Computers open door to child pornography Police concede their expertise lags behind pedophiles' networks

June 27, 1993|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Staff Writer

WARWICK TOWNSHIP, Pa. -- In an office overlooking lilting fields of wheat and corn, Al Olsen sits at his computer terminal and hunts down child pornographers and pedophiles.

His quarries lurk far beyond the borders of this tranquil town, where he is chief of police. They live in Florida and California, Denmark and Thailand. They can be virtually anywhere in the world, anywhere at all where there is a home computer and telephone lines.

And it is through his computer that Chief Olsen, a compact man in print shirt and loafers, pursues them. Outside his window, an Amish man slowly makes his way up the road in a horse-driven buggy. Inside, Chief Olsen's fingers race across the keyboard as he scans computer bulletin boards and downloads files, a quintessentially modern-day detective searching out an ancient crime that has leaped onto a space-age venue.

"This is a pretty unusual place to be on the cutting edge of law enforcement," he allows with a smile.

If Chief Olsen, 40, is on the cutting edge, he arrived there years after those he is chasing. The handful of people who investigate the use of computers in crimes against children acknowledge that child pornographers and pedophiles recognized the opportunity new technologies offered them long before law enforcement appreciated what was going on.

"We're about 10 years behind the criminals," laments Frank Clark, a computer investigator in the Fresno, Calif., Police Department who works pedophile and child porn cases.

Only last week, one of Specialist Clark's prey, a 51-year-old Fresno painter, was sentenced to six years in prison. The man was using his own computer bulletin board to find teen-age boys for sex. He lured one of them, a 16-year-old boy, to his home with promises of showing him his technological marvels. After the boy arrived, the man locked the door and raped the boy, who has since tried to kill himself.

Only a small percentage of cases pertaining to child porn and pedophilia have a computer angle. But investigators believe that the numbers are deceiving, more a reflection of law enforcement's slow reaction to a new technology than a lack of criminal activity.

"Most cops are computer illiterate, and that's reflected in law enforcement," says Fred Cotton, who works for an organization in Sacramento, Calif., that trains police departments in modern technologies. "Because they don't understand computers, they don't understand the problem."

Neither the police force in Baltimore nor Baltimore County has experience with child pornography or pedophilia cases involving computers. Elsewhere, cases are emerging with greater frequency.

Only two weeks ago, Harford County authorities charged a county employee and an acquaintance with making child pornography, which police believe may have been transmitted elsewhere by computer.

The police were tipped off when the father of a California teen-ager discovered that his son was carrying on a sexually suggestive dialogue with a Harford County man by way of a computer bulletin board.

In March, the U.S. Customs Service executed search warrants around the nation against 31 men suspected of downloading child pornography from computer bulletin boards in Denmark. Donald F. Huycke Jr., head of the agency's child pornography unit, says the operation is expected to lead to as many as 28 plea bargains or indictments. An announcement by the Justice Department is expected any day.

Silent, secret, invisible

Despite the size and apparent success of the sweep, code-named "Operation Longarm," investigators acknowledge they cannot hope to end the use of computers by child pornographers and pedophiles. Computer users can employ a variety of techniques to hide their identities and minimize risks in a way that was never available to them.

"It's silent, it's secret, it's invisible," says Andreas Stephens, the supervisor of the FBI's violent crimes unit.

One element that has threaded through most of the computer crimes involving pedophiles and child pornographers has been their use of computer bulletin boards. The boards enable people with a particular interest to communicate with others -- perhaps tens of thousands of others -- who share that interest.

All that is needed to join the network is a computer, a modem and a telephone line. Some networks charge subscriber and user fees; others do not. For the price of some software, anyone can start a bulletin board.

Some bulletin boards seek to monitor and even screen what crosses the network. Some, because they are so large, cannot provide any reasonable oversight. Still others, by choice, do not try.

There are as many bulletin boards as hobbies, expertise and passions. Internet, the largest system with several thousand boards serving as many as 7 million users worldwide, has boards dedicated to discussions of the Hubble Space Telescope, cult movies and reasons to hate Barney the dinosaur. It has other boards exclusively for fans of Monty Python, Seinfeld and Rush Limbaugh.

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