Local task force battles child sex offenders
According to a recent news release from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), 255 suspects were arrested as part of five-week operation between May 28 and June 30. Operation iGuardian was a joint cooperation that involved Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) and ICE.
The Southwest Missouri Cyber Crime Task Force operates under the umbrella of ICAC and conducted investigations during Operation iGuardian's time frame. Investigator Brian Martin with the Barry County Sheriff's Office and James Smith with the Cassville Police Department, are both assigned to the Southwest Missouri Cyber Crime Task Force.
"The task force is comprised of technically 13 counties, but there are another seven or eight counties we also work in, pretty much the southwest corner of Missouri," Martin said.
Formally founded in March of 2009, the task force operates out of an office with the Joplin Police Department and is partially funded by grants from the state. There are five full time officers assigned to the Southwest Missouri Cyber Crime Task Force, as well as a part-time trooper from the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
"We work crimes against children because they don't realize all the bad things that can happen," Martin said. "These kids, they don't know there is a boogie man out there, and they think everybody is who they say they are."
Most recently, the task force served a search warrant in Bolivar. While they did seize the computers, the suspect had already left the area. After reviewing the data on the computer the task force was able to identify some of the children the suspect had been targeting and will use the evidence to continue an investigation against the individual.
According to Martin, the bulk of their cases involve the trading of child pornography. However the task force has seen a rise in the amount of "sextortian" cases as well.
Martin describes sextortian as individuals using the Internet to entice children to send them sexually explicit images of themselves. Once the individual has one image they will blackmail the child into sending more graphic images and even at times having the child involve their own friends.
"These guys are conmen and they convince these kids that they are their friends and tell them that nobody understands them like they do," Martin said. "These guys who do this are not hit and run but very long and involved in their process."
Martin explained that sometimes a suspect may have several children in various degrees of trust. One child may just be talking and another may be fully engaged in the production of pornography for the suspect.
While Martin and Smith do see repeat offenders a large number of the suspects have never been involved with the criminal justice system.
"The demographics for who commits these crimes are pretty wide ranging," Smith said.
The task force has arrested individuals ranging in age from 20 to 70 years old according to Martin. Additionally, a great deal the suspects have been white-collar professionals.
Martin said they try to serve one to two search warrants a week but most of their time is spent online looking for suspects.
"James does more chat stuff then I do," Martin said. "I have watched him, and all he has to do is show up as 12 - or 13 - year-old girl in a chat room, and boom just like that someone is talking to him."
The task force confiscates between one and 15 computers or electronic devises on every search warrant served at a residence. As a result, the task force may have to analyze several terabytes of data to determine what is legal and what is not.
"That's the worst part, just seeing the images," Martin said. "We see everything from babies to cheerleaders."
However, Martin shared; the reason why he and Smith do their jobs is because they know they make a difference.
"Our experience is 80 percent of the people we arrest we discover are convicted child molesters, or they are molesters who haven't got caught, or people looking for the opportunity to molest a kid.
According to Martin, it is the knowledge that they have kept a child from being molested that keeps them doing their jobs.
Most of the suspects that Martin and Smith make cases against never go to trial. Within the last four years Martin said only three cases went to trial with the rest plea bargaining out because most do not want society or the jury to see what they have done.
"Everybody talks bad about plea bargains, but when we talk plea bargains, we rarely get anybody sentenced to less than 15 years in prison," Martin said.
The task force attempts to educate both parents of children about the potential hazards found on the Internet by visiting with schools and hosting awareness assemblies.
"These kids are the best source of information about apps and how they get around parental controls," Smith said.
The task force handles not only cases involving computers, but smart phones, Kindles and X-box games. Martin explained that men looking for young boys have started looking for children playing Call of Duty or World of Warcraft online.
"Parents need to supervise their kids," Martin said. "You just have to realize that if your kid has a computer or a smartphone that connects to the Internet; there are a lot of manipulative people that are looking to take advantage of your kids."
For more information on cybercrimes involving children, visit the Missouri Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force website at www.moicac.org or the website for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at www.missingkids.com/home. Brian Martin can be reached via email at email@example.com.