COLUMBIA — The door to the office is closed. A sign next to it reads, "Evidence being processed. Please knock before entering."
The warning is meant to keep visitors from stumbling across things they’d never want to see. Inside, detectives with the Mid-Missouri Internet Crimes Task Force are sorting through images of child pornography.
Looking at such images is just one part of their job. The task force conducts criminal investigations and provides forensic assistance to law enforcement agencies across a seven-county region. Its detectives focus mostly on crimes against children, including possession of child pornography and enticement.
Since it was formed in 2007, the task force has conducted hundreds of investigations, leading to dozens of convictions and to the identification of 24 child victims.
But the detectives acknowledge they’re only reaching the tip of the iceberg. Theirs is a daily struggle to keep up with a flood of material online and not to lose themselves in a world in which children are constantly victimized.
‘There is no typical day’
The four members of the task force — each of whom comes from a local law enforcement agency — spend hours in front of their computers each day, looking for leads, writing warrants, chatting with possible pedophiles and viewing photos and videos of children being brutalized.
"There is no typical day," said Detective Andy Anderson, the task force coordinator. Anderson is the veteran of the group, a member of the Boone County Sheriff’s Department who has worked on crimes against children for 20 years. Five computer monitors sit on his desks, clear indications of the nature of his work.
Because the unit is so small, each of the detectives contributes to the investigations in any way they can. But they also have their specialties.
Detective Tracy Perkins, for example, spends much of her time playing the online role of a 14-year-old girl. Within minutes of entering public chat rooms on AOL, Yahoo or MSN, she’s inundated with messages from older men. On some nights, so many people want to chat that Perkins has to sign off.
She’s not alone. About one in seven youth online receive a sexual solicitation or approach over the Internet, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
"how are you tonight?" a 37-year-old married man asks Perkins in one conversation.
"k u," Perkins responds in character. She uses two monitors to keep track of her conversations.
"pretty good. where in MO are you?"
"columbia," Perkins responds. She has a feeling what’s coming next.
"how old are you?" the man asks. Perkins says most people try to find out her age right away.
"cool," the man says.
In more than eight hours of conversation over the next two weeks, the man compliments the girl on her looks and intelligence, tries to find out if she will report him and sets up a time and place to meet — all part of what investigators call "grooming" the victim.
The man is arrested when he shows up at the Columbia address Perkins provided. He is what detectives refer to as a "traveler," a suspect who attempts to meet a child in person.
The same factors that make child pornography so easy to access over the Internet also make prosecuting the cases relatively straightforward. For every conversation conducted or image downloaded, there’s an electronic record — often significant in size — that detectives can find.
"Typically, the evidence in these cases is pretty clear and overwhelming," said Boone County Assistant Prosecutor Merilee Crockett, who works closely with the task force.
The life cycle of child pornography cases varies. They can be proactive or reactive and take weeks or months to complete, depending on the complexity of the case. A man sentenced in August to eight years in prison, for example, possessed more than 6,000 pictures and 300 videos of child pornography. Detectives had to sort through all of it.
The task force can determine if an individual possesses child pornography by monitoring file-sharing networks, such as LimeWire, where people trade in illicit images as if they were songs or TV shows. Once detectives determine that a particular network address is being used to download or share child pornography, they get a warrant and seize computers and other devices.
At that point detectives forensically examine the digital files — whether they’re on computers, external hard drives, cell phones, CDs or DVDs — and determine the extent of the crime. If the case goes to trial, detectives must view every picture and video the defendant possessed to select the handful that will be shown to the jury.
"It can be disgusting," Anderson said. "Listening to kids talk about it after the fact is nothing like watching them on videos and hearing them scream."
Images are eventually sent to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which maintains a database of sexually abusive images and tries to match and identify victims. The database has information on more than 2,400 child victims, but fewer than 10 percent are ever identified, which is the first step in locating the children.
"We’re not doing a good job identifying victims," said Rodney Jones, chief of the State Technical Assistance Team of the Missouri Department of Social Services. His unit also conducts investigations into crimes against children over the Internet.
‘It’s a dark world out there’
The arrests and convictions provide momentary relief for the detectives, who otherwise spend their time confronting issues others would rather avoid.
"Most people haven’t given a lot of thought to what child porn really is," Crockett said. "It is probably the most horrible thing anybody can do to a child, and they spend all day working on it. I really admire them for that."
The detectives admit there are certain cases that stick with them, even years later. For Anderson, it’s a case in which a man molested a 4-year-old girl whom his mother was babysitting. Perkins recalls a man she talked to online who thought she was a parent and wanted to pay her to use her daughter for sex acts.
"It’s a dark world out there," said Perkins, who has worked in law enforcement for 16 years.
The world of sex crimes against children has a language all its own. Users enter terms such as "pedo" for pedophile, and "PTHC" for preteen hardcore, when searching for or labeling images. Search terms as innocuous as "Helen" can lead users to a series of pictures and videos of a particular child who has become so popular online that users know to search for her by name.
"You think you’ve seen just about everything, then you see something new and you wonder, 'How can someone do that to a child?''' Detective Mark Sullivan said. "This one I saw a week ago, I think about it every once in a while when I’m back at (home)."
Adding to the stress of the job is the fact that the detectives all have children of their own. Photos cover the walls, desks and computer monitors in the office, the children’s smiling faces offering a stark contrast to the images normally on view.
The detectives try to keep the two worlds separate as much as possible, dealing with the divide in their own ways.
"I can’t take it home with me, and I don’t take it home with me," Perkins said. Her young children don’t know the details of what she does for a living.
But the detectives acknowledge that their work does influence how they view the world and their children’s place in it.
"I know there are individuals out there that harm kids," said Sullivan, who has a 10-year-old and 17-year-old. "I don’t think I’m paranoid or hanging over them, but I do have that level of awareness of who can do these crimes." At his house, the family computer is in the living room.
The longer the detectives work on the cases, the more they find themselves trying to get inside the heads of the perpetrators. It’s a challenge they can’t — and don’t necessarily want — to master.
The typical offender the task force encounters is a white man in his 30s or 40s. The detectives also have started to see younger offenders in their 20s and even teens. They’ve investigated five juvenile cases this year alone.
Most offenders do not have a significant criminal record before showing up on the task force's radar. The detectives could not think of a single enticement case in which the suspect had a criminal record, and in only a few possession investigations was there a criminal history. Many suspects were well-educated and had good jobs.
"People say 'they seemed like such nice people,'" Anderson said. "That’s what’s so scary about it. They can be extremely dangerous."
Despite the depressing nature of the job, or perhaps because of it, the mood in the office is light and the humor often off-color.
"You can do a serious job and still have some fun," Perkins said. "You have to."
The detectives joke around with one another throughout the day, the bonds between them forged in their shared hardship and the physical closeness in which they work.
Their small, windowless, two-room office is in the attic of a nondescript county building south of town off U.S. 63. It makes it hard for the detectives to avoid hearing, and chiming in on, other conversations.
During one discussion about humor in the office, Anderson interrupted and said, "Even surgeons cut up once in a while," at which point both he and Sullivan broke out in laughter.
"Don’t forget to tip your waitress," Sullivan said in response.
At other times the detectives strike a world-weary posture that would be familiar to law enforcement officials in any time or place.
The detectives refer to suspects as "knuckleheads" and make fun of the stories they come up with to explain why they were trying to meet a 14-year-old or download child pornography. And instead of the "easy" button present in many offices, the task force has a "bull—" button that has seen its fair share of use.
A constant struggle
Technological advances only make the detectives’ job more difficult. Although child pornography is not a new phenomenon, the Internet has led to explosive growth; Anderson started working on Internet-related cases just 10 years ago.
Peer-to-peer networks make finding and sharing child pornography as easy as the click of a mouse, and cheap storage means people can collect more of it.
"There is such a craving for this material," Jones said. "And all people have to do now is turn on their computer and it’s done."
The newest challenges for detectives are social networking sites such as Facebook and Flickr, where users post family photos often without a second thought. If the images are not made private, they can be accessed by almost anybody.
"Once you put a photo on the Internet you can’t take it back,” Jones said. “You have to be cautious about what you post online."
A lot of the material the detectives come across originates in Russia and Eastern Europe. That’s why U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is one of the agencies with which the task force works closely. It also partners with federal prosecutors, the FBI and seven other regional task forces in Missouri.
Yet for all the agencies working on the problem, the detectives say there’s much more that could be done.
"Child porn is way out of hand," Anderson said. "We could do so much more if we had the resources, but we can’t. It’s frustrating."
The task force is funded by a combination of grants and contributions from local law enforcement agencies. In July, Gov. Jay Nixon allocated about $195,000 to help pay for detectives’ salaries and additional training.
But earlier this fall the task force lost a full-time detective when the Columbia Police Department pulled Mike Lederle from the office for budget reasons. Lederle specialized in forensic examinations, and his departure will be a big loss for the unit, the detectives said.
"Sometimes you can catch fish a lot faster than you can clean ‘em up," Sullivan said. That means the task force can identify suspects, but they need the special skills of forensic examiners to analyze computers and other electronic evidence. Capt. Scott Richardson of the MU Police Department conducts forensic examinations part-time for the unit.
Although the detectives realize they will never fully put a stop to the flow of material over the Internet, they take solace in the fact that they are making a difference in their small corner of the world.
"It’s real rewarding to be able to stop this activity," Anderson said. "For every person we locate and identify, that’s one less person committing crimes against kids."