By Ian Holmes
For the Times-Delta
Kevin Richard House logged on to an online chat room to find some child pornography. Instead, he found his way into a prison cell.
House, a Visalia resident, entered a chat room called Little Girl Pics 1, made sexually explicit comments and posted a link to a child pornography image.
Patrolling the chat room that day, March 17, 2005, was a member of the online advocacy group, Children's Last Hope, a group with the mission to rid the Internet of pedophiles, according to the organization's Web site.
Unbeknownst to House, the volunteer forwarded House's electronic footprint — the e-mail address, the conversation and the link — to the CyberTipline of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The tip led to a joint investigation by the Tulare County Sheriff's Department, Visalia Police Department and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. House was arrested on April 14, 2005, and pleaded guilty to a charge of possession of child pornography images. He is now serving a 60-month sentence in federal prison.
While the Internet has become the greatest purveyor of child pornography in history, it is also the No. 1 tool law enforcement uses to send child pornography consumers to prison.
Although the Internet provides unlimited, useful information at the click of a mouse, that same click can provide unlimited access to a more disturbing type of material — sexually explicit images of minors. Lulled into a false sense of anonymity behind their home computer screens, child pornography users fail to realize their online activities can provoke the fury of the federal government.
No one understands more how crucial the Internet is in both the proliferation and prosecution of child pornography cases than McGregor Scott, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California.
Scott's district includes 34 California counties from the Oregon border to Bakersfield and from the coast to the Nevada line.
It brought 71 felony indictments for child exploitation cases, including child pornography, in the year ended June 30, 2006, Scott said. The year before, the district brought 67 child exploitation felony indictments, Scott added.
"We quite proudly led the nation among the federal U.S. Attorney's offices in the number of indictments brought in both of those years," Scott said.
The exchange of child pornography was almost extinguished in the United States by the 1980s, according to the U.S. Department of Justice Web site. The expense and challenge of producing images on paper deterred many. The lack of anonymity and access to others with the same interest made it difficult to trade images.
But today Scott said the increase in the number of people exchanging sexually explicit images of minors indicates that child pornography has become "a profound problem."
"The Internet has completely changed the playing field on this issue," Scott said. "Whereas 20 years ago it was two guys behind a building trading a magazine in a paper bag, now you have, with all the advances in technology, the ability to create and send child pornography all over the globe in just a matter of a few moments."
John Shehan, the program manager of the CyberTipline, said in the past, individuals sent illicit material through the mail. Now the images are posted on the Internet and can be seen by thousands. While postal inspectors could stop pornography by confiscating magazines or pictures, Shehan said images on the Internet are virtually impossible to erase.
"Once a child's been victimized and those images are up there, these child predators are collectors, they're passing these images around," Shehan said.
"It gives these individuals a sense of identity and gives them the opportunity to meet others so they don't feel they are alone. Grooming techniques are shared. It's most definitely helped to facilitate the issue."
A professor who was a police detective specializing in crimes involving children explained how child pornography has evolved from the past.
"Back in those days, photographs were taken on film," Phillip Lyons, an associate professor in the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University, Texas, said.
"They had to either be processed by a commercial developer who would look at the photographs and perhaps alert the police or they had to be processed by the photographer himself, which meant buying photographic equipment and supplies which again may come to the attention of the police if someone's not a professional photographer."
Lyons said images that were physically sent through the mail or by a courier only came to the attention of law enforcement if the envelopes were mishandled and the contents were opened and viewed.
"Nowadays someone can take a photograph on a digital camera, upload it to their computer and distribute it across the web in a matter of a few minutes and nobody necessarily has to lay eyes on that image," Lyons said.
With the advent of the Internet age came new means of electronic communication including e-mail, instant messaging, newsgroups, chat rooms and peer-to-peer networks.
The new technology required the coordinated efforts of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to combat sexual exploitation of children including child pornography.
The multi-agency approach combined the expertise of the U.S. Department of Justice, FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
Shehan said the CyberTipline, created in March 1998 to be the "911" for child sexual exploitation, provides a central location for individuals and electronic service providers to report the crimes of child pornography. When a tip comes in, analysts review the report and dispatch the information directly to law enforcement agencies.
"If it's a Web site, they will access it," Shehan said. "They're going to document, they're going to work this case up, open-source searching online and they're going to find a jurisdiction."
Shehan said the FBI, United States postal inspectors and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, located in the same Alexandria, Va., building as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, have direct access into the CyberTipline system along with members of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, 46 U.S. regional task forces funded by the federal government.
"We can pipeline this information directly to them, there's no lag time, you're not waiting on e-mails, you're not waiting on faxes, as soon as we put it into their queue they have direct access to it," Shehan said.
Michael Prado, a special agent for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Service, considers the CyberTipline a valuable aid in child pornography investigations.
"They're a nationally recognized organization that does a tremendous amount of work and does some of the work that we just don't have time to do, some of the analysis of images, things like that," Prado said.
Prado and his partner Kevin Wiens, a detective from the Fresno County Sheriff's Department, have a good working relationship with the Center, receiving an award from the organization for their investigative work on child pornography cases.
"Three quarters of our investigative leads come from the CyberTipline as a result of Internet service providers providing them with information about some sort of potentially illegal activity that happened on their networks," Wiens said. "If it's in our geographical area, then it's sent to us and we investigate the crimes."
The customs responsibilities of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a bureau of the Department of Homeland Security, include goods and contraband that cross the border—anything non-people related, Prado said.
"That includes in this instance child pornography coming over from Russia, Southeast Asia, Latin America, those places," Prado said. "We were formerly the U.S. Customs Service before 9/11. When we merged into DHS that was one of our major responsibilities along with drug smuggling."
Prado said child pornography cases begin as a local problem but because of the use of the Internet the cases become international investigations as technology moves the crime across numerous state and international borders.
"That's where federal law enforcement can come in and lend some of its resources," Prado said. "This is really the kind of crime that it's absolutely necessary and crucial that there be federal, state and local cooperation to tackle it."
The primary source of child pornography has historically been overseas, from criminal syndicates such as the Russian mafia or Southeast Asian criminal networks, Prado said, groups that are running child prostitution rings, taking pictures and creating a market for the material.
"However, in the last five years or so because of the technology and the explosion of digital cameras and web cameras, we're seeing a lot more now of domestic child pornography, created right here in the United States by parents or guardians of the kids," Prado said.
John Gliatta, supervisory special agent for the FBI field office in Fresno, agrees with Prado that more child pornography is being produced in the United States.
"Probably if you had to put a percentage on it the majority probably would be overseas but that's not to say that the U.S. is immune from doing the same thing," Gliatta said.
Gliatta, an FBI agent for more than 19 years, said the FBI office in Fresno has two agents responsible for investigating child pornography as part of their caseload, which amounts to 25 percent of the workforce in the small field office.
Gliatta added the FBI has formed a cyber crimes task force with the Fresno Police Department, the Fresno County Sheriff's Department, the Secret Service and the California Department of Justice to investigate Internet crimes including child pornography.
Solving cases can be difficult but with the proper technology, equipment and experience, investigators can trace electronic trails on the Internet much like tracing a paper trail in a financial crime, Gliatta said.
"If it's done via the Internet, that's a hard thing to circumvent," Gliatta said. "There are ways that some people attempt to do it and sometimes are successful but you've got to understand you leave a footprint in the cyber world once you go from Point A to Point B."
Most of the cases the Fresno FBI office investigates involve the possession of child pornography, Gliatta said, cases where people type inappropriate words into search engines, surf the Internet and use peer-to-peer networks to obtain illicit images.
"They share them within the child pedophile or pornographic arena," Gliatta said, "so they will develop an informal ring where they'll share what they've obtained with someone who doesn't possess the same photos."
David Gappa, an assistant U.S. attorney in Fresno who has prosecuted child exploitation cases for about three years, agrees with Gliatta that digital cameras and high-speed Internet connections facilitate the production and sharing of images.
"Then it becomes a vicious circle of people always needing something new and different and worse and trading with other people to get that," Gappa said.
Not only does the Internet allow easy production, trade and accumulation of child pornography, Gappa said, but chat rooms and live streaming provide forums for people to watch and discuss the activity.
"Ten years ago the technology wasn't there for that really to be possible and now it's not only possible, it's relatively easy for it to happen," Gappa said.