Local News Spotlight

High-tech race to stop child porn stretches from Denmark to Kansas

Updated: 2013-01-22T20:22:15Z

By MARK MORRIS

The Kansas City Star

The clock was ticking in early December 2011.

A 16-year-old, probably in the United States, had posted pornographic pictures of an 11-year-old girl on an Internet message board, announced that he had plans to rape her and asked for advice on how to do it.

Other posters chimed in with suggestions that progressively grew more violent as days passed. And responses from the 16-year-old became more sexually aggressive.

Danish police spotted the posts and sent a note to U.S. authorities, who gave the case to Jim Cole, a Homeland Security Investigations agent. Cole had moved from Oregon to Virginia the previous month to start a program to identify victims of child pornography for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Cole and others grew alarmed as they watched more violent posts accumulate on the message board. They wondered if they could rescue the girl.

“We were very concerned for her welfare,” Cole recalled recently. “Every day that went by we were more concerned about what could happen to her.”

Cole noticed that one photo of the victim had been taken in a car. In the background, the photo showed a highway sign in the distinctive shape of a sunflower, the sort found in Kansas. The highway number was unclear.

Jim Gibbons, the Homeland Security supervisor for Kansas, ordered agents from Kansas City and Wichita to find the sign.

“It was all hands on deck,” Gibbons said recently.

And the clock was ticking.


A wide swath of federal law enforcement is attacking the issue of identifying and rescuing victims of child pornography with fresh urgency these days.

Propelled by the rise of digital photography, improved technical analysis and more manpower, investigators are moving aggressively to identify victims when new images appear in the monstrous river of child porn commerce.

And federal agencies are asking more frequently for the public’s help in identifying people and locations found in child porn images. After Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials recently released the images of two anonymous child porn suspects taken from newly discovered images, both suspects were identified and arrested within hours.

But an ocean of work remains, officials said.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which serves as the child pornography clearinghouse for law enforcement in the United States, established its National Child Victim Identification Program in 2002. Since then, a dozen analysts there have reviewed about 80 million child porn images submitted by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

Still, the program has recorded the identification of only about 5,000 victims, said Michelle Collins, vice president of the center’s Exploited Children Division.

“It’s the needle in the haystack,” Collins said.

But if you find a victim, investigators said, you usually find the suspect.

“Arresting people is great, but we think it’s important to find the people who are being victimized first and make that the focus of our investigation,” said Brian Korzak, a special agent in Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Child Exploitation Investigations Unit.

Technology has played a large role in helping identify victims in recent years, experts said.

The changeover from film to digital photography and videography has been particularly helpful, said FBI supervisory agent Brooke Donahue, who runs two national programs that deal with child identification.

Digital cameras often embed geographic data, time and date stamps and camera identification information directly into the images, giving investigators vital clues for locating children and suspects. Analysis technology, which has improved dramatically in recent years, can allow investigators to narrow down regions for investigation or public appeals, he said.

An enhanced photo of a child porn suspect, released by the FBI in Kansas City and several other cities in November, also showed a beverage cup from a convenience store that served only 13 metropolitan areas in 2005, when the picture was taken.

That suspect, an older man with a beard, since has been identified, though Donahue declined to say more because the case still was under investigation.

“We had a guy’s face and we were able to regionalize it with the cup,” Donahue said. “It gave us a little something to go on.”

Boston-based Homeland Security agents who last year had been peeling the onion of a global network of alleged child porn producers identified two Kansas City-area suspects by enhancing the image of a water bottle stamped with the logo of a Johnson County aquatic center. Investigators eventually found two teenagers who had been abused when they were younger. Federal prosecutors subsequently charged two of their alleged abusers with child exploitation violations in Kansas City, Kan.

The explosive growth of social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, also has proved a boon to investigators, who’ve learned they can put a lot of eyeballs on a suspect’s picture very quickly, Collins said.

“It’s just a matter of time until the picture gets in front of the right person,” Collins said. “These just go viral.”


More than anyone, Jim Cole knew in December 2011 that technology could take an investigation only so far. Shoe leather would have to do the rest.

He knew that a 16-year-old boy had bragged that he planned to rape an 11-year-old girl. And from a highway sign, Cole suspected it probably would happen in Kansas.

Squinting at the blurry, sunflower highway sign in the photo, agents thought they could make out “203” as the highway number. So investigators from Homeland Security’s Wichita office scurried toward the town of Elsmore in Allen County, southeast of Iola.

Cole and Korzak got the results in a phone call just after their plane touched down in Kansas City.

“We just drove Highway 203, and it’s not 203,” the agent said.

From a relatively unobscured part of the sign, Cole knew the highway ran east to west. His next decision was easy, Cole said.

“Let’s just drive every highway in Kansas that runs east and west that begins with a “2” until we find it,” he announced.

Agents split into teams and, beginning Dec. 16, 2011, they drove Kansas highways. The next afternoon, Cole found his sign, a sunflower emblazoned with the number “20” in Brown County in northeast Kansas. Cole was certain of the match because a utility pole behind the sign matched perfectly with one in the photo.

Four days later, after working with local law enforcement, deputies from neighboring Nemaha County arrested the 16-year-old and charged him in juvenile court with taking aggravated indecent liberties with a child and two counts of sexual exploitation of a child.

State child welfare authorities found the 11-year-old and to everyone’s relief, she had not been assaulted, though she already had been photographed.

Elapsed time from the receipt of the lead from Danish police to the girl’s rescue? Thirteen days.

The outcome elated Cole, who had to fly out before the arrest.

“When we have the opportunity to intervene in a vulnerable victim’s life, there are no words to express it,” Cole said. “I love what we do.”

Brad Lippert, the Nemaha County prosecutor, said the 16-year-old pleaded no contest to taking aggravated indecent liberties with a child on March 20. He’ll be in a detention facility or under close court supervision until his 21st birthday. After that, he’ll have to report as a sex offender for the rest of his life, Lippert said.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement marked the first anniversary of both its child victim identification program and its first big case with a five-week child pornography sweep in November and December, appropriately named “Operation Sunflower.”

Announcing the results Jan. 3, authorities said they had arrested 245 alleged abusers and identified 123 victims. Of those victims, authorities rescued 44 children from their abusers. The rest were said to have been exploited outside their homes or were adults who had been victimized as children.

None of the rescued children or alleged abusers was from Kansas or western Missouri. But take no comfort there, cautioned Lippert, the small-town prosecutor who never before had prosecuted a child porn production case.

“It can happen anywhere, and it’s a large problem in our society,” Lippert said. “Operation Sunflower is a prime indication of that.”

To reach Mark Morris, call 816-234-4310 or send e-mail to mmorris@kcstar.com.

Deal Saver Subscribe today!

Comments

The Kansas City Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Kansas City Star uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here