COLUMBUS, Ohio – An attorney arrested in an Internet child-sex sting in the basement of the Ohio Statehouse thought he was going to meet a 15-year-old girl he had met online, authorities said.
Barry Mentser, 48, a former children's services lawyer, was taken into custody Wednesday moments after the police officer who conducted the sting testified two floors above in favor of a bill that would increase penalties for such offenses.
Lt. Jeff Braley, a detective from Hamilton Township in Warren County in southwest Ohio, said he posed as the girl to set up a Statehouse meeting with the man.
"I said, 'I'm in Columbus.' He said, 'I'll meet you anywhere,"' Braley said.
Braley, who said he'd been communicating with the man for about a year, testified before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee in favor of a bill that would set mandatory sentences of one to five years for the offense of importuning by telecommunications, aimed at sexual offenders who prey upon underage children through the Internet.
Braley said he didn't arrange the sting at the Statehouse to draw attention to the bill or his testimony, but that he knew the man was in the Columbus area and that police were aware of his identity.
Undercover Columbus police officers spotted Mentser in the Statehouse cafeteria, where Braley had set up the meeting, said city police spokesman Sgt. Rich Weiner. A security video later made available by Statehouse officials showed a man identified as Mentser walking from one side of the basement to the other, then back across, toward the cafeteria.
The Statehouse is a popular stop for school field trips, but there were none scheduled Wednesday, and the building had few visitors besides people attending legislative sessions and hearings, said Statehouse spokesman Gregg Dodd.
Mentser, of nearby Gahanna, is married with three children, The Columbus Dispatch reported. He was charged with importuning and attempted unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, Weiner said. If convicted he could face from one year to 30 months in jail.
Defense attorney Steve Palmer said Thursday he expected Mentser would enter a not guilty plea.
"He had no prior record whatsoever, criminal or otherwise, and this sort of came out of left field," Palmer told WCMH-TV.
His client remained in the Franklin County jail Thursday afternoon, hours after a judge set bond at $50,000. Mentser was scheduled to return to court Nov. 9 for a preliminary hearing.
Current Ohio law doesn't require prison sentences for people convicted of importuning by telecommunications. Many judges say sexual acts typically don't occur in undercover stings, so they take a "no harm, no foul" stance and sentence offenders to just weeks in jail and probation, Warren County Prosecutor Rachel Hutzel said after testifying before the committee.
Braley said he'd arrested about 35 people as the result of such sting operations in the past year.
"The Internet has served as a very fertile preying ground for these predators," Braley told committee members.
Mentser was a staff attorney for Franklin County Children's Services from 1987 to 1990, when he resigned, agency spokeswoman Kay Marshall said. He had no direct contact with children outside of court while employed there and no complaints were filed with the agency about him, Marshall said.