A Minneapolis middle school teacher who posted an online ad looking for sex with high schoolers called in sick Tuesday to meet up with someone he believed was a 14-year-old girl, according to criminal charges filed Thursday.
Joel D. Fowler, 23, told the girl that his name was “Blake,” and that he would meet up with her at Cherokee Park in St. Paul for sex, the charges said. What Fowler didn’t know was that he was communicating with a St. Paul police sergeant posing as a girl as part of the undercover sting, Operation Broken Heart.
Fowler, a St. Louis Park resident, was charged in Ramsey County District Court with one count of engaging in electronic communication relating or describing sexual conduct with a child and soliciting a child through electronic communication to engage in sexual conduct.
Fowler was arrested when he arrived at Cherokee Park. He allegedly had two condoms in a front pocket and two more in a back pocket.
According to the complaint: The police sergeant was conducting an undercover investigation and reviewed Craigslist’s “casual encounters” personal ads, which can be posted at no cost. The sergeant searched for “high school” and found Fowler’s alleged ad. It included a photo of four young women in graduation caps.
“I’m looking for a soon-to-be or recent high school graduate who wants to play with a just out of college guy,” the ad said, according to charges. “I was just at a HS graduation and watching the girls really made me miss high school and the fun those girls are!”
The sergeant responded to the ad, telling Fowler she was 14. The sergeant and Fowler traded messages before agreeing to meet at Cherokee Park to have sex in his car, the charges said. “Send me a pic,” Fowler allegedly wrote.
When he was arrested, Fowler told police he was meeting someone he met online but denied knowing the person’s age, the charges said. He also allegedly denied seeing a picture of the girl, but later admitted he knew the girl was 14. The police sergeant had earlier sent Fowler an age-regressed photo of a female officer.
Fowler told police he “eventually” planned to have sex with the girl, the complaint said.
“He didn’t know if she was lying about her age, and said that if he saw her he could back out of it,” the complaint said.
Fowler was first hired as a temporary employee with Minneapolis schools from August 2011 to February 2013, according to district spokeswoman Myrle Croasdale. He was hired as a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Olson Middle School in August 2013 and was earning a salary of $46,663. He earned his teaching license a year ago.
Minneapolis public schools spokesman Stan Alleyne issued this statement Thursday: “Mr. Fowler was placed on administrative leave as soon as information regarding his arrest was shared with the school district. He will not return to Olson Middle School. We find the detailed information outlined in the criminal complaint to be morally reprehensible. We simply will not and cannot tolerate this type of behavior in any way. Police indicate that the incident did not occur on school grounds and did not involve any MPS students.”
Croasdale said there is no record of complaints against Fowler in the school district.
At a news conference Thursday to discuss Fowler’s arrest and other similar cases, St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith urged parents to talk to their kids about their online activity.
“We want to make sure that our children are safe,” he said.
Three other men were also charged in Ramsey County District Court with electronic solicitation of a child for sex: Derek J. Field, 23, of Apple Valley; Trevor W. Franke, 30, of Rosemount; and Robert G. Hagen, 43, of St. Paul.
According to charges: The men posted online ads on Craigslist, and arranged to meet for sex when undercover police replied to the ads posing as an underage boy in Field’s case, and underage girls in the other cases.
Fowler, Hagen and Field were arrested as part of Operation Broken Heart, an ongoing initiative orchestrated by the national Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force that aims to crack down on online child predators.
Staff Writer Nicole Norfleet contributed to this report.