GARDEN PLAIN — The news Monday that seven people had been arrested in a law enforcement operation targeting human trafficking hit extra hard here.
That's because one of the men arrested, Todd Puetz, is a Garden Plain High School teacher and highly successful coach of the football team — the pride of the community. The news that someone held in a position of such trust was suspected of trying to prey on a child jolted people around town. Former students and players defended Puetz.
Kim Dooley, a 2008 Garden Plain graduate whose cousin plays on the team, said, "Everyone is ... shocked. I think everyone thinks it's a misunderstanding. ...
"It's not how Mr. Puetz is. He's always been a good guy. He's an excellent teacher."
The arrests of the seven men came late Friday and Saturday nights, Wichita police Capt. Brent Allred said Monday.
None of the men has been charged; authorities have yet to present their cases to prosecutors.
Puetz, 39, was released on a $50,000 bond at about 10:30 a.m. Sunday.
The special operation came in response to a surge in human trafficking cases in Wichita over the past couple of years, Allred said.
"It was a proactive assignment due to the issues and problems that we have with child sexual predators in our community," Allred said at a briefing held by police.
"I'd like to say it's successful, but it's really not, because when you get this many people, it's kind of a sad commentary of what's in our community.
"When you arrest this many people, you know it's a problem."
Five of the men are from Wichita, one from Garden Plain and one from Hays, he said. They range in age from 25 to 59.
All of them communicated electronically with someone they thought was an underage girl — and the contents were of a sexual nature — and all seven made an attempt to meet with a girl for sex, Allred said.
Another four people are under investigation and could be arrested later, Allred said.
He declined to offer many details about how the operation was conducted because authorities hope to do more of them.
Coach suspended from duties
Garden Plain school district superintendent Tracy Bourne said Monday that a high school coach and teacher had been suspended from all duties. Although Bourne would not give the coach's name, arrest records showed that it was Puetz.
"We did have an incident over the weekend... one of our staff members was arrested," Bourne said. "That staff member has been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation."
The teacher/coach is on administrative leave with pay, Bourne said.
On Monday, as news of the arrest spread, Garden Plain school staff met with students in small groups and provided support to students who might need it, Bourne said. It was designed to "get kids into a routine as fast as we could," he said.
Because one of the men arrested is a teacher, authorities will be looking into whether he was engaged in crimes in Garden Plain, Allred said. Investigators also will be checking into the backgrounds of the other men arrested, he said.
A relative of Puetz, who asked that her name not be used, said his family is "very supportive" of him.
"It's just not all black and white," she said, standing on the front porch of his home. "We're just waiting for other things to come to light."
Records show the others arrested in the operation were:
* Viraqd Weerappumac, 51, Wichita
* Reginald Shepard, 35, Wichita
* Joshua Hetzel, 26, Wichita
* David Walter, 59, Hays
* Chris Squires, 25, Wichita
* Kyle Miller, 25, Wichita
The two-day operation was a month in the making and involved the FBI, the Internet Crimes Against Children task force, the Wichita/Sedgwick County Exploited and Missing Child Unit, Wichita police and Sedgwick County sheriff's officers, Allred said.
Federal charges could result from the arrests, he said. Investigators will meet with the Sedgwick County District Attorney's Office and the U.S. Attorney's Office later this week or early next week to present evidence.
Surprise at news in Garden Plain
Around Garden Plain, Puetz is known as an outstanding football coach. He is a 2007 All-Metro football coach of the year, and his team won the Class 3A title in 2007 with a 14-0 record. Garden Plain has made the playoffs every season with him as coach. This season, Garden Plain was the No. 1-ranked team in Class 3A until it lost to Sedgwick on Friday.
Football is huge in the town's life, said Jeremy Helten, owner of Stern Bar and Grill. "The sports here unites the community."
"Everybody has a 'Go Owls' sign."
Now, with the respected coach facing serious allegations from authorities, "I hope that's all false," Helten said.
Kendall Fisher, a 2005 Garden Plain graduate and an All-State player in 2004, said there was nothing to suggest that his former coach would ever be accused of a crime.
"That would have been the last thing, the last thing the whole town of Garden Plain would have expected," Fisher said. "I will stand behind him and support him. I feel for him and his family."