as the 15-year-old.
Leija had no prior criminal history.
In the press release, Independence County Sheriff Shawn Stephens says he's 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.
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.
The release stated that Sheriff Stephens decided his department 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 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.”