The statistics are alarming. Of the estimated 35 million children now surfing the Internet, one in five has received an online sexual solicitation in the last year.
That figure comes from "Online Victimization, a Report on the Nation's Youth," a study compiled by the Crimes Against Children Research Center in conjunction with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). It further states that only about 25 percent of all teens who were approached told a parent about the encounter. Worse, one in 33 solicitations was considered aggressive, meaning the predator called, sent money or gifts, or suggested a face-to-face meeting.
While there are no firm statistics on how many pedophiles actually do meet with their victims, a forthcoming study reveals that nine out of 10 Internet "travelers" (predators who travel sometimes cross-country to meet and have sex with minors after chatting with them online) admitted that they had sexually molested children before their arrest. Another study published in Corrections Today found that the "average incarcerated pedophile reports being arrested for only one out of every 30 molestations" and that the "average non-incarcerated pedophile molests 117 youngsters."
Even those teens who don't actually meet face to face with their abusers, however, are often traumatized. A quarter of those who'd been solicited reported feeling "distressed" about the encounters.
"My contention is that these predators are stealing the innocence away from our children," says Jim Murray, chief of the Peachtree City (Ga.) Police Department. "Even if they just have a sexual conversation with a teen online, it skews that child's perception of love and sex. Whether they meet or not, these kids are still victims."
Luckily, there is a new breed of law enforcement officials who are tracking what the NCMEC now calls "Computer Facilitated Crimes Against Children," and these officers can be found online all over the country, ferreting out pedophiles on their own turf: the chat room.
The New Cyber Cops
"Anytime I go into a chat room and portray myself as a young teen," says Reserve Officer Julie Posey, who is currently with the Wellington (Kan.) Police Department, "I'll be contacted by 20 to 40 men in the first few minutes. And they're not saying 'Hi, how are you?' They're saying, 'Are you naked?'"
Posey began hunting predators almost 10 years ago as a civilian intern working with Mike Harris, an investigator at the Jefferson County (Colo.) District Attorney's Office. At that time, Harris was frustrated that there were so few ways to be proactive when it came to preventing child sex assaults. He reasoned that sex offenders were probably hanging out in the same chat rooms that children frequented, and began looking for an Internet-savvy helper. He was put in touch with Posey, and their very first case resulted in the arrest and conviction of Robert Stude, a 36-year-old man who, after only a few Internet chats and phone calls, wired Posey $1,000 to bring her two fictitious kids to Kansas so that he could have sex with them.
The experiences of Harris and Posey are hardly unique. Most of the law enforcement officers who have ventured into cyberspace are amazed at the brazen behavior of the online predators. Det. Darin Lenyi of the Laguna Beach (Calif.) Police Department and his team have only been online a total of three times in the three months they've been actively participating in chat rooms, but they've already made two arrests. "The very first night we started we got a guy from Long Beach who wanted to come and have sex with our '14 year old,'" Lenyi says. "It was incredibly easy; we had him come down, and we arrested him that night."
Ten years ago, before children were routinely victimized on the Internet, many district attorneys and prosecutors were reluctant to take cyber predator cases, mainly because there were no guidelines in place and no one was sure how well the cases would hold up in court. Now, however, most jump at the chance to handle an Internet sting.
"I can't imagine any DA not wanting to do it," says Posey. "They can see that there's no entrapment; you've just got this guy blabbing on and on that he wants to have sex with a kid. You know he's got child porn on his computer and, even if you can't go with state charges, you can still go federal."
Better yet, the conviction rates are staggering.
Harris, who is still tracking pedophiles online with his wife, Cassandra, reports a 100-percent conviction rate from his arrests, and every one of Posey's tips and subsequent arrests have led to a conviction. Special Agent Don Condon of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who has been actively seeking predators online for 10 years, also says that he has never personally lost one of these cases.
Even James McLaughlin, a detective assigned to investigate child sexual abuse and exploitation cases in Keene, N.H., whose chat room conversations and logs might be considered more aggressively sexual than some-his "kids" actually talk about sex, whereas many officers keep their language more vague and ambiguous-still boasts an impressive conviction rate.
"Of course, I'm not privy to all resolutions," McLaughlin says, "including those wherein a prosecutor chose not to go forward or there was some non-judicial resolution such as something involving mental health treatment but, in over 500 cases, we have never lost any at trial or at pretrial that I know of."
Entrapment is rarely an issue, mainly because once officers have seized a suspected predator's computer, they usually find so much other incriminating evidence that it buries the suspect in an avalanche of guilt and the majority of cases end in a plea. In almost every instance, the suspect is in possession of child porn; images, which often number in the thousands and are usually categorized by preference. In addition, many pedophiles keep pictures solely for trade, and they often save chat records and e-mail correspondence.
"The defense will occasionally try to attack the case prior to going to trial with, for instance, motions to suppress," says Condon. "Or they may try to raise an issue as to how the evidence was gathered or how it was maintained."
But these attempts are rarely successful, and few suspects choose to have a jury or judge view their explicit computer chat logs and the graphic photos of children engaged in sexual acts, especially since these predators quite often have families and sometimes high-profile careers.