Three Arizona men are among 245 adults arrested in an international investigation of child exploitation called "Operation Sunflower."
The investigation was part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's efforts to find and rescue victims and arrest abusers.
Billy Mills, 34, of Tucson, was arrested Nov. 14 on charges of possessing child pornography, according to court records. His trial is set for February. His attorney, Dan Cooper, said neither he nor his client wanted to comment. Two other men were arrested in Phoenix.
During the operation, launched in November, 123 victims were identified by federal officials as being sexually exploited. Forty-four children were rescued from their abusers and 79 were identified as being exploited by others outside their home or are now adults who were victimized as children. Five were younger than 3.
"With the Internet, we have seen the proliferation of child exploitation," said Amber Cargile, spokeswoman for the ICE field office in Phoenix. "These cases represent many that are out there."
She didn't know if any of the victims were in Arizona.
Child-exploitation cases are a top priority for ICE, she said, because "it involves some of society's most vulnerable members."
"Operation Sunflower" was a targeted operation that lasted a little less than two months. But Cargile said investigations are year-long.
The investigation was timed to coincide with the first anniversary of a successful rescue in which the identification of a sunflower-shaped highway road sign led to an 11-year old girl in Kansas, according to a news release. Operation Sunflower is named for the first case conducted one year ago under the agency's new Victim Identification Program.
The Sunflower case began in November 2011 when Danish law enforcement officials shared with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement posts on a chat board indicating that a 16-year-old boy was planning to rape an 11-year-old girl. The suspect was soliciting advice online and posting images of the girl. She was eventually rescued.
"This is a very significant operation," said Michelle Collins, with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "ICE has dedicated substantial efforts to this arena in protecting children."
But there's still a lot of work to do, she added. The center receives about 8,000 tips a week.
Anyone with information or tips that can assist in these investigations can visit www.ICE.gov/tips or call 1-866-DHS-2-ICE.
Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo.