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Legally Speaking


Issue: August, 2007
Author: James C. Anderson

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Online Child Exploitation Cases

The Internet and other communications technologies are increasingly being used by sexual predators and child pornographers as tools for victimizing and exploiting children. As a result of this disturbing trend, since the year 2000 there has been a significant increase in the number of online child exploitation cases prosecuted in the Wyoming federal courts. As each of these cases involve the use of a computer and the Internet, the evidence gathered in the course of the investigation and subsequent court presentation of that evidence are almost always in electronic format. Given the rapidly changing technologies involved and the nature of the evidence gathered by the Government, these cases present unique challenges to both the prosecution and defense.

Today’s technologies provide child pornographers with an easily accessible and seemingly anonymous means for collecting and distributing a large number of child sexual abuse images. Additionally, some offenders turn to producing their own images. The result has been that now images of child sexual abuse are more graphic and sadistic than ever before, involving younger and younger children. Of particular concern are recent studies which indicate that those who regularly view child pornography are more likely to sexually abuse children. Additionally, as the Internet and related technologies have grown, children have become increasingly at risk of being sexually solicited online by predators. Law enforcement is uncovering an escalating number of “enticement” cases, where perpetrators contact children in chat rooms or through instant messaging, available on social networking sites or gaming sites, and arrange to meet at a designated location for the purpose of making sexual contact. The Internet, for all of its good and valuable purposes, has become a tool for those who seek to exploit and abuse children.

Statistics gathered by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, illustrate this problem. According to NCMEC:
- There are approximately 30 million youth Internet users in the United States.
- Approximately 34% of youth Internet users were exposed to unsolicited sexually explicit material online within the past year.
- This exposure to unwanted sexual material occurred despite the increased use of filtering, blocking, and monitoring software in use in households of youth Internet users. Approximately 55% of parents and guardians with home Internet access said there was such software on the computers their children used.
- One in five youth Internet users received an unwanted sexual solicitation within the past year. Of those solicitations, 27% involved requests for the youth to provide nude photographs of themselves.
- Approximately 34% of youth Internet users communicated online with someone they did not know within the past year.
- 34% of youth Internet users have posted their real names, telephone numbers, home addresses, or school names online where anyone could access the information.

Wyoming has responded to this problem. In 2001, as the result of a United States Department of Justice grant, the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) formed the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force. Today the task force is comprised of five Wyoming DCI agents, an agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and an agent from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The task force leader, DCI Special Agent Flint Waters, has garnered an international reputation as an expert in the investigation of online predators and those who trade in child sexual abuse images. Agent Waters has received awards and recognition from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and United States Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for his outstanding efforts in developing and implementing a number of cutting edge techniques designed to apprehend online predators and those who use the Internet to trade in images of child sexual abuse. Over the past 30 months Agent Waters and his team have trained over 800 law enforcement professionals from the United States and 17 foreign countries on how to apprehend online traders of child pornography. These efforts have resulted in the apprehension of several thousand offenders who use the Internet to exploit children. Indicative of his standing in this area of law enforcement, Agent Waters recently accompanied, and acted as an advisor to, First Lady Laura Bush while she attended an international conference addressing the global problem of online child exploitation in Paris, France.

Most of the online exploitation cases relating to the possession, receipt and distribution of child pornography that the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Wyoming prosecutes are generated as the result of ICAC team members identifying individuals in Wyoming trading child pornography on peer to peer (P2P) file sharing networks. In brief, P2P file sharing programs allow users to search for, and share, various types of computer files, including sound recordings, videos, and pictures. A user may download and install P2P software on his computer and the user is then able to click on an icon which connects his computer to a network of other computers using P2P file sharing software. The software contains a search tool which allows a user to input search terms, such as names of files or subject matter. The P2P software will then give the user a list of responsive files being shared by other computers connected to the network. The list indicates the type, size and names of files, and the speed of the host computer (i.e. the computer containing the file). A user can then select a file, click on it, and thereby connect directly to the host computer. The user can click on a “download” icon, and initiate the transfer of the file to his own computer. The user may also “browse” or view a directory of all the shared files that the host computer has available for downloading. At any given time there are literally thousands of computers throughout the world available to share images of child sexual abuse on P2P networks.

The Wyoming ICAC team has developed and implemented an investigative program for identifying individuals who are trading images of child sexual abuse using P2P software. To date, the Wyoming ICAC task force has executed search warrants on over 100 locales in Wyoming where a computer is present participating in the trading of child pornography. Recently, the Wyoming ICAC team identified a computer in Casper offering for download hundreds of files (both still images and videos) containing child pornography. Agents executed a search warrant at the apartment where the computer was located and discovered a computer belonging to a previously convicted child molester. Further investigation of the case revealed that the individual signed up for high speed Internet service just two weeks before the ICAC agents searched his residence. During the two week period the individual had Internet service, he downloaded hundreds of still images and videos of children, some younger than 1 year old, being sexually abused. The individual was prosecuted in federal court and was sentenced to 180 months in federal prison.

Another federal child pornography case of note involved a Master Chief in the United States Air Force in charge of security forces at F.E. Warren Air Force Base. Again, ICAC agents observed a computer in Cheyenne trading child sexual abuse images and were able to secure a search warrant for the residence where the computer was located. The search of the premises revealed a computer that contained well over 10,000 files containing videos and still images of child sexual abuse. Although the Master Chief had no prior criminal history, due to the nature and number of the images he possessed and received, following his conviction he was sentenced to 151 months in prison. Illustrative of the online “enticement” cases developed by the Wyoming ICAC team is a case involving a 58 year old manager of an HMO from Philadelphia. This individual, after a number of online chats with a DCI agent who had assumed the role of a mother of two girls ages 7 and 11, flew to Cheyenne, Wyoming, equipped with Teddy Bears, a leather flogger, Viagra, condoms, and KY Jelly, to meet and have sex with the two girls. However, instead of meeting a mother and two young girls, he was greeted at the Cheyenne airport by ICAC task force members. Today, this offender is serving a 121 month federal prison sentence.

Another case investigated by the Wyoming ICAC team and prosecuted in Federal Court involved a 42 year old web site developer from Colorado Springs. The web site developer engaged in a series of online chats with a DCI agent who had assumed the persona of a 12 year old girl from Wyoming and during the same time frame with an actual 13 year old girl from Maryland. The Colorado Springs man promised each girl a considerable amount of money if each would have sex with him while he videotaped the activity as he had planned to post the videos on a pay-per-view web site. When apprehended by Agent Waters on his way to pick up the 12 year old girl, the individual admitted to his online solicitations and also stated that once he had used the Wyoming girl for the child pornography videos he intended to either “sell her to a biker gang” or abandon her in the mountains of Colorado. He is now serving a 180 month sentence in federal prison.

Child sexual exploitation on the Internet is multifaceted, rapidly growing, and ever changing. It is not limited to impoverished neighborhoods or developing countries, but reaches its tentacles into the heart of the most highly advanced and supposedly civilized societies. The victims range from children of privileged, stable backgrounds who have never before been abused, to those who come from abusive, broken, or impoverished homes. The offenders are mostly educated, employed, relatively affluent males. Some meet the clinical definition of “pedophile,” but many do not. Some have been previously identified as sex offenders, but most have no known criminal history. The confluence of the increasing online presence of children with the proliferation of offenders trading child pornography and searching for contact with underage victims, presents a significant threat to the health and safety of children, and an imposing challenge for the criminal justice system.

Two major challenges confront lawyers attempting to handle cases of sexual exploitation in cyberspace. The first is a widening information gap. While child sexual exploitation is not new, the technology underlying these cases is new, and it is changing so fast that it has left the law, and most prosecutors, far behind. The second is the multi-jurisdictional and international reach of the Internet. Attorneys handling Internet sexual exploitation must consider a myriad geographic, economic, legal, cultural, and technological factors not found in most criminal investigations. These challenges place these cases, and the attorneys involved, on the cutting edge of technology and the law.

James C. Anderson is an Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Wyoming stationed in Cheyenne where he prosecutes cases relating to online child exploitation, firearms, and other federal offenses. This article represents his own opinion and views, and does not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Justice.

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