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Police hook pedophile on Web in five seconds
ARLINGTON, Illinois (Daily Herald) -- It doesn't take much time for Lake County Sheriff's detective Rick White to find a possible pedophile on the World Wide Web. Less than five seconds, in fact.
That's how long White is in an Internet chat room before he receives a message from another computer user who claims to be an aroused 27-year-old woman.
"It's probably a 40-year-old guy," White says as he types a response.
A few more seconds pass, and the stranger - who thinks White is a 15-year-old boy - asks the detective if he likes cybersex. As the conversation progresses, the stranger expresses a fondness for photos of 8-year-old girls and asks White if he has any.
"Why would a woman who's 27 want to sit around and look at pictures of 8-year-old girls?" White wonders aloud, more cynicism than disbelief in his voice, before he continues typing.
Welcome to the sleazy, morally loathsome world of the sheriff's Child Exploitation Unit.
Formed in 1998, the unit has two goals: Keep children safe from pedophiles and other sexual predators, and stop the electronic flow of child pornography. It's a tough battle, but one where police hope to gain the upper hand.
"We want the pedophiles to give it a thought, that they might be dealing with the police," said Deputy Chief Robert Randall, head of the sheriff's investigations division. "And if we can stop them ... then we are serving our purpose."
A promising start
Locally, police are off to a good start. During the last two years, White and other Lake County detectives have arrested nearly 20 suspected pedophiles or child pornographers through undercover investigations that began on the Internet. Most recently, a 37-year-old Northfield man was arrested July 13 after setting up a sexual rendezvous with a "boy" who turned out to be an undercover detective.
In addition to the arrests, the Child Exploitation Unit has made cases stick with a 100 percent conviction rate. Although some still face trial, none of the suspects has escaped the charges against them, which often include possession of child pornography, indecent solicitation of a child or attempted predatory sexual assault.
The unit was inspired by groups that had formed within the Cook County Sheriff's Police Department, Naperville Police Department, Illinois attorney general's office and FBI. Many other local police departments, including those in Mundelein, Vernon Hills, Gurnee and Hawthorn Woods, now have officers or detectives who also specialize in Internet sex crimes.
"It's part of the overall arsenal that law enforcement needs to have to protect children," said Mark Pleasant, a special investigator with the Lake County state's attorney's office who regularly works with the sheriff's unit. "It's vital."
Hiding on the web
Law enforcement agencies first took notice of the Internet once pedophiles began using it as a new way to find young victims in the mid-1990s. As home-computer prices dropped and access to the Internet became common, the Web became a popular place for sex offenders, police said.
Previously, pedophiles primarily hunted for prey at arcades, local parks and other places children would hang out.
"But there they took a big risk of being caught," White said. "Now with the Internet, there was a feeling of security."
Online predators are not stereotypical dirty old men in trench coats. They come from all walks of life, in all ages and aren't even always men. A 32-year-old Grayslake professional computer operator, a 51-year-old Texas man and a 45-year-old female college professor from Lake Bluff are among the suspects who have been arrested by the Child Exploitation Unit.
"What is so scary is that now you can bring a pedophile right into your own home via a computer," said Claire Reeves, president and founder of Mothers Against Sexual Abuse, a national non-for-profit organization based in North Carolina.
The Lake County unit's early crime-fighting attempts primarily consisted of searching various spots on the Web for possible suspects. The detectives didn't have much training. They were surprised - and shocked - by the success of their early efforts.
"Once we realized how easy it was to find violators, that's when it became significant for us," Randall said.
Some serious training followed. Today, five sheriff's detectives regularly work Internet sex cases, and the entire investigations division helps out when needed. The unit also is assisted by Pleasant at the state's attorney's office and Laura Notson, director of the Lake County Children's Advocacy Center.
Finding pedophiles and pornographers on the Internet is easy - making the detectives' jobs that much more important. All the police have to do is scout any of the thousands of chat rooms that have sexually suggestive names. Some are set up by region, others by topic.
Although some Internet service providers, such as America Online, try to regulate their chat rooms and shut down ones catering to illegal activities, new ones spring up all the time.
"It's unbelievable," White said. "Every day you find another area where there are (sex) chat rooms."
The Net may make a pedophile's task easier, but it does the same thing for police. Laws have been modified so suspects can be arrested after simply propositioning people they believe to be children. Only the intent to commit a crime needs to be present, not the actual physical assault or a threat against an actual underage victim. That's a big help for police and child advocates.
"In other types of child abuse cases, we really have to wait for a child to come forward and make some type of allegation of abuse," Notson said. "But on the Internet, the investigators are able to get on line and pose as a (child) and get the offenders to come to them."
A delicate dance
A typical Internet investigation is a delicate dance, with a detective skillfully manipulating the electronic conversation to pry information out of a predator without tipping off the stranger that the person on the other end of the discussion is a police officer.
When a suspect asks for a photograph of the undercover officer, police usually send a photograph of another deputy that had been taken in high school.
"He doesn't know how famous he is on the Net," White joked.
Police can arrest a pedophile once the stranger agrees to meet with the "child," which shows the intent to commit a crime. Detectives refer to the suspects as travelers, because predators often will travel from neighboring towns - and sometimes even other states and countries - to meet intended victims. Others send plane or bus tickets so the victims can visit them.
"A traveler case could happen in any town, anywhere in the country," White warned. "With the Internet, the kid could be from anywhere."
Sometimes the cases come together quickly. Other investigations take more finesse and patience before the suspects agree to meet the undercover officers - and thereby set themselves up for arrest.
"We've had cases where we talked to people for six months, and we've had cases where we talked to people for 10 minutes," White said. "It's up to them."
The arrests usually are over almost as soon as they begin. The suspect arrives at the meeting place and is greeted by a young-looking undercover officer posing as the child who the pedophile was expecting to meet. Moments later, the surprised suspect is handcuffed at gun point and tossed into the back of a squad car, a video camera usually rolling somewhere nearby to record the event as evidence.
So why doesn't this type of investigation constitute entrapment? After all, police trick the suspects by hiding behind fake names and personal descriptions.
"A lot of people may see this as overzealousness, but that's not the case," Pleasant explained. "It's simply taking advantage of a situation a predator makes for himself. These people are not being lured into any type of situation."
As dangerous as the Internet can be, police know the Web is an important tool for law-abiding people, especially children.
"I don't want to come across like we're Internet-bashing here," Randall said. "There are countless benefits that the Internet provides. It's educational, and it (aids) in the exchange of information. Unfortunately, there's a segment of our society that is going to use it for illegal activities."
That's why parents really need to monitor their children's activity on the Net, police insist. Whether it's directly supervising a child's time on the home computer or installing filtering software to limit access, parents need to get involved to keep their children safe from cyber-predators.
"The bottom line is for parents to remember that they don't have a clue as to who their child is dealing with, that the person they're chatting with online could be portraying themselves as anyone," Notson said.
"Kind of like what we do," Randall added, flashing a quick smile.
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