Task Force funding issues resolved
Cyber Crime Task Force officer warns parents to be vigilant over children
The Southwest Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force, based in Joplin, has been a resource to the area in protecting victims, many of whom are children, from online sexual predators.
Covering 13 counties in the southwest corner of Missouri, its sole focus is the detection, apprehension and prosecution of sexual predators who seek to exploit children through the internet and social media.
"We investigate child exploitation on the internet, and people who distribute child pornography," said Brian Martin, a Barry County sheriff's deputy on the force. "Occasionally, we deal with people who travel between states to have sex with kids or travel to engage in sex with kids."
But, despite the need for the services the task force provides, it was not getting the state funding needed to operate.
"We went for awhile with no state funding," Martin said. "Even though it was authorized, the governor withheld it."
After six months of waiting and limbo, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon released funding. But, because the funding was late, the task force had to cut an experienced officer.
"The funding for the year we're in now was approved and he authorized in May," Martin said.
"A total of $1.5 million was set aside in the budget for statewide cyber crime task force," said Human Trafficking Committee Member Amy Campbell, of Soroptomist International in Carthage.
The task force will receive nearly $300,000 of that, which includes 14 counties. In the future, the committee hopes to receive funding in a more timely manner.
"It's great for our area of the state, for the state as a whole, for cyber crime task forces," Campbell said. "They can keep doing work that they are providing for our area."
The task force now has five full-time investigators, one part-time investigator and a sergeant. Three of the full-time investigators, including Martin, a Cassville police detective and a Jasper County sheriff's deputy, are supported through a grant, and through Missouri Internet Crimes Against Children Recovery Act funding. The Joplin police department also employes a full-time computer forensic investigator.
Since its inception, numerous evidence has been seized which has led to the arrest and prosecution of multiple perpetrators, and data from the task force indicates these types of crimes are on the rise.
In 2012, 182 cases were opened, in addition to cases assigned from each task force officer's individual agency, a 38 percent increase over 2011. The task force issued 202 investigative subpoenas and executed 76 search warrants. This included 24 federal search warrants and 52 state search warrants.
As a result of those investigations, 41 persons were arrested on multiple state and federal charges and 41 children were identified as victims.
In 2013, the task force saw another jump in cyber crimes, opening 218 cases, which consequently led to the arrest of 50 suspects on local, state and federal charges, with 29 child victims identified. Detectives also handled the investigation of 500 devices, including forensic examination of laptops, tablets and cell phones.
In 2014, 910 pieces of evidence were submitted, in comparison 672 in 2013.
Martin has been working cyber force crimes since 2008 and has done child abuse investigations for the Barry County Sheriff's Office since 1999. He typically connects with a predator in a chat room or on Facebook.
"Lots of times, those things will originate in chat rooms, like those especially geared towards kids, like video game chat rooms.," he said. "You just have to decide who you want to go after."
Martin said in just minutes, he will usually get hit up by 10-15 people in the chat room.
"They come after you, you just have to log in," he said.
The perpetrators are eager to send pictures, but not appropriate ones.
"Oh, they'll send you pictures," he said. "I've been in chat rooms before, and 30 minutes into the conversation he's sending me a picture of his penis. And they're not the boogie man, they're just people."
Martin takes on the identify of a 10- or 12-year-old girl or boy, but never uses pictures.
"We don't put pictures of kids online, ever," he said. "We put avatars on there or something like that. We assume their identity online and talk to the person and see what they want to do. And then occasionally, they'll come to me to have sex thinking we're the 12-year old girl or 10-year-old boy they were communicating with originally.
"When they to meet, we try to arrange a place where no one will be in danger. A lot of times, we'll meet at the park or a mall. They're looking for one person, but we know who we're looking for. So, when they show up, we just take them down and we continue the investigation from there.
Martin said the task force also maintains a presence on the dark side of the Internet, where people trade a lot of child pornography, and the force responds to a lot of cyber tips that are made to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Martin said sometimes providers discover people trading child pornography, asking for child pornography, or emailing it, which generates a report.
Despite what some might think, perpetrators do not fit a specific profile, Martin said. Instead, Martin said perpetrators are usually someone the average person would never suspect.
"We arrested a doctor who came from Fort Smith, Ark., to West Plains to have sex with what he thought was a 10-year-old boy, and he was about 67," he said. "We've arrested religious leaders, police officers, business owners, doctors, politicians; these are the people that are typically not going to be suspected of doing anything. And for most part, very few of the people we've arrested even have traffic records, let alone criminal records. This is the first contact they've ever had with law enforcement."
The task force covers a 13-county area in southwest Missouri, but often goes outside that radius to catch perpetrators.
"We also work as far east as West Plains, Ava or Houston," Martin said. "There are probably 21 counties that we work in on a regular basis. They're complicated cases and there's lots of stuff that has to be done."
Some of that work includes making reports and the forensic processing of computers, tablets and cell phones.
"We also have federal commissions, and most of our prosecutions are done in federal court," he said. "The majority of these guys have or are offending against kids when we deal with them."
The most crucial intervention to prevent these crimes, Martin said, are parents.
"Parents need to watch their kids," he said. "If you put a computer in the hands in a 10-year-old, it's about as dangerous as giving them a hand gun. Twice this week, I have dealt with 12-year-olds who have posted indecent pictures of themselves -- one was Facebook and one was Twitter.
"These people who prey on kids can use anything to their advantage. Someone will befriend a 10- or 12-year-old, and the next thing you know, they're having sexual conversations. Then, the kids are in the bathroom taking pictures of body parts they shouldn't be taking, and then the next thing you know, they're trying to meet. I probably get about 20-25 reports of that a year."
Not long ago, Martin said a mother and father were arrested in a nearby town who were sexually abusing their children, photographing and videotaping it, then sending the footage all over the country to trade.
"It's not unheard of," he said. "Another guy was paying money to see people sexually abuse children."
Martin warned parents to be extremely vigilant and involved in what their child is doing.
"Kids are not smart enough to know what's going on, even if you're sitting across the table and explaining it to them," he said. "They don't comprehend. Just watch what your kid does. Kids don't understand that who they're talking to is not necessarily a 12-year-old kid. It may be a 42-year-old sex offender. But parents, a lot are not technology-savvy and don't understand what they're kids are doing."
Martin said several years ago, a guy was arrested for driving to have sex with a 14-year-old girl in Polk county.
"Her mom asked how could this have happened, we don't have internet out here," he said. "We explained the Blackberry phone would connect to the internet. And she was a business owner.
"Parents are afraid of technology a lot of times, and there is this entitlement where kids think they have to have a cell phone when they're 10 or 12 years old, and a Facebook account. The terms of service say you have to be 13 years old to have a Facebook account. We've actually investigated cases where 8- and 9-year-olds have a Facebook account. Parents just need to be totally involved. Probably the worst thing you can do is give them internet access in your bedroom unsupervised, because bad things can happen."
Martin said for him, cyber crimes are easier to investigate because there are no additional steps to determine if abuse occurred and who did it, as with non-cyber-related child abuse cases.
"All I have to do is identify who the perpetrator is," he said. "Whereas before, when I got the report that someone was being abused, I knew who all the players were, but there's a lot more work."
Martin has found that, many times after reporting abuse, a child will recant, because of the severe family disruption it causes. But, more often than not, he said the abuse was valid.
"A lot of times, these kids don't have anybody," he said. "And a lot of times, the parent takes the side of the offending party or parent. That happens way too often. Then a lot of times, the kids will come forward and say they made it all up. No, they didn't. They realized how it changed the whole family dynamics and so they'll come out and say it didn't really happen. But if they have someone who can help and support them, like a [Court Appointed Special Advocate] volunteer, you won't have those recantations.
"Statistics show if a kid recants, that gets counted as a statistic in a false report. It wasn't. It was a legitimate report, but kids think if this is how it's going to be, it wasn't that bad, so I'll just say I made it up. In my career, I've worked more phony burglary reports than child abuse reports."
To report any suspected incidences or concerns of possible cyber crime, child pornography or child abuse, Martin said people may call their local police department.