by ALEX ROHR
Sgt. Steve Anders recalls slowly scouring 1,800 hours of VHS tapes. He would press play, then fast forward. Then stop. Then play, fast forward, and stop all over again, trying to scrape up every second of illegal video.
The method of storing child pornography has developed from pictures, to video, and to digital media, making it easier to manage and disperse, said Anders, the lead investigator of the Southern Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
But developing technology also has enabled officers to more efficiently and effectively catch the offenders who make up the online child pornography market, and those soliciting images or personal contact.
The SOVA-ICAC headquarters in Forest serves as an investigative hub by facilitating contact among federal, state and local agencies, investigating predators online and scrutinizing evidence in its forensic lab.
Because the task force works with 118 local agencies and other ICAC headquarters, it receives funding from multiple sources, including the state and its member agencies. But every investigator at the facility is a sworn Bedford County Sheriff's Office deputy.
"When these first formed back in the late 1990s, Bedford was one of the original ones," said Bedford County Commonwealth's Attorney Randy Krantz. "The goal was to put ... a seamless web of protection on the internet."
While the net has been knit across the web with 61 ICAC headquarters, offenders take advantage of continuing advancements in technology to break through the seams.
"When criminals got horses, law enforcement had to get horses. When they started robbing trains, we had to start positioning ourselves on trains and airplanes. When it started happening in the digital world, we had to position ourselves there as well," Krantz said.
Anders said the task force's primary responsibility is catching those who solicit minors or who they believe to be minors — actually undercover police officers — online. Sometimes investigators receive tips and then pose as children in virtual chat rooms. Other times, officers are first contacted by offenders. Deputies also investigate child pornography possession and distribution.
"The porn industry, legal and illegal, drives technology," Anders said. ... "As new technologies come out, the predators start finding ways to exploit it for their purposes."
He said child porn images became more common with Polaroid cameras because pictures didn't need to be developed at a photo lab.
The Internet caused another spike.
"It allows a sense of anonymity where they can at least experiment," he said.
File-sharing networks and faster Internet speed allowed greater access and faster downloads.
The latest problem, law enforcement agents say, stems from the growing phenomenon of "sexting."
Krantz said pictures of teenagers or adolescents texted to a boyfriend or girlfriend can end up online a variety of ways.
He gave an example of one common path from cellphone camera to illegal download: An adolescent or teenage girl sends a picture to her boyfriend. The two have a falling out, and he shares the digital photograph — the growing trend is called "revenge porn."
"Once that image is out, it's there forever and you can't pull it back. Hitting the delete button doesn't take it away," Krantz said. "Now what we're starting to see is once those images are out there on the Internet ... the real predators have them."
Computer-savvy predators get hold of those pictures and can track down the child in a variety of ways, including GPS information encoded in the image, Krantz said.
Predators sometimes blackmail children for more images, videos or personal contact.
"Sexting has become such a phenomenon that predators are reaching out blind to a child at random," Krantz said. "They pose as a child in a chat room, establish a relationship and say ... 'I know you've been sexting, you better send me more or I'm going to tell.'"
And as high-speed Internet moves to rural areas, Anders said, cases are rising there, too.
"Someone isn't going to download a two-hour movie using dial-up," he said. ICAC also sees a spike of offenses after Christmas, he said, as people use new gadgets.
Anders said he and other deputies often wonder whether the broader availability is creating new predators or just facilitating desires that already existed.
"I have yet to meet a true pedophile," he said. He explained most suspects he encounters are also attracted to adults, and many are in adult relationships.
"Most will tell us they got to the child porn by starting with adult porn," he said. After a while, "it lost its edge. ... They start to get really weird because it's more exciting."
Once suspects are arrested, he said many admit guilt.
"Most of them, they know it's wrong. ... Most of them show some form of relief," he said.
That question, he said, is academic, but the solution for catching predators is not. SOVA-ICAC recently purchased 30 new Apple computers for training purposes with a grant from the Attorney General's Office.
They're desktop computers, but can be packed up to train other investigators. For example, SOVA-ICAC deputies have taught classes at the Crimes Against Children Conference in Dallas. Law enforcement from across the nation attends yearly to discuss developments in their fight.
The computers also can be used for occasional 24/7 marathons in which investigators and member agents dig up predators for a week straight.
While Apples are more expensive than the average computer, Anders said they're worth it because investigators have to deal with a variety of models and software.
"Apple will pretty much go through anything on Windows," he said. "We can buy Apple and cover all our bases as opposed to buying a Windows machine."
The task force's next tool is set to be a mobile forensics lab also paid for by the attorney general grant.
The vehicle — used especially for cases in which there is an actual victim — is said to be able to process and analyze evidence, review recordings and conduct polygraph tests at the scene of a crime, Sheriff Mike Brown said after receiving the grant in December.
The grant also helped pay for a new computer forensics lab. The space, much larger than the old one, is lined on all sides by computers, monitors and large screens, where investigators view hours of digital material documenting illegal pornography and accumulating charges.
The room also includes tools purchased in the last few years to collect and store evidence.
One tool, the Faraday box/cage, is impenetrable by known communication platforms, so any phone or device placed in it cannot be contacted. This prevents predators from deleting evidence remotely, Anders said.
A "write block device" allows investigators to remove materials from a hard drive but prevents them from depositing anything into it, which protects the innocent and gives the evidence credibility.
The tool is more accurate than DNA sequencing, because any small adjustment would completely change the code used to identify the computer, he said.
And the Rimage Evidence Disc System has drastically improved efficiency, Anders said. An officer loads discs, and the machine absorbs the data to prepare it for officers in a specified format.
"It's not uncommon to walk out of a house with a couple thousand CDs and DVDs," Anders said.
Before this system, officers spent hours and even days cataloging data, a process now done overnight.
But investigators must still visually go through those thousands of discs worth of content to document the evidence.
"We have had guys try to hide their porn in the middle of a Disney movie," Anders said.
Watching hours of graphic images can wrench the guts of anyone, even those trained for it. Two have had to be transferred to another area of law enforcement. He said that option is available for deputies at any time.
"They sit here," Anders says turning to the large computer screens, "child porn, child porn, child porn, adult porn, child porn, child porn, child porn. I don't know that it's a job someone should be in 20 years."
Because of the psychological toll, officers at the center go to counseling regularly.
Their efforts have been noticed by prosecutors. Krantz said the task force has had a significant impact on his office's caseload over the last 20 years.
In 2010, the first year ICAC had statistics available, the task force investigated 669 cases and had 91 arrests, 51 pleas and 28 trials. In 2011, those numbers jumped to 953 cases, 130 arrests, 60 pleas, and 23 trials. In 2012, cases rose to 1,374 with 180 arrests, 82 pleas, and 44 trials. Last year the agency investigated 2,118 cases with 216 arrests, 119 pleas and 40 trials.
The reason for the discrepancy between the case numbers and other numbers, Anders said, is because many investigations are still ongoing. The number of convictions was unavailable at the end of last week because snow closed the prosecutor's office.
Many of those investigations are outside of Bedford County. When the offender solicits an undercover officer in Bedford County posing as a child, the crime is committed in both jurisdictions. Generally, Anders said, they are prosecuted near where they live.
But if the crime is a felony in Virginia and would be a misdemeanor in another state, officers and prosecutors work together to bring the suspect under the harsher penalty.
"The Internet has blown away jurisdictional lines," Anders said.
Another strength for prosecutors is the multiple charges often placed on each suspect. Anders said in one case police charged a man with 100 counts, although he could have had 29,000.
At that point the question becomes, "How big is a pile of rocks you're going to put on somebody?" Anders said.
That pile has been bolstered by the state legislature through mandatory minimum sentencing for solicitation, said Krantz, who has been a prosecutor since the early 1990s. For each count of solicitation, he said, an offender must receive five years if tried, one reason for high plea rates.
"What the defendants are faced with when there has been a very good investigation by ICAC and the evidence is pretty strong and that information is present in court, defendants do not want to go to a jury trail," Krantz said.
While law enforcement labor to catch would-be predators, they say parents and children need to be educated on the capabilities and potential dangers of computers, wireless devices, cellphones, and video game consuls.
Groups of parents who want to learn more can contact ICAC deputies for a presentation by visiting SOVAICAC.org.
"Smartphones now have more computing capacity than the space shuttle," Anders said. "Parents just have to take the time to understand everything that a piece of technology can do."
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