Man arrested in Fla. on molestation charges

COVINGTON - A Covington man was arrested Monday after driving to Pinellas County in Florida, allegedly intending to meet a 14-year-old girl for sex. Instead, he was met with undercover detectives with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

Manuel A. Willis, 43, of 135 Homeplace Drive has been charged with two counts of lewd and lascivious battery on a minor; three counts of lewd and lascivious molestation; three counts of traveling to meet a minor; and two counts of use of computer services prohibited.

Pinellas County is located near the Tampa/St. Petersburg area of Florida on the west coast, approximately a six hour drive from Covington.

Florida authorities said Willis had initially made contact with the girl through an Internet social network when they began text messaging and using cell phone e-mail. He had allegedly visited the 14-year-old on two previous occasions, with Monday's visit to be the third, according to PCSO spokesperson Cecilia Barreda.

Barreda said investigators were made aware of the situation when the young teen's father questioned out-of-state phone calls made from his daughter's Apple iPhone.

"They met in an Internet chat room downloaded through the phone. The application was, 'Who's here?'" Barreda said.

Once detectives from the PCSO Crimes Against Children Unit were made aware of the situation, they assumed the role of the girl in communications with Willis.

Willis was arrested about 7 a.m. with bail set at $170,000.

"There's a whole slew of different ways that kids can be reached out to by dangerous people," Barreda cautioned. "Our biggest piece of advice is to keep an eye out on what your kids are doing on the Internet and monitor their uses of their computers and phones."

Barbara Knowles can be reached at barbara.knowles@newtoncitizen.com.