Task force tracking down online predators targeting children, teens

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A specialized task force led by the Indiana State Police is trying to tackle the growing number of adults who are targeting children and teens online or sharing pornographic pictures and videos of underaged boys and girls online. Local authorities have seen a number of disturbing trends that involve younger victims so the use of a mobile lab at the time of a search warrant has become a necessary tool.

Fox59 got an exclusive look at how the Indiana Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force is protecting local children as they track down online predators who live in Indiana or are preying on local kids and teens from another state or country.  Recent trends suggest the underground world of international organized crime centered around child pornography is growing, and the suspects are abusing younger children.

“It’s not a question of not having sufficient targets. It’s sufficient resources and energy. What can we do and how many we can do at the same time?” said Steve DeBrota, Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana.

Around 1,500 cyber tips are reported to the task force in Indiana each year. Tips also come from police departments in other states and countries.

“The cyber tip said they were advertising on Facebook for another couple to have sex with preteen daughters,” said Lieutenant Chuck Cohen as he briefed members of the task force before they executed a search warrant at the home of a suspect.

Lt. Cohen said they have made arrests outside million dollar mansions and small apartments that do not have running water. He also said the suspects may or may not work around children.

“If it says family photos 2009, we’ll still preview it,” said a member of the task force as he reviewed a large stack of CD’s belonging to a suspect.

Once a search warrant is executed, the task force immediately unpacks laptops and specialized equipment inside an unmarked mobile lab parked just out the home of the suspect. They remove digital evidence of any kind from a home: DVD’s, CD’s, computer hard drives, flash drives, cell phones and cameras as other members of the team interview the suspect in the front of the mobile lab. It is considered a rare asset that saves time, money, resources and a possible next victim.

“Very seldom are you doing an interview and getting live feeds of information and verification of whether they’re telling you the truth or not,” said Kurt Spivey, an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department Detective with the Cyber Crimes Unit.

He is also a member of the task force which includes the FBI and is led by the Indiana State Police.

Kerry Gomez was arrested as Fox59 cameras were rolling. A detective on scene said he had shared graphic material with him multiple times during an undercover operation. Gomez was charged with five counts of distribution of child pornography and five counts of possession of child pornography.

“There’s a possibly that he’s a contact offender, and if he is, he’s not going to have access to these kids,” said Darin Odier, another task force member and detective with IMPD’s Cyber Crime Unit.

Children and teens who have been victimized have been targeted on Facebook and other social media sites. Predators have also gotten access to them through so-called anonymous video chat websites and made threats after using programs like messaging application Snap Chat.

The victimization may also never end. Lt. Cohen said they have to notify victims years after the abuse when they are well into adulthood.

“This individual in Bedford, Indiana, has 6,600 files that he is distributing to other people,” said Cohen, who gave Fox59 a look at programs specifically created to track down and monitor these online offenders.

The programs that allow authorities across the United States to share real-time data cannot be viewed by the public.

“Unfortunately, many people trade it like baseball cards where they have to get the entire set of the child pornography videos and images that are out there, and they will organize it and keep it in that manner,” said Cohen.

The participants in the underground world also use acronyms for terms like Preteen Hardcore Pornography. They have their own language and often use old screen names of the worst offenders to find the illegal material. File names often name the child, give their age or describe the sex act they have been forced into.

The task force has been seeing larger collections and many more videos downloaded by the suspects. Videos of babies and toddlers being tortured for sexual gratification have also been turning up more rapidly.

“I can think of one where a pre-pubescent girl is asking her dad, ‘Are you sure this is okay, daddy? Does sissy do this?’ and it’s heartbreaking,” said Cohen.

“It is almost as if, when we knock on their door, we are less interested in them because we already know much about what they have done and are primarily focused on asking them, ‘Who did you get it from?” said Joe Hogsett, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana.

He and DeBrota candidly said they must prioritize the cases and track down the offenders who they believe have the highest possible impact first.

“I go home and hug my kids. Some days are harder than others, but it’s a mixed bag a lot of days,” said Odier after the Gomez’s arrest.

A review of recent cases also reveals another harsh reality. The U.S. Attorney’s Office has been representing younger victims of extortion who are in elementary and middle school. DeBrota claimed it is misconception that only high school kids are targeted by these predators who lie, manipulate and threaten them after the victims have possibly made one mistake online.

Lt. Cohen had these suggestions for parents.:

  • Have a relationship with your children such that they feel comfortable coming to you with problems or concerns.
  •  If you want to know what your child is doing online, ask them to teach you about it.  They won’t feel spied on and you get insight into whom they are communicating with and the nature of the communication.
  • Supervise your children and know what they are doing online the same way you would supervise them and know what they are doing if they are out in public.
  • Trust your instincts – if something feels wrong or your child starts acting differently, don’t discount it.
  • Set reasonable boundaries for your children’s online activities.
  • It is often not feasible to prevent your children from interacting in online social networking.  That is how this generation socializes in a manner similar to how previous generations went to the shopping mall or to the movies.  What you can do is only allow your children to interact online with others who are friends in real life.  That makes is a little more difficult for a predator to insinuate himself into your child’s life.
  • Seduction offenders groom children through a combination of attention, affection and gifts.  They prey on children either perceiving or in reality not receiving those at home.  Do what you can to make your child feel attended to, loved, and cared for.

More information can be found at www.netsmartz.org, which is a project of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

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