Task force works to cast a net over online child porn

Md., U.S. officials unite to battle growing problem

100,000 Web sites on topic

April 14, 2001|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Undercover German police officers were patrolling chat rooms on the Internet in 1999 when they met "Pornboy," an American offering sexually explicit pictures of young children.

The German officers alerted U.S. Customs officials, who tracked "Pornboy" to Harford County. Baltimore-based customs agent Augustus C. Aquino then took over the investigation.

But Aquino would need help from a federal postal inspector, who linked a post office box to the suspect, and from Maryland State Police, who helped serve the search warrant last April and then questioned "Pornboy." The suspect was arrested last month on federal child pornography charges.

Agents say it was a perfect example of how three agencies worked together to combat a crime that is becoming an increasing priority for law enforcement officials around the globe.

"It was a team effort," Aquino said. "Customs has many different types of investigations, but we have only so many agents. We have to rely on postal inspectors and Maryland State Police, ... and they rely on us."

In today's digital age, sexually explicit images of children are easily shipped back and forth in e-mail messages, posted on Web sites and mailed on CD-ROMs to buyers worldwide. With so much back-and-forth across the borderless Internet, state and national authorities say they need each other's help investigating online porn.

In Maryland, a state trooper, customs agent and postal inspector formed a task force last year to battle the problem. Since then, the unit has arrested more than 25 people on child pornography charges. In February, the unit added two deputies from sheriff's offices in Carroll and Frederick counties, and officials say they would like to expand further.

A few years ago, authorities had a good handle on child pornography, which was difficult to find and mostly produced overseas, officials say.

Today, more than 100,000 Web sites are devoted to child pornography, making it available to anyone with an Internet connection.

"It used to be guys in trench coats standing outside playgrounds," said Lt. Barry E. Leese, who heads the state police computer crimes unit. "Now they all have computers."

Aquino said investigating child pornography cases isn't easy. A 10-year customs veteran, Aquino has broken money-laundering operations and fraud cases. He got into investigating child pornography when a supervisor suggested the assignment. Like others on the task force, Aquino knew little about computers, but he has picked up enough to be able to chat with pedophiles and traffickers online.

"It is stressful," said Aquino, 38. "It's sometimes very difficult to deal with. Kids are continually abused in cyberspace."

Cpl. Marc W. Price of the Maryland State Police joined the task force in August after spending more than 10 years investigating undercover drug cases. Within his first few days, he fell into a child pornography investigation in Washington County.

It began when the parents of a 16-year-old called state police to say their son had been lured to a hotel, where a man had photographed him and a 17-year-old girl swimming in a pool. When the teen-agers came upstairs to a room, the man asked them to undress, saying he wanted to videotape the boy engaging in a sexual act with the girl, the boy told police. The boy fled the room.

Price was dispatched to the boy's home, because the youth and man had communicated by e-mail.

While Price questioned the boy at his home, an America Online Instant Message popped up on the youngster's computer screen. It was from the man, apologizing for his behavior the day before. Pretending to be the boy, Price sent the suspect several messages. The man responded -- with two pictures of the naked girl.

The next day, after consulting with task force members, Price served a search warrant on the man's home. He found 200 computer discs filled with hundreds of images of child pornography and two videos. Warren Van Conway, Price said, was about to set up a child pornography Web site.

"The case happened so fast," Price said. "It unfolded right in front of me."

Conway, 62, was sentenced last month to four years in state prison after pleading guilty to soliciting child pornography.

Most cases don't involve traffickers, say agents and detectives. Investigators typically spend hours on a computer, checking chat rooms, and setting up sting operations and fake child pornography Web sites.

National postal inspectors set up a fake Web site offering child porn last year. In May, an AOL user began sending e-mail messages asking for "Pre-teen hardcore" pornography. After taking an order to ship five CDs filled with child porn to the user's home address in Middle River, investigators turned the case over to Postal Inspector Keith Hayden, of the agency's local office, and the Maryland task force.

Hayden mailed the man five CDs containing child pornography. He then staked out the house with state troopers, making sure the items were delivered and observing the buyer.

Hayden and task force members then served a search warrant and questioned the man, who admitted to having 15 other compact discs that contained "several hundred images" of child pornography, authorities said.

It was part of Hayden's job to watch every video he sent to the man.

He also inspects every video he seizes and examines every image he downloads from a Web site during undercover work.

Hayden has been on the task force since it started. Though he tries to emotionally distance himself from the images, he knows what they mean: They are snapshots of crimes in progress.

"Every video we seize, I have to watch it," Hayden said. "I look at images and try to connect them to other cases. It doesn't really get to me. Eventually, it might. I don't mind working them. One of the most rewarding jobs is when you get one of these guys off the street."

Yet, Hayden concedes, "sometimes ... it makes me sick."

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