Task force also charged with tackling perverse images—tens of thousands at a time
I log in as VA_Girl, a 13-year-old looking to meet people online. I’m a chat room virgin, and there are tons to choose from, with generic names like “Teen Spot” and “TeenChatNow.” I pick one at random, select the room for 13- to 15-year-olds, and am instantly up to my training bra in come-ons. I’m a little freaked out. A black screen with multicolored lines of dialogue attributed to “people” all rolling by at hyperspeed, the arrival of a new chat announced by a popping sound, so that I feel like I’ve fallen into a popcorn machine. Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! I get the vague sense that people are talking to each other, but the thought of joining in seems as crazy as jumping into raging floodwaters to save your hat. Oh well, it’s a nice hat.
Pop! I start with a casual “Anyone from VA?” Immediately someone responds asking me for a private chat. I ignore the request because I honestly don’t know how private chatting works. I get more requests, mostly from people who ID as guys ages 19 to 21. Pop! Pop! Pop!
I finally agree to a private chat with someone called SexyGuy, who says he’s in Virginia. He asks me how old I am and I tell him I’m 13. “Send pics,” he says. “What kind?” I ask. He says, “Any” and gives me an e-mail address. I sign out.
Albemarle Detective Chuck Marshall says that in tracking online sexual predators “we see people from all walks of life.” Could be custodians, ministers, teachers, doctors and even other cops. “You never know who it’s gonna be out there.”
Pop! SxyHotGuy is chatting with me and he too wants pics. A major problem occurs to me. Even if I had a little camera on my computer, or lots of pictures of myself on my hard drive, even if I knew how to post pictures of myself in a chat, there is one insurmountable difficulty. I’m not a 13-year-old girl. I’m a 33-year-old man researching an article on Internet sex predators. Nor do I have an e-mail address I can safely use for this little charade. I have not prepared very well for my journey to the dark corners of cyberspace.
I stall him (My parents are calling! When I come back I’ll send you a pic!), and open up another window to set up a Hotmail account under the name VAGirl2008. More requests for private chats are coming in the whole time. “Want to suk?” they say. “Horni?” It seems absolutely impossible that anyone here is an innocent teenager. Alas, pervert time waits for no man, and when I return, SxyHotGuy is gone.
I pick a new chat room called TeenFlirt (flirting being a common promise of teen chatrooms) and dive back in, Pop! Pop! Pop!, soon finding myself chatting with Kieth16, who confusingly says he’s 15 and lives in Manassas. He asks me my name and thinking fast I say, “Isabel.”
“What do you like to do?” I ask.
“Sing, act, dance, have fun, make jokes,” is his reply. I am a bit disappointed. I was hoping he would offer something a bit more suggestive. “You?”
“Have fun, party, watch movies,” I answer, trying to push things gently in another direction. I push a little further and ask him to send me a picture. He sends me a link to a YouTube video and I check it out. Instead of the expected naked 50-year-old man, Kieth16 seems to be an actual teenager, maybe even 15, with dark hair hanging in his eyes under a backwards baseball hat and a lip ring, earnestly singing along to a Train CD. I end the chat.
I head to another teen-oriented chat room. This one is completely different. No pops, no black screen, no raging flood. This room is white, with two people who seem to be having a discussion, and another person lurking. If being in the other chat rooms was like trying to yell at someone in a noisy, dark bar, this was like suddenly walking into some stranger’s living room. I try my usual “Anyone from VA?” greeting and find myself in a conversation with Clover. The lurker leaves. Clover is very nice, female, probably a real teen, and does not want to suk or find out if I am horni. She asks me what I’m doing and I tell her I’m doing homework and checking stuff out online. Does that sound like a 13-year-old? How old did I say I was? The room is dead, and I can’t think of anything to say to Clover.
The other person in the room, Mommy Chelsea, says goodbye.
“Night Mom,” Clover says, “ILY * hugs * Sleep well.”
“Night Clover,” Mommy Chelsea replies, “ILY2 * hugs *”
WTF? I gotta get outta here. Pretending to be a 13-year-old girl is too fucking weird.
So imagine how it feels for Detective Chuck Marshall, who’s 47-year-old, with a reddish face, blond hair and a mustache.
“You get really caught up in it,” he says, bringing his open hand down hard, so that his ring cracks on the tabletop in the otherwise empty room at the Albemarle Police Department, “because you really want to get this guy. And if he’s in another town, another state, you really want him to come get you. …We call those travelers.”
By “this guy” he means adult men (they’re almost always men) who make friends with a teenager online and then arrange a meeting with the hope of having sex. Travelers. Who, surprise, surprise, might end up traveling to meet, not a teenager, but a cop like Marshall.
“We had one case,” he says, “where a guy drove up here two hours to meet a girl. And he actually came to meet a [real] girl but we intervened. …We just assume her identity and do it that way. We try not to let [the child] get involved. …We’ve got a couple female officers that look very young. You know, you put a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt with a hood on and you set her in the park where they say they’re gonna meet.”
All the guy has to do is show up and he’s busted.
“We see people from all walks of life,” Marshall says. Custodians, ministers, teachers, doctors and even other cops. “You never know who it’s gonna be out there.”
The "new crack"
The Internet, as we know, has changed everything. And that includes sex crimes.
An offhand comment by a Charlottesville police detective led me to drive down Fifth Street Extended to the sprawling, emergency-services complex that houses the Albemarle Police Department to research Internet Crimes Against Children, or ICAC. Internet sex crimes, the officer had said, are like crack was in the ’80s: unknown and ready to explode. So the first thing I ask Lieutenant Greg Jenkins, head of the Albemarle PD Investigative Division, is, why is all this Internet sex stuff such a big deal?
“Everybody’s got [a computer],” he says. “They think it’s private, no one can catch them. …All of our crimes have increased because of computers.”
“It’s easier for people now,” says Marshall, “and I think there’s more of ‘em out there than there probably were long ago. You know, when we think of a pedophile or a predator we think of the old guy that used to hang out in the park, or hang out by the fence at the school. Those guys were pretty easy to pick out.” But now, that guy can hide behind his computer screen, and that anonymity, coupled with how easy it is to meet kids online, has made him more aggressive.
But if, as many police officers tell me, the crimes have increased, so have the efforts to fight them. In 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice set up the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Program to combat two different but often overlapping crimes: the online distribution of child pornography and the sexual enticement of kids online. There are now ICAC task forces in all 50 states. In Virginia, Albemarle PD coordinates the fourth district (which includes Louisa, Fluvanna, Greene, Nelson, Buckingham, Augusta, Highland and Cumberland), and has been doing ICAC work for about eight years.
“I absolutely believe,” says Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Jon Zug, “that we are catching a very small percentage of the cases that actually are going on out there.” The thing is when it comes to kids and sex, the Internet doesn’t always play a major role.
Fighting Internet sex crimes takes a lot of time and a lot of specialized equipment. You need computers that are used for nothing but ICAC work, and dedicated Internet lines that are top secret and untraceable. You need equipment to analyze hard drives and track IP addresses, and people paid to sit and do all this for hours at a time. It ain’t cheap, and so it’s funded largely by federal grants. The biggest sign that ICAC isn’t going anywhere and remains a major concern for governments and police departments everywhere is the passage, on October 14, of the Biden Bill. As in, Joe Biden, the Vice President-Elect. In the press release announcing the bill’s approval, Biden said, “At the same time when the Internet has given children access to the world—it has also given a dangerous world access to our kids.” So, to keep that dangerous world at bay, our government will give $320.5 million over five years toward a national strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction. In other words, big time ICAC funding.
If you’ve seen or heard of the Dateline NBC show “To Catch a Predator,” then you have some idea of what these guys do. On the show, which first aired in 2004, a vigilante group called Perverted Justice meets predators online by posing as teenagers, engages them in sexual talk, and then sets up a real world meeting so the predator can be busted live on national TV.
Part of what ICAC involves is similar: going online into chatrooms and social networking sites—all the strange new schoolyards where today’s dirty old men are hanging out. The cops go there and pretend to be kids and just wait. It doesn’t take long, as my own chat room safari showed. Almost instantly they attract the attention of other electronic visitors to the room and begin to chat privately with people who may or may not be sexual predators.
Besides Marshall, there are one detective and two computer forensics technicians working these cases in the Albemarle Police Department. These guys are not full-time ICAC officers and the Internet work has to be squeezed in when they’re not working other cases. This means, I am constantly told, they must be “reactive” as opposed to “proactive”; less time setting ambushes online, and more time working cases that get handed to them from other agencies. In 2007, the Albemarle PD’s ICAC team had four child enticement/traveler cases, and so far in 2008 they’ve had two. Compare this with Louisa County, which added a full-time ICAC worker this year and promptly racked up 31 enticement/traveler cases. Louisa, with more manpower devoted to ICAC, can afford to be “proactive” and so the numbers are high. To the cops, this is evidence that there are way more sexual predators out there than we know. Right now, they say, they may only be scratching the surface. Perhaps the Biden Bill’s millions will help unearth the hidden predators in Albemarle County.
Every new technology brings with it new fears of how it will harm society, or more to the point, how it will harm children. Talking to Renee Meador, I get a sense of the fear that informs much of this work. In her office, the whiff of the crusader is strongest.
The Central Shenandoah Criminal Justice Training Academy up I-81 in Weyers Cave is where cops from Albemarle PD and beyond get trained to do ICAC work. Meador is a 54-year-old mother of two, and she’s in charge of that training. Short and pixie-ish, she keeps a bulletproof vest with her name on it draped over the back of her chair.
“Most people seem to think that the Internet has provided just another whole avenue of abuse by predators,” Meador says. “The fact is the avenue’s always been there, predators have been there forever, the availability of children has been there forever. This is just a bringing forth. It’s an avenue that we’ve been able to identify and therefore we’re trying to shut it down.”
Meador has worked with Amber Alerts, the nationwide Emergency Broadcast concerning missing children, and to her every Internet pervert is a child abduction waiting to happen.
“You’re not just looking at the everyday Joe Blow that has a normal job and happens to have this particular fetish or illness,” she says. “The reality is that there may very well be serial predators…there may actually be a body count somewhere where kids didn’t survive.”
Here’s the thing: The ICAC classes that Meador oversees give her plenty of reason to see dead bodies behind every dirty old screen name. On the second day of class, the trainees “go live,” hitting the chat rooms as fake teenagers. And right away they’re catching pervs. “We had not intended to make [the class] a road show, to make it an actual task force,” Meador says. But a task force it has become. “We have not been able to conduct a class without it being so aggressive that we didn’t have to take action and literally go ahead and make an arrest.”
So every class has produced an arrest?
“Yes, one or more.”
The first training period was in 2007 and nine predators were caught. The goal is to learn how to be virtual teenagers, but sex offenders don’t take days off. So Meador and her instructors stand by to guide the trainees through the motions of building an actual case. They can either take the case back home, or, if the man seems too dangerous to leave out there, turn into an immediate bust.
There were two training periods this year, and in 2009 there will be three. During training, the online offenders often have live video cams and some of what the officers see makes them “want to pluck [their] eyeballs out.” Like what? “In this last class we had an adult that our bait officer was talking to in IM. This guy sent him a site, says, ‘Here look at my pictures.’ Well, the pictures that he sent were bestiality pictures.”
Imagine the 14-year-old boy, or 16-year-old girl who, chatting away happily with an interesting person they’ve met in TeenChatMall or wherever, gets a chat that says, “Want 2 see sum pics?” and so the boy or girl says, “Sure” and clicks on the link, only to see some old dude doing it with a dog.
Who would try and lure a child to meet him by sending bestiality pictures? Does that even work? Don’t kids just say, “Eww, gross!” and log off?
Yes, actually. That’s exactly what most of them do.
In February, the Crimes Against Children Research Center located at the University of New Hampshire published a study that disagrees with some of the main assumptions behind ICAC. Titled “Online ‘Predators’ and their Victims: Myths, Realities and Implications for Prevention and Treatment,” the eight-year project involved interviews with kids ages 10-17 and with cops who work Internet sex crimes all across the country.
According to the study, very few Internet-based cases involve stalking, violence or abduction. In fact, most teens disregard the advances they receive online. As Janis Wolak, one of the researchers, said in an interview for Reuters, “Offenders target kids who are willing to talk to them online. Most kids are not.” So it seems that merely talking in chat rooms or spending a lot of time on MySpace is not going to get children killed. The kids who become victims of online sexual predators tend to be those who are risk takers, online or off. They are often troubled, have family problems, and a history of abuse. Many Internet-initiated cases are reported as abduction cases because the kids either run away or lie to their parents about what they’re doing.
Throughout my conversations with the officers involved in ICAC, I continually wondered what had happened to the age-old injunction against taking candy from strangers. Are today’s kids, who are so incredibly Internet savvy, really that socially naïve?
“They truly don’t understand that technology has put them at risk,” Meador says. Social skills have regressed, she told me, and kids who spend all their time inside on the computer can no longer recognize evil when it IMs them, partly because it can now wear any face it wants. Online, no one can see your lust.
But most of this is contradicted by the UNH study. Although they may not fully grasp the consequences of their actions, the kids interviewed were well aware of what was going on. The men they talked to online rarely, as is often claimed by the police, pretended to be teenagers. In fact, in most cases the study found that the age of the offender and the issue of sex were brought up right away. “Internet sex crimes involving adults and juveniles more often fit a model of statutory rape,” the study notes, with a relationship developing between the juvenile and the adult. Seventy-five percent of kids who meet up with online sex offenders meet them more than once. “From the perspective of the victim,” Wolak noted, “these are romances.” But so what, right? I mean the guys are still bad guys, still pervs, even if the kids think they’re in a “relationship.” Sure, but it’s important for parents to see the situation for what it really is. “If everybody is looking for violent predators lurking in the bushes,” Wolak notes in the Reuters article, “kids who are involved in these relationships aren’t going to be seeing what is happening to them as a crime.”
An interesting fact coming out of the study is that sex crimes against youth have not increased. In fact, the number of sex abuse cases in the country declined 51 percent from 1990 to 2005, and the rate of sexual assaults reported by teenagers went down by 52 percent during the same period. A 2006 Roanoke Times article on Virginia ICAC cites the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children saying that only 7 percent of child abuse results from online enticement. By comparison, 71 percent is perpetrated by the victim’s family or friends of the family. All of which raises an important question: If the Internet has not led to an increase in child sex crimes, do we really need to spend $320.5 million to pay cops to sit in chat rooms pretending to be 13-year-olds?
Internet safety or Internet fear?
Becky Fisher is no stranger to computers or kids. She is currently the assistant director for Information Management and Instructional Technology for Albemarle County schools. She has been with Albemarle schools for 21 years, starting as a math teacher at Murray High School. As a graduate student before becoming a teacher, she was a Fortran programmer at UVA’s Institute of Nuclear Particle Physics. “When I signed on at Murray High School as a teacher,” she says, “I was the only one on staff that had any computer experience at all, so they said, ‘Oh, well you’re our computer person too!’”
Fisher gets questions maybe two or three times a year from parents or students about sexual approaches occurring online, but cyber bullying, she says, the online victimization of kids by other kids, is a bigger concern.
Computers are a huge part of today’s school environment, in the same way that they are a huge part of the modern child’s life. Kids show up the first day of kindergarten asking, “Do we have a computer in here?” Consequently, lessons in Internet safety begin in kindergarten for both Albemarle and Charlottesville schools, and continue on through 12th grade. Students and parents sign an Acceptable Use Policy every year in most schools to renew the commitment to teaching good use of the Internet.
But the emphasis in the schools is on “Internet literacy,” that is, teaching intelligent use. Fisher is more concerned with instructing kids how to best navigate this massive new world that she says requires “critical thinking on steroids.” She emphasizes education over fear. “We see a plane crash on TV and people start talking about how dangerous planes are,” she says. “That’s one of our safest modes of transportation. But we have that fear factor. So without scaring parents, how do we educate parents so that they can partner with us?”
So, are cops blowing this whole sexual predator thing out of proportion? “If it happens to one kid it’s so real to me,” is her reply. “I’ve got a niece in this school division, and to think that we wouldn’t do everything we could do as a school division to protect her, to teach her how to protect herself, is really scary to me. So if it’s one kid, it’s real.”
R U a virgin?
Rodney Thompson is a Bedford County sergeant when I meet with him. He sits at his desk wearing jeans and a striped polo shirt. With his short hair slightly spiked in the front and tattoos on both arms, he could be any young man out on a Saturday night in any Southern town. But he isn’t. He works in the Bedford County Sheriff Department’s Blue Ridge Thunder ICAC task force (which is to say he did until earlier this month). One of the first ICAC task forces in the country, Blue Ridge Thunder is a full-time operation that coordinates the child Internet sex crimes work for roughly three fourths of the state of Virginia. Because so few police departments in the state have full-time ICAC task forces (only six), 95 percent of the cases originate with the Bedford ICAC team.
The Blue Ridge Thunder HQ is located in the Lynchburg suburb of Forest, in the second story of a shiny, new shopping mall. Six officers spend their days there looking for sex offenders online or poring over child porn.
Thompson takes me through a transcript of one of their busts:
“This is an Army guy. You can see how he starts out the conversation, ‘Age, sex, location.’ We say our age. It goes on, he wants a description…”
“That’s what ‘ASL’ means? Age, sex, location?”
“Right. And now they put the “P” in there for pic. Age, sex, location, pic. Here’s your sexual question. It’s 5:21pm, six minutes into the conversation.”
- U R a virgin I assume? Can I ask U some personal questions?
- Do U have hair there?
- Hair where?
- Where do you think?
“Now you’re looking at nine minutes into the conversation. If this was a real child and she had gotten offended, more than likely she would have slammed the door and blocked him or discontinued the conversation. What does he do [then]? He just goes on to the next victim.”
- Well, if UR talking about my privates, yes I do.
- Do you have big boobs? Just trying to make a pic of U in my mind. Do U play w/guys or let guys play w/U?
“So you can see how it’s turned sexual, as soon as that virgin question is entered.”
- Do U let guys put their fingers in your private area?
“He’s still really skating along the edges of the enticement kinda deal. Until you get here:”
- Do U want to fuck me?
“Now you’ve gone from 5:21 to 6:09pm. So 48 minutes into the conversation, he’s solicited her for sex.”
- Don’t know U yet. How would that happen?
- I pick U up in my car, carry U into my bedroom, slowly undress U and make love. I put on a condom and slowly do it. Because I know I would hurt because I’m big.
“So of course our undercover wants to validate his behavior so he goes:”
- You’d get in your car and pick me up just to have sex with me?
- If that’s what U want to do, yes its possible.
“He gets real nasty in this conversation, talking about her vagina and everything. And so he gives his real name up…”
“That was his real name?”
“That’s his real name. Right here is what caught us:”
- Video message?
“He cuts on his Web cam, and he just starts to do his little deal.”
- Im gonna make U a dick video.
“And see how obscene he is. On this one in particular, what caught us off guard was he starts to talk about his child. And so we knew there was a kid in the house”:
- U can see my son.
“It was seven o’ clock. That day we flew to Northern Virginia and were at his door within an hour and a half.”
The case(s) for and against ICAC
On November 12, Albemarle County Resident James Dennis, 35, was handed an 11-year sentence for convincing a 17-year-old girl he met online into flying here from Connecticut. Dennis was sentenced on four charges: using a computer to entice a minor, consensual sodomy, misdemeanor sexual battery, and possessing child porn. The girl originally told the police that they had met on Facebook, but it turned out that it had instead been on a website called Seeking Arrangement, which bills itself as a “Sugar Daddy Dating site” where “attractive guys & gals” meet “wealthy benefactors.” Her profile listed her age as 21.
A few weeks before Dennis is sentenced, I visit Jon Zug, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney for Albemarle County. Zug thinks the ICAC cases he’s seeing now merely hint at the larger problem. “I absolutely believe,” he says, “that we are catching a very small percentage of the cases that actually are going on out there. I have no doubts about that.” But when it comes to kids and sex, the Internet doesn’t always play a major role.
“What I have are 18- to 25-year-olds engaging in sexual conduct with kids from the ages of 13 to 17…[cases] that have nothing to do with Internet Crimes Against Children. They meet them in the community, they hang out with friends, and then they ‘hook up,’ using the term that the kids have. We have a ton of those cases.” That’s right, old-fashioned statutory rape (in Virginia it’s called Carnal Knowledge of a Minor), with or without the Internet, is still very much en vogue. “I don’t see it as a new type of crime,” Zug says. “I see it as a new way to commit an old type of crime.”
“Not every offender is a predator,” Zug tells me. Not everyone, in other words, is repeatedly hunting young kids. There are men he sees in court who are incredibly remorseful, who weep and agonize and cannot bear to think about what they’ve done. Others simply sit there and say, “I don’t see what the problem is.” There are men who commit these crimes again and again, who show up to meet with what they hope is a child, knowing full well it could be a cop. There are men who spend days, weeks developing relationships with the kids they meet online, and others who troll the Internet looking only for sex right now. Some of these men are 20, some are 70. Some are violent, some pathetic. Some are voyeurs into a world they may find alluring, and some have lived in that world for a long time.
“I’ve got [a case] right now which is a computer enticement case,” Zug says. “She was up-front from the very beginning about her age, and he talked about, ‘Maybe your parents shouldn’t know about this conversation,’ and she goes, ‘I tell my parents everything, why on earth would I not tell them about this?’ and then we had a police officer pose as her, and he continued to try to solicit. She was 13.”
I ask Zug what he thinks of the idea that most of the kids who end up involved with online sex offenders are risk takers and he answers that he’s pretty sure that most of the kids he ends up seeing could be called “at-risk kids.” But the issue of kids and sex, and kids and sex and age, is complicated.
“I mean how many 17-year-olds do you know that have 19-year-old boyfriends?” he asks. What do we say, for instance, about Christopher Atkinson, the 23-year-old in a Virginia Beach who was arrested this year for asking a 16-year-old Louisa girl he met online for naked pictures? They’re seven years apart, and she is still a child. But in 15 years, when she’s 31 and he’s 38, no one will blink an eye.
“We’re not gonna catch all those,” Zug says of the many gray areas, “and some of them, you know what, it’s fine that we don’t catch [them]. A 17-year-old with a 19-year-old and they end up going on and getting married and living happily ever after…I’m glad I didn’t catch that person.”
And then there’s Joseph Okoh, the 41-year-old Howard University soccer coach who was arrested in January when he drove from Arlington to Louisa to see a 13-year-old girl he met online. Only the girl turned out to be one of the Louisa County ICAC officers, and Okoh was busted.
Zug continues: “Talking about a 30-some-year-old, a 40-some-year-old, who’s wanting to have a relationship with a 15-year-old to a 17-year-old, there is something wrong there. I have to tell you, there is so much of a generational difference between those people. …They’re either way too immature that they’re relating to somebody as young as that…or, flat out, they are predators.”
Is the Internet a danger to kids? Is it safe for them to walk alone down the dark streets of Facebook or ChatZone or MySpace? Who’s Space is it? Do we need parents and police watching every step of the way?
Zug leans way back in his chair with his feet up on his desk, traditional lawyerly garb offset by the hoop earring in his left ear. “I think that there’s always a potential for [danger],” he says, “but you know what, there’s a potential when I walk outside and go across the street I’m gonna get hit by a bus. I think the worst thing in the world is for people to walk around afraid. We can allow very bad things to happen in our society if we’re afraid all the time. You trust in your ability to raise your children and to do the right things for your children, and to monitor them accordingly, and to teach them the things that they need to be taught. But ultimately you can’t walk around afraid. You cannot walk around afraid.”