Protecting Innocence: The Untold Fight Against Child Predators
EDITOR’S NOTE: To protect against further victimization, names — including those convicted — have been changed. Because of the nature of their work, NBC10 agreed to only use the first names of Homeland Security agents.
The photos are disturbing.
Children as young as infants forced to undergo sexual acts. Their assaults captured in time and then traded over the internet.
The videos are horrifying.
But it’s the audio that’s haunting.
“It makes you almost want to cry,” said Joe, a veteran special agent with Homeland Security Investigations’ Child Exploitation Unit in Philadelphia.
Part of a virtually unknown arm of the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division, the unit granted NBC10 exclusive and unprecedented access revealing how they bring to justice the worst-of-the-worst pedophiles operating online and identify and rescue their victims — wherever they may be.
Their fight is relentless.
CP, as the unit is nicknamed, receives new leads every week at its offices inside the U.S. Customs House in historic Philadelphia about people consuming, distributing and producing child porn in Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia.
The unit’s six male and three female federal investigators are broken into two types: Case Agents, who are similar to traditional detectives and Computer Forensic Agents, who scour computers, smartphones and other electronic devices for evidence.
As agents work one case, they often find leads that can turn into a handful of others.
“You get one guy’s [email] account and he’s talking to 15 guys. If each one of those guys is talking to 15 guys, the list just keeps growing,” said Special Agent Jim, one of the computer forensic agents whose been with the agency for nine years.
While mostly men, the online predator profile ends there. Perpetrators of these crimes range in age, race and socioeconomic status.
“When you’re dealing with child exploitation, you don’t know who that person is. That person is any of the people you know around you,” says Special Agent Chris, another computer forensics agent with five years in CP. “That accountant that you think is your friend, that policeman, that teacher, that elected official, that priest. Those are the people you find.”
Editor’s Note: This special project features explicit content that may be disturbing to some readers. NBC10 does not identify victims of sexual abuse. To protect against further victimization, names — including those convicted — have been changed. Because of the nature of their work, NBC10 agreed to only use the first names of Homeland Security agents.
Ben and Jenny Smith
In 2006, the Smith family hit a rough patch.
Ben and Jenny’s relationship was strained. There were questions about infidelity and deceit in the 20-somethings’ marriage. Jenny started working a night time shift at the hospital, while Ben would go off and do his own thing in the evenings.
The troubled arrangement presented a dilemma: Who would watch their two young daughters?
That’s when Ryan stepped in. It was a no-brainer. The men were friends since high school and Ryan, was the best man in Ben and Jenny’s wedding. Plus, he was great with kids.
But the couple would later find out that their friend deceived them to feed his urge.
“Any parent would miss this,” said Special Agent Emily, who assisted on the case. “Unless you had a camera installed in your house, you probably wouldn’t see this because the victims couldn’t talk.”
Ryan would wait until bedtime.
Once the Smith’s 3-year-old and infant daughters were asleep, he would pull aside their underwear to fondle them and take photos of their genitals.
Ryan’s secret assaults continued for months. They were uncovered nearly two years later when a child porn bust in Germany netted an IP address that traced back to the Lehigh Valley ranch-style house, where Ryan still lived with his parents.
When HSI agents and state police showed up to search for evidence on Feb. 10, 2009, the PennDOT mechanic was at work. His dumbfounded stepmother at first doubted the allegations, but agreed to call her son and ask him to come home.
By the time Ryan arrived, HSI agents had already begun searching the house and located child porn on his computer.
“He appeared disturbed. He appeared like he wasn’t all there. His eyes were everywhere. His focus wasn’t there,” said Special Agent Danny, the lead agent on the case. “He admitted to viewing child pornography, but he denied ever touching anybody.”
Danny didn’t believe him.
“I threw the handcuffs down, I drew my weapon. I started yelling ‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it!’ as I started to back away.”
“I did reach out to the U.S. Attorney’s Office when we were done the interview and did express my concern that [Ryan] either was molesting kids or he was going to,” he said. But it was just the 43-year-old agent’s gut, one based on his two years of experience investigating these types of cases. There was no evidence of assault.
Computer forensic agents confiscated Ryan’s computers and cameras. Back at their lab at the unit’s headquarters in Philadelphia, they scanned the electronics finding thousands of pictures and videos — including one of another man raping an infant.
As Danny and Emily, both with several years experience investigating these cases, poured through the images, they came across a set taken with Ryan’s camera. Embedded in the digital photos’ code was the camera’s serial number.
Danny finally had the evidence that proved Ryan had molested children.
The agents returned to Ryan’s home two days later to bring him into custody.
It was around 6 a.m. on Good Friday when Danny and state police banged on the front door. Ryan was still in bed in the back of the house.
Danny opened the door and stepped into the dark, claustrophobic bedroom — only faint light seeped in from the hallway. He moved in to arrest Ryan.
“When he saw me, he jumped up and grabbed a hunting knife that was right next to him and then he just slashed his throat,” Danny said.
It took only seconds. Ryan ran the blade back and forth across his neck like a saw. Blood poured from ear-to-ear and onto the floor of the cluttered bedroom, Danny said.
“I threw the handcuffs down, I drew my weapon,” Danny said. “I started yelling ‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it!’ as I started to back away.”
The bedroom door slammed shut.
Out in the hallway, Danny, state troopers and Ryan’s father pleaded with him to surrender. The standoff went on for 30 minutes until, on the verge of death, Ryan cracked open the door and collapsed.
Paramedics rushed in to stop the bleeding and take him to a nearby hospital.
“The weird thing I’ll never forget as the paramedics were taking him away on a stretcher, he asked them to stop when they got to me and he just started asking for forgiveness,” Danny said. “I said, ‘You don’t have to say sorry to me, you should say sorry to the children and family members and all the children you caused harm to.’”
Colleagues asked Danny why he didn’t immediately shoot Ryan when he pulled the knife. His reply is simple, “It’s just not the right thing to do. I’m not the executioner. My job is just to bring people to justice.”
Ryan was in custody, but the case wasn’t closed. They still didn’t know who the girls captured in the man’s photos were.
“We interviewed [Ryan’s stepmother], we interviewed the dad and they gave us information that he had a best friend who also had minor children.”
That was the Smith family.
The agents cropped the photos, showing only background details like sofas and blankets, and went to the Smiths’ house. Once Ben and Jenny confirmed it was their home, the children in the Ryan’s pictures were identified.
Four months after the arrest, Ryan, now 28, pled guilty to producing and possessing child pornography. He is serving out a 20-year sentence in federal prison.
Not Your Neighborhood Police Precinct
Heavy oak doors flanked by black security boxes form blockades around HSI’s Old City offices. Tapping an ID and entering a code grants access to a maze of florescent-lit hallways and offices.
In a large room on the building’s northwest corner, rows of 8-foot-by-8-foot cubicles are where the CP unit’s agents perform their work. Each beige cube’s pin board-covered walls reach nearly 6-feet tall and include a small plaque with the agent’s name.
A few family keepsakes dot desks and walls, but emptiness persists and deafening silence commands the room for long stretches. When they are not running to meetings at the U.S. Attorney’s Office to prepare for arrests or trials, agents spend their time in the office reviewing case evidence or paperwork.
Will Crogan, Supervisory Special Agent, oversees the CP unit. At 34, he’s one of the youngest and newest members to this team. He’s been an HSI agent for the past decade. With red hair and fair skin, the Massachusetts native is laid back, giving his agents autonomy over their investigations.
His office, in the front of the room, features an oversized wooden desk and a chair for visitors. Above them hangs a painting of fishermen at sea. One of the only personal items in sight is a Father’s Day card, handpainted on orange construction paper by Crogan’s son.
The agents on his team range in age from mid-30s to mid-40s. Almost all are married and have kids. Those who don’t are doting aunts and uncles. While some of the men may mention their coaching of little league and helping out with Girl Scouts, there’s not a lot of personal conversation.
Leads constantly flow into the unit and Crogan doles them out to Case Agents, such as Emily, Danny and Joe. They’re assisted by Computer Forensic Agents like Jim and Chris. There’s also an analyst, investigative assistant and seize property specialist.
The leads come in from the regional internet crime task force, through hotlines, from internet service providers, and local and international law enforcement agencies. They appear in many forms — a hit from a malicious website, or a pornographic email attachment intercepted by legally mandated filters. Rarely, however, are they simply a person’s name.
“We’re not talking about Joe Smith, who lives on Chestnut Street, we’re talking about an IP address or some other identifier like an email account. And we’re working backwards,” Crogan said.
It was 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 17. Special Agent Danny had just placed his brawny frame in front of the 55-inch big screen in his basement when his cell phone started buzzing.
It was his supervisor.
A day away in Victoria, Australia, that country’s federal police had uncovered photos of a 7-year-old girl in sexually explicit poses. They found the images after arresting a couple on child porn charges.
The photos captured the girl laying exposed on pink sheets and surrounded by stuffed bears and puppies. While in other shots, she’s in the shower and even posing with adults.
But one image proved to be a lead for the Aussies. It showed a man, woman and the girl holding up a sign with a screen name for a nudist website. A search of the suspect’s email account found the images were sent from the United States.
The investigators passed along their findings to their U.S. counterparts, who they work with, at HSI’s offices in Los Angeles. Seeing that the email account’s IP address originated in Pennsylvania, the L.A. HSI agents contacted Danny’s supervisor at the Philadelphia unit.
Danny — concerned that the girl was still be victimized — went right to work from his basement.
“I started reaching out to the law enforcement out in Australia Friday night,” he said.
The next morning, Danny and several other agents were in HSI’s office trying to track down this girl’s location.
They visited the nudist website referenced in the photo. There, agents found a couple’s profile with other images of the man and woman, their first names and the towns they lived in. The man, Paul, resided in South Jersey, while the woman, Lynn, lived with her daughter in the Philadelphia suburbs.
The agents made emergency requests for IP address information with internet service providers, like Comcast and Verizon, and email providers, like Google and Yahoo!
Danny and his colleagues collected as much information as possible to confirm the perpetrators’ physical addresses.
All day Saturday and Sunday, they pored over the information until the agents finally narrowed down what they believed to be their homes. Danny, as lead agent, sent a colleague out to the homes to conduct surveillance as he worked on writing up an affidavit of probable cause to obtain a search warrant.
It’s important to “make sure that the people we were targeting were still living there and that the child was living there,” he said.
“You start questioning ‘Why? Why does this happen?’ A lot of emotions go through your mind, but unfortunately, you have to block it out because you have a job to do.”
On Sunday night, a search warrant was issued for both the South Jersey and suburban Philadelphia homes and the planning began for the bust. Because New Jersey is in a different federal jurisdiction, a separate judge, in the Garden State, had to approve that warrant as well.
The CP unit created an attack plan for Monday: they corralled local police and child services, and doled out duties to other agents, who would sync their arrivals at both houses. They were ready.
The sky had turned from orange to blue over the three-story townhouse in Lynn’s quiet suburban Philadelphia neighborhood when agents rolled up Tuesday morning.
They went to the door and knocked. Lynn answered.
“When we first walked in, the victim was actually there on the first floor,” Danny said speaking slowly as he recalled the morning. “[She] had a friend over.”
Agents removed the children and searched the house.
On the second floor, Danny walked into a bedroom. He saw the same pink sheets and stuffed animals shown in the pictures they got from the Aussies. In the corner sat a Disney Princess TV. He thought of his own little girl.
“I remember that TV because my daughter had one when she was younger,” he said as a dark expression took over his normally upbeat persona. “You start questioning ‘Why? Why does this happen?’ A lot of emotions go through your mind, but unfortunately, you have to block it out because you have a job to do.”
“It’s kind of surreal to be in there, but it’s a good feeling because you know ‘Yeah, we’re on the right track,’” Special Agent Emily, who also assisted on the case, said leaning forward and causing her dirty blonde shoulder-length hair to tussle with her animated motions. “‘We’re in the right house and she’s going to be out of this situation by now.’”
Sitting calmly at her kitchen table, the 35-year-old mother at first denied involvement. That changed after agents outlined the evidence they had collected. She then admitted that her boyfriend, Paul, persuaded her to play along.
“Initially he said ‘Hey why don’t you take some pictures?’, Danny said. “And then he was like ‘Why don’t you include [your daughter] in the picture?’”
It escalated quickly. Lynn dressed Sophie up in thongs, stockings and lingerie. Before long, the girl was forced to strip naked and make sexual poses exposing her privates, Danny said.
“The mother made it seem as if they were playing, doing dance, doing gymnastics. Doing different things,” Danny said.
“It’s kind of surreal to be in there, but it’s a good feeling because you know ‘Yeah, we’re on the right track’”
Finally, Paul got physical with the girl as her mother stood behind the lens of the digital camera.
“It just got to the point where he started getting hands on on the child as well,” said Danny before hesitating. “It wasn’t clear how far it went. We have a few photos of him fondling the victim.”
Meanwhile in South Jersey, the other team hit a snag. Paul wasn’t at the house and agents called him to come home. When the 40-year-old arrived, he admitted to the assault and child pornography. He said he had done the same to another girl, the daughter of a couple he met online.
“He requested permission through the parents if he could bring the victim from Jersey to Pennsylvania to spend the weekends over at his girlfriend’s house. And during those weekends is when the production would happen,” the agent said. “He would also take her out to buy her clothes and to buy her lingerie.”
Back in Pennsylvania, Danny placed Lynn under arrest and let her know that Sophie was being taken away by state social workers. But she didn’t seem to care.
“When we told her that the child was going to be taken away, she was like ‘OK, no problem.’ When we told her she couldn’t take her cigarettes away with her to jail, she was more upset about that,” he said with a puzzled look on his face.
Authorities brought the girl to a victim assistance facility a few towns over and then contacted her father, John. He and Lynn had been separated for two years and had joint custody of the girl as they went through a difficult divorce. When he arrived to pick up his daughter, he only then learned what had happened.
“‘No, not [Lynn]. No, not [Lynn],’” John recalled saying. “Unfortunately, [Lynn] was the photographer. And from that day our lives have been different.”
Two years later, on the verge of tears, John said there were no warning signs. That compounded with who Sophia’s abusers were, makes the pain worse.
“Finger in a Dam”
While pedophilia has been around for centuries, child pornography came along with the advent of the camera. Comparatively, online exploitation developed as the internet and digital photography flourished.
“Many, many people that abused children were [now] making images. That’s been a big change in the whole environment,” said Dr. David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
The number of child sexual exploitation cases jumped as the internet expanded through the millennium and early 2000s, The National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction report to Congress in 2010 found.
Homeland Security Investigations is one of three federal agencies, along with the FBI and U.S. Postal Inspectors, investigating child exploitation crimes. But HSI’s top brass will tell you that their agency spends the most time on the issue.
“Child exploitation…is the third most worked programmatic area in HSI right now,” said Ian Quinn, Deputy Assistant Director for the Investigative Services Division at the ICE Cyber Crime Center (C3). CP investigations come in behind narcotics and financial crime cases respectively, he said.
“[It] is a dramatic increase over the last few years given the magnitude of crime that we’re really facing in child exploitation investigations,” Quinn said.
As a whole, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division spent nearly $120 million investigating cyber crimes and child pornography in the U.S. last year, accounting for 7.4 percent of the division’s total domestic investigation budget. HSI employs more than 6,000 special agents around the globe investigating various types of interstate and international commercial crime.
HSI launched Operation Predator in 2003 to combat child pornography and child sexual exploitation and has since conducted nearly 31,000 criminal investigations. Of those, more than 8,000 people have been indicted on child exploitation charges, according to the most recent agency data available.
Recently, the agency has begun to shift the focus of its child exploitation investigations. While catching and prosecuting predators remains paramount, the agency sees the identification of the children depicted in pornography has an important issue.
“Find the victim and in almost all cases, you’re going to find the offender,” Quinn said.
HSI started the Victim Identification Program (VIP) in 2012. The program, housed at their national Cyber Crime Center, or C3, in suburban Washington D.C., uses image enhancing tools and other technology to dissect pornographic images and look for clues as to who or where the child is.
“We’re not really looking at the abuse of the victim as much as we’re looking at the things in the background,” said Jim Cole, who leads a two person team from their closet-sized lab inside C3. “We look at logos, products, personalized items. Sometimes there have been certificates from schools and trophies, uniforms from different things like Boy Scouts uniforms or etc.”
Some cases will involve suspects that are already in custody. But Cole will also get cold cases where all other typical investigative methods have been exhausted.
“Often times, we’re working cases that are from the Dark Net or from Tor that don’t have IP addresses or things that traditionally you could use for investigation are not available,” he said. Tor is a form of internet browsing that masks your IP address by bouncing it around a series of locations across the earth before reaching its final destination.
When VIP began in 2012, 292 children were identified. Now, the number has grown to 2,160. The success empowered Cole to push for VIP’s expansion. In late September, he led a week-long training program of 24 case and forensic agents from across the country. Special Agents Emily and Jim from Philadelphia were included. All trainees are expected to employ the tactics learned back at their field offices.
During the training, which includes analyzing photos for facial comparisons and image enhancement techniques, the group even identified two victims in Texas who were still being abused. The information they provided to the local HSI field office helped the rescue the children.
“Being the last line of defense, I don’t know. We never give up the fight, we never give up trying to find a child who’s being abused,” Cole said.
VIP works parallel to an older, more established program at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). The non-governmental organization is the nation’s clearinghouse for child pornography.
Since its inception 12 years ago, NCMEC’s Child Victim Identification Program has reviewed more than 121.7 million images and videos. All new images are cataloged with the same system HSI uses to mark its evidence, but NCMEC remains the repository for the content at the order of Congress.
“We’re not investigators and we’re not law enforcement. We just want to make sure everyone is aware of what everyone else is doing,” said NCMEC’s Exploited Children Division Vice President Michelle Collins.
NCMEC is also the major generator of leads for child exploitation cases. Its CyberTipline, which launched in 1998, has received more than 2.6 million reports about child pornography. Tens of thousands of new reports come in every week and are sent to local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.
HSI’s Philadelphia office opens hundreds of cases each year from the thousands of leads they receive about potential child exploitation, fraud, narcotics sales, among others. CP unit case agents each carry around a dozen cases at a time and all often assist in other agent’s investigations.
“It’s like putting your finger in a dam almost. There’s so many leads out there, you’ve gotta just work ’em. and work ’em as quick as you can,” Special Agent Joe said.
Agents admit a large number of those cases don’t pan out, but sometimes even innocuous tips can mushroom.
“Typically, the worst-of-the-worst hide themselves very well. You never know what you’re going to find,” Special Agent Emily said.
HSI officials call the issue of online child exploitation pervasive and point to many examples to back up their claims, but Finkelhor of the Crimes Against Children Research Center tempered those pronouncements and said there are gray areas.
“It’s a big problem in the sense of there are hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions that are in violation of the law. And it’s international in scope,” he said. But, he added, not everyone in that number may be actively searching for the illicit images. Some may be simply curious, while others may download a lot of porn and not realize there are children in the collection, he said.
“That doesn’t mean there are millions who are actively engaged in the trading of the stuff. I don’t think we really know what those numbers are,” Finkelhor said.
An offender’s level of culpability also varies in Finkelhor’s view. A man who is downloading child pornography might not be considered as big of a threat as someone who is distributing the media or, in the worse case, producing it, he said.
“Some or all of these people may be abusing kids, or may not. They’re all abusing kids in that they’re abusing images. But they may not be committing sex against kids in a physical environment,” he said.
Counterparts in HSI’s other 26 field offices across the U.S., at C3 in Washington and outposts in 46 countries are also investigating these crimes. They send out leads gathered during their investigations to other offices around the world.
In an effort to organize the battle against online child exploitation, the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force program — or ICAC — was created in 1998. The 61 ICAC task forces, which are funded by the Department of Justice, work with more than 3,000 law enforcement agencies in all levels of government.
ICACs pass leads and cases back and forth between local police departments, state police, HSI and other federal agencies, like the FBI. In some instances, a local department will not have the resources to investigate a child porn or production case so it may be investigated on the state or federal level.
“HSI concentrates, for instance, on the production and trafficking of child pornography and state and local law enforcement is able to focus on the child molestation and child abuse charges in the hands-on offenses,” said William Walker, the Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge of HSI’s Philadelphia office.
Walker and other HSI agents regularly tout their relationships with the ICACs and other law enforcement agencies. It’s a sentiment that’s echoed on the local level.
“Homeland Security will not only assist us in interstate investigations…they’ll come over and be first in line to try and help us and exercise their jurisdiction on the international basis, as well as the interstate basis. It’s very helpful, especially in this region,” said Delaware County District Attorney Jack Whelan, whose office has hosted the Pennsylvania ICAC for 15 years.
The Pennsylvania ICAC employs seven officers on loan from local municipal departments as well as state troopers, HSI and FBI agents, along with nine investigators from the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office. They will work a few days each week out of the ICAC to coordinate efforts.
At times, HSI agents sitting at the ICAC will push to bring cases to the federal level.
“Many times we realize we have a person that’s a serious predator…we’re going to work with the federal government to make sure that they have all the resources and information that they can have from us so that they can take over that prosecution,” Whelan said.
A guilty judgement for child pornography in a Commonwealth court carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in a state prison. But more often than not, the sentence is much lower, nine to 18 months for first-time offenders, Whelan said.
But in federal court, a suspect could face a mandatory minimum of five years for distributing child porn, with the maximum ballooning to 20 years for each count. Another difference: Offenders convicted in federal court are not eligible for parole.
Under Whelan’s purview, the Pennsylvania ICAC will check on and pass along leads, proactively monitor peer-to-peer networks for people trading child pornography and investigate so-called “traveler” cases where predators cross county and state lines to molest a child. Whelan expanded the Pennsylvania ICAC in recent years to combat the latter two areas, he said.
The task force will also look for perpetrators who are in, what agents call, a position of public trust. Those members of the community who hold trustworthy positions like teachers, politicians, clergy and business leaders.
Ian Ranberg was a peacekeeper in the Middle East. He served his country in Korea, the Balkans, Operations Desert Shield and Storm, and more recently in Iraq.
In army fatigues, the tall, bald and spectacled man would act as a liaison between American military and the people in the country they were occupying. In Pennsylvania he held the rank of lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves and a position as an environmental chemist with the state.
Despite his public persona, Ranberg collected and traded child pornography, authorities maintained. (NBC10 chose to identify Ranberg since he has not been charged with the physical assault of a child.)
Like other cases, HSI agents were led to 47-year-old Ranberg through a lead from another HSI investigation — this time in Connecticut. Agents only found remnants of explicit material in a computer’s internet cache on Aug. 23, 2013, when they first searched the married father’s Montgomery County, Pennsylvania home But a forensic examination of the computer led agents to believe the pornography had been moved to another device.
A search of the man’s basement home office uncovered an external hard drive — hidden in the drop ceiling. Investigators found more than 223,000 child pornography and child erotica images and 500 videos on the drive.
One of the videos depicted a 12-year-old boy being raped with a sex toy at the hands of an unidentified adult, court documents showed.
Ranberg pled guilty on Sept. 23, 2014 to four charges, including possessing and distributing child pornography, before Judge Gene E.K. Pratter in United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Ranberg, currently behind bars, is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 23. He faces a maximum of 70 years in prison.
The men and women in the CP unit are tough. Tours in the military, years of hunting down hardened criminals in other law enforcement agencies or both has trained the agents to unplug their emotions and keep their feelings hidden.
But they’re still human — moms and dads, aunts and uncles — and the relentless deluge of ghastly imagery and accounts of abuse takes its toll.
Such was the case for Special Agent Danny’s most recent CP unit investigation. The father of two, with a young face that doesn’t show the stress of the job, went undercover to catch a man who advertised on Craigslist he wanted to have sex with a “pervy dad” looking to commit incest.
“I actually long for the days of good old-fashioned criminals. You can work informants and they actually were just businessmen. Doing something illegal, but it was just business.”
As part of his cover, Danny said he had an 8-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. The men carried on a relationship over-the-phone, via text message and email for months. The man sent Danny child porn and talked about what he planned to do to him and his daughter once they met in person.
“It starts working on you because I might be at a birthday party with my daughter and here I’m getting texts from him, getting emails from him and I have to try to get in that mindframe and make it be convincing,” Danny said.
The man was eventually arrested and charged, but Danny calls it the most mentally difficult case he worked during his five years in the CP unit.
Top brass recognizes the stresses involved with this type of case work. HSI agents are ordered to undergo psychological evaluations and encouraged to talk to their managers when it all gets to be too much.
“People that work in [child exploitation], make the estimation that they can handle the content and the evidence,” said Crogan. “Everybody has a shelf life being exposed to this material.”
“I find that the more I do this, I question more people,” said Computer Forensic Agent Jim, a 43-year-old husband and father. “You arrest a priest or your arrest a banker and more people you trust. And eventually over time you don’t understand how you can trust these people anymore. You start to doubt everything.”
Peer counseling is offered as an emergency release valve for the stresses of the job and home life.
“You can’t make somebody use it,” he said. “Especially if the perception of an agent in particular thinks they may not need the help. People internalize a lot of things.”
So the agents often set their own internal breaking point. If an agent says it’s their time to go, they’ll be rotated out of the CP unit, agency management explained.
“I actually long for the days of good old-fashioned criminals. You can work informants and they actually were just businessmen. Doing something illegal, but it was just business,” Special Agent Joe said. “I worked narcotics for 11 years, there’s no way I’m working this for 11 years.”
Such a rotation happened a few months ago with an agent who spent several years working on child exploitation cases.
While understanding the stakes, agents do find ways to lighten the mood as they work their cases. Searching devices for evidence, agents often find what they consider to be absurd selfies of the accused.
Photos that a person would typically be embarrassed for the public to see, the pictures include men posing shirtless, flexing muscles, wearing leather harnesses and other sex outfits. The agents make sure everyone in the unit sees them.
“There are always selfies. I don’t know why, but there are always selfies,” Special Agent Chris said.
It’s a necessary dark humor that breaks through the serious and professional exterior the men and women exude.
While it may be difficult for agents to recognize, experts, like Finkelhor, applaud their efforts and tactics. He points to an overall decline in child sexual abuse from the late 1990s to the late 2000s as an indicator that the work, in online child exploitation and other related areas, is making a difference.
“I think [it’s] going to be a long-term problem, but I believe that law enforcement is making big progress even though they feel discouraged…,” he said.
The increased focus on on the issue of child pornography, both by law enforcement and the public, will put pressure on all those involved in the trade, including consumers, distributors and producers, Finkelhor said.
“I think it will act to both discourage the trade, at least in the United States, and blow the whistle on those who are engaged in it,” he said.
The trading of child porn, while damaging to the victims, has provided an unintended benefit to law enforcement agencies, according to Finkelhor.
“One thing that is interesting about the images, is that it does make it easier to convict people. Before images, most prosecutions of child molesters simply involved the testimony of the child, because there’s rarely good evidence, and the denials of the offender,” he said.
“But, in the electronic age, we now frequently have either images or some electronic exchange that occurred where the offender tried to recruit the child, or made reference to it,” he said. “It adds to the harm of the child, but it can simplify the whole prosecution.”
It’s been more than two years since HSI agents uncovered Sophie’s abuse, at the hands of her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, and the healing process continues.
“It’s taken a long time, a lot of prayer and a lot of counseling, but we are doing very well overall,” said John, the girl’s father, as he sat in the kitchen of their suburban Philadelphia home. “There’s been many hurdles along the way, but we’re doing good.”
Both he and his daughter underwent extensive counseling following the arrest of Lynn. It’s believed that the girl has blocked out all memory of the exploitation.
“We don’t know some day if it will come up and she’ll have to deal with it going through puberty or middle school… It may come out one day and rear it’s ugly head, but it hasn’t yet and hopefully it never does,” he said.
For John, however, the pain never subsides.
“Each day, even until now for example, going into Wawa, we order our food and she always walks across to get her iced tea out of the refrigerator and her being two feet away from my side, I worry every single day that something’s going to happen. And I do,” he said, tears streaming down his face.
Thinking back, John said he still regrets not trusting his gut.
He didn’t like Paul from the moment he started dating Lynn, his estranged wife.. Even though he and Lynn had joint custody, John refused to allow Sophie to meet Paul for at least two years, he said.
“Finally, I thought I was just being overprotective. ‘I’ve gotta relax. It’s me.’ And he finally came into the picture and then they started doing these bad things together,” John said.
There were no warning signs, he said. The girl continued to act like a normal child and he would never suspect that his ex-wife would have sacrificed her own flesh-and-blood.
“I’m told that she was being groomed, which is a disgusting word, but she was being groomed for possibly more than picture taking,” he said. “He can be a predator all that he wants but without [Lynn] exploiting my child, none of this ever happens.”
Paul pled guilty to producing and distributing child pornongraphy in December 2012. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Lynn, however, push for a trial. She later changed her mind, though, and pleaded guilty in May 2013. The mother was sentenced to 25 years.
The plea spared Sophie the added trauma of having to testify against her mother.
Regular counseling has subsided and John is trying to move life forward for both of them. They have not spoken to Lynn nor Paul since their arrest.
John said he wants to forget it happened and not drum up old pain. He explained that he chose to share Sophie’s story with NBC10 in hopes that parents could learn from their pain.
“People have to be aware that it happens. Not to scare people, but to be realistic so then they’re not sitting in our shoes” he said. “Putting your head in the sand could put your own child at risk. You have to be conscious of the world and what’s out there.”
Agents echo John’s sentiments. Over and over again, they stress the importance of monitoring a child’s use of the internet and having honest conversations about the dangers they may face online. They also ask people who witness odd behavior by adults to make a report.
“If you have a suspicion about somebody and genuinely have a weird feeling, then I don’t think it hurts to submit a tip,” Agent Emily said. “We’re not going to take a tip and then just run out and arrest someone.”
The Fight Will Continue
For nearly 20 years, the online exploitation of children has blossomed and there’s no indication that it will be going away anytime soon.
“Because it’s an international problem and the internet is kind of an international institution, it is very hard, even if we crack down in the United States, to really make a huge dent in the circulation of the child porn. I think that’s going to be a long-term problem,” said Finkelhor.
Law enforcement agencies like HSI try to get ahead of criminals, but it rarely happens. New forms of anonymization is helping consumers, distributors and producers hide their identities online.
“It’s an enormous fight and the advent of technology, while it’s largely used for good and legitimate purposes, presents its challenges to law enforcement in how we continue to try to track down predators before they can hurt children,” Walker said.
Child pornography traders have turned to software like Tor, to hide their tracks. Such methods make HSI agents’ job infinitely harder unless the user takes a misstep.
“A lot of times with the different anonymization methods, you just hope they mess up. And a lot of times they will,” forensic agent Jim said. “It’s just like anything. We’re only catching the ones that are not smart. That’s just the reality.”
The actions of the public — teens in particular — does not always help the cause.
A new trend spotted by agents and other organizations is self-victimization by teens. Pedophiles dupe some kids into taking photos or videos of themselves naked. The teens then send the imagery to who they think is a boy or girl their own age, but, in reality, it is an adult.
In some cases, the teens are being extorted to take more photos or commit sexual acts on themselves or others, officials say.
“You’ve got young kids and they’re at a sexually curious age and they feel somewhat anonymous online and people are being deceptive and getting the kids a little over their heads and they don’t know how to stop it,” Collins said
Another issue: Some parents fail to understand the seriousness of the growing trend.
“A lot of parents are like ‘Hey they were just being stupid online,’ but the only problem is that we don’t know where that [image] went. Now it’s out there, we have to document it and we don’t know if it’s going to be traded somewhere,” Emily said.
Luckily, this type of porn is not the most sought after by distributors, she said.
“This idea that people are out there trying to abduct 4- or 5-year-old kids, whose pictures they find on the internet is just not at all what happens.”
Awareness on the parts of children and parents is a natural way to help curb these types of crimes, law enforcement members and researchers say.
HSI, NCMEC and other organizations have all developed programs to warn kids and parents about the dangers on the internet. And their staff is well trained in delivering the dire consequences of failing to take precautions.
However, Finkelhor believes officials turn to scare tactics, at times, to get their points across.
“This idea that people are out there trying to abduct 4- or 5-year-old kids, whose pictures they find on the internet is just not at all what happens,” he said.
Instead, he said parents need to have direct conversations with children at early ages to help them understand how to combat and react to situations where they might be exploited.
“Unfortunately, to educate them about this effectively we need to talk to them about sex. And a lot of people don’t want to have sexual content in the curriculum of schools,” he said. “In order to properly educate them, we have to talk about relationships and healthy relationships and that gets into value questions.”
For the men and women of HSI Philadelphia’s CP unit, this is a battle that will continue long after they’ve rotated out.
“This type of crime…relates to pedophiles who are acting on an urge. An illegal urge,” Assistant Special Agent Walker said. “There’s nothing that indicates that that urge is going to be gone in 40 or 50 or 100 years. The challenge for law enforcement is to continue to adapt.”