"Operation Innocent Images," the child-porn computer probe made public last week by the FBI, has vaulted federal investigators into the age of on-line detective work, and has begun to generate significant new cases.
Officials said the pornography case, which grew out of a Maryland kidnapping, broke new ground in investigative technique, legal questions, and computer use by agents.
"This new trail will certainly have direct applications on white collar crime matters in the future, and on scams being perpetrated over commercial on-line services," said Timothy P. McNally, special agent in charge of the FBI Maryland-Delaware field office, which coordinated the investigation. Those "scams" could include anything from securities fraud to consumer rip-offs.
Agents worked the case undercover from computer terminals. Pretending to be children, they engaged in electronic conversations with suspected pedophiles. Other times they posed as consumers for peddlers of child pornography. "Every moment the agent has to be aware whether he's dealing with virtual reality or reality," said one investigator.
In truth, the FBI case moved from a virtual Stone Age to the Information Age at a breakneck pace.
In the early days of the investigation -- the summer of 1993 -- agents worked it without benefit of computer or modem. Two investigators juggled the case with their regular workload. Resources were scarce. And there were countless other handicaps.
By last week, when the FBI went public with "Innocent Images," it had grown to eight agents, six support staff and 10 computers.
The agents in the FBI's Hyattsville office, which initiated the case, receive calls now from colleagues and police departments across the county for advice.
They have opened a half dozen new cases they describe as "very significant" since the case became public.
The case has produced at least 15 arrests and searches of at least 120 homes of people suspected of using America Online for posting images of child pornography and using the service for other pedophile activities.
In the racier on-line "chat" rooms Friday, there was a chill. Since the crackdown was announced, the electronic dialogue is less explicit, more cautious, investigators said. Some AOL members are unnerved.
"Makes me wonder how many federal narcs are hanging out in this room," one person wrote in an electronic message to others Friday morning. "Are you a cop?" another asked.
From the fifth floor of an office building in Hyattsville, FBI agents Kevin Stafford and Doris Hepler followed this dialogue, with some amusement, on a laptop computer. Several of the chat room occupants fretted about the investigation. Created for people who exchange pictures, it is a popular room for trading pornographic images.
The agents are not immune to the power of these pictures, even after seeing thousands of them. Both wince as a graphic sexual image, sent unsolicited, begins to appear slowly on the computer screen.
"You just don't know what it's going to be," said Ms. Hepler.
They say they strictly limit their investigations -- suggestive child pornography is rejected. The images must be explicit and the subjects must clearly be minors. The agents said they read no private electronic mail unless they have probable cause and obtain a search warrant. And they monitor public chat rooms only after they have received complaints.
"This is not the FBI surfing the net, checking people's e-mail," said Mr. Stafford.
The case began as an off-shoot of the kidnapping investigation of 10-year-old George Stanley "Junior" Burdynski, who vanished from his Brentwood, Md., neighborhood in May 1993 and has never been found.
Mr. Stafford, who supervised that case, focused on computer evidence taken from James A. Kowalski, a key suspect. He also sought help from Ms. Hepler, then an agent in Baltimore, since she was trained in computer sciences.
From Mr. Kowalski's computer files, they learned that he had operated several private computer bulletin boards and used them to communicate with young boys, mostly late at night. Junior Burdynski was not one of those boys, but the notion that pedophiles could lure children using computers intrigued the agents.
"Once we saw that, our curiosity was piqued," said Mr. Stafford. "We wondered just how widespread this was. We thought it might be a broader crime problem."
To find out, they divided a list of every FBI field office in the country and started making phone calls.
Dozens of complaints had been filed across the country, they learned.
"The vast majority were America Online complaints," Ms. Hepler said.
"There were irate parents, mothers who complained that their child had received a pornographic image on his computer." Yet nobody had undertaken an extensive investigation.
Even so, it is rare that a branch office like Hyattsville is cleared to conduct a long-term investigation of national scope.
Typically, those offices do the routine daily work: bank hold-ups, armored car robberies, kidnappings, extortion.