Missouri survey finds an extensive network trading in child pornography

Child-exploitation investigators found something unsettling when they recently took a 30-day snapshot of files being shared through computers in Missouri. More than 7,000 computers were trading known images of child pornography. The Kansas City area accounted for more than 700 of those computers, which used peer-to-peer software similar to that used to trade music.

Posted on Wed, Jun. 18, 2008 10:15 PM
By MARK MORRIS
The Kansas City Star

Child-exploitation investigators found something unsettling when they recently took a 30-day snapshot of files being shared through computers in Missouri.

More than 7,000 computers were trading known images of child pornography. The Kansas City area accounted for more than 700 of those computers, which used peer-to-peer software similar to that used to trade music.

"These are really horrific things," said Capt. Paul Carrill of the Platte County Sheriff's Department. "It's commonly referred to as ‘kiddie porn,' like they're children in bathing suits. But in law enforcement, they're called ‘child rape images.' "

The Western Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force conducted the survey in March after a year of preparation. Investigators searched for people who traded images of children whom the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children had identified as known victims of child pornographers.

Carrill, who leads the task force, said his investigators were sorting through the leads, preparing subpoenas and search warrants and assigning priorities to high-volume offenders.

The porn traders have another reason to feel unsettled. The Missouri General Assembly recently approved spending $3 million starting next year to upgrade Internet child-sex crime investigations in the state. That is more than double the $1.25 million that the state approved this year.

With his share of the grant, Carrill plans to add to his task force investigators from the Lafayette County Sheriff's Department and the Independence Police Department.

He hopes to add more in July 2009.

Kevin Steck, who directs the Heart of American Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory, said he hoped the state funds also would allow him to add examiners. The lab – an FBI-led facility in Kansas City that provides digital and electronics services to law enforcement in Kansas and western Missouri – has seen its caseload grow 33 percent each year since it opened in 2003.

Steck said the lab currently does not have a significant backlog of cases. He said it takes 30 to 60 days for the lab to turn around its electronic examinations of items such as computers, cell phones and digital cameras.

"We need the infrastructure to support the investigators," Steck said. "We want to keep these cases moving, keep them going to trial, with no backlog."

In 2007, Steck's lab completed about 600 digital and electronic examinations. He expects to complete about 750 this year.

State Sen. John Loudon, who sponsored the bill that more than doubled Missouri's spending to fight cybercrime, said the money also would permit local agencies to dedicate child-exploitation investigators in parts of the state – such as parts of southwest Missouri and the Bootheel – where none had been active before.

The success of such task forces in Kansas City and Columbia has shown that more investigators and forensic examiners is a good investment, said Loudon, a St. Louis County Republican.

"These guys can show that if we get the funding, they can catch the bad guys," he said.

For years, federal prosecution of child exploitation has been the top local law enforcement priority of the U.S. attorney's office. As recently as 2005, the Western District of Missouri ranked sixth in the nation for the number of cases and was the top district east of the Rocky Mountains.

But that kind of effort also can change the shape of the battleground, Carrill noted.

For years, so-called "traveler cases" – where an Internet predator travels to meet a child "victim" – usually an officer working undercover online – were a staple of Platte County investigations. But with the publicized success of the Platte County program and the popularity of the "To Catch a Predator" segments on NBC's "Dateline," Carrill's deputies are finding fewer travelers. Those cases have dropped 50 percent, he said.

"We were victims of our own success," Carrill said. "They would never come to Platte County."

But other opportunities exist, he said. Since 2006, the western Missouri task force has seen a fourfold increase in "Web exposure," cases, in which adults expose themselves online using inexpensive Web cameras.

To reach Mark Morris, call 816-234-4310 or send e-mail to mmorris@kcstar.com.

Source: kansasCity.com