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Task force battles increasing number of child porn cases

Thursday, November 21, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:15 p.m. CDT, Friday, May 30, 2014
The Boone County Cyber Crimes Task Force is fighting an increasing number of child pornography cases. Detective Andy Anderson coordinates the Cyber Crimes Unit Task Force. Anderson began investigating Internet crimes in 1999 before joining the Cyber Crimes Unit task force started in 2007. The unit serves seven counties in mid-Missouri. Anderson estimates that everyone in the unit has looked at thousands of pictures of abused children as part of their work.

Editor's note: Some people may find descriptions of certain acts in this story disturbing. At the request of law enforcement, the name of a victim has been changed to Jane Doe.

COLUMBIA — Detective Andy Anderson thinks about quitting his job every day. He laughs when he says it, but the thought is there.

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"It's good work, important work," said Anderson of the more than 25 years he's spent investigating crimes against children. He's currently the coordinator of the Boone County Sheriff's Department Cyber Crimes Task Force, which he founded in January of 2007.

It's good work, but it's hard. Some days, Anderson and his colleagues at the Task Force push through hundreds of photos and videos of children engaging in sexual acts. Alone, with other children, with adults.

He reclines in the plaid office chair where he spends most of each day and folds his hands in his lap as he recalls one case that won't leave his mind. He was pretending to be a pedophile and a parent for an undercover investigation and drew the attention of a man in New York. To ensure the cop wasn't a cop, the man demanded Anderson molest a child over webcam. Instead, the detective turned the case over to local authorities who arrested the predator.

He hasn't quit yet. It's good work, he says again.

Detective Tracy Perkins chimes in from across the room, "And you love the people you work with!" Anderson and Detective Mark Sullivan, the other full-time member of the task force, laugh.

Anderson starts almost every day at work by 7 a.m. An hour later, he sits between two folding tables with computer monitors on them. A child's drawing of Anderson and another detective working at a desk is taped to a file cabinet behind him, a gift after he spoke at an elementary school about Internet safety.

Despite the heaps of horrors he's seen, Anderson, 61, is a happy man whose smile is often visible beneath a thick mustache. He's the sort of guy who pats people on the back and calls complete strangers buddy. He's a father of four, with a stepson and 11 grandchildren filling out the family.

His large office is packed with hardware. Anderson and Sullivan sit in the far corners, pocketed in computer monitors — at least two on each desk. Perkins' desk is in the middle of a wall near Sullivan's, forming a triangle of the three. Sometimes, they stand in the middle and talk about football. It's a way of cutting the tension.

In the past five years, the task force has witnessed an increase in cyber crimes in its jurisdiction: Boone, Audrain, Callaway, Cole, Cooper, Howard and Randolph counties. From 2010 to 2011, the Task Force saw a 12.7 percent increase in all cyber crimes. While these include crimes such as scams and online harassment, the vast majority of the crimes Anderson's unit chases are child pornography. Between 1994 and 2006, U.S. attorneys reported an 82 percent increase nationally in child pornography cases

The investigations leave a lasting effect on the men and women who pursue them.

"It's gone insane," Anderson said of the increase, shaking his head.

The Boone County Sheriff’s Department Cyber Crimes Task Force investigates crimes committed using computers, cellphones or the Internet in Boone, Audrain, Callaway, Cole, Cooper, Howard and Randolph counties. The crimes investigated include child pornography, trafficking of children and cyberbullying. Graphic by Jaime Williams.

Predators and personas

Before she joined the task force in early 2007, Perkins was a Drug Abuse Resistance Education instructor and school resource officer. She's an energetic woman and a mother who has a thin face and and blond hair she wears in a short, straight cut. When she joined Anderson, she became the task force's second member and assumed the role as the primary undercover officer for the unit. Her investigations generated the majority of their cases.

Her online personas include a 12-year-old child and an adult pedophile looking to swap images or tips, and she attracts responses from predators across the country. In one case, Perkins assumed the identity of a budding pedophile looking for tips. A predator in Ohio explained to Perkins how to prepare children for victimization, how he would nearly drown victims for his own arousal, how he would like to fly to Columbia to show her.

It was one of Perkins' first investigations. She leans forward and rubs her forehead, as she often does when she's thinking. The predator was eventually arrested in Florida, and Perkins flew in to testify.

"As I testified, the judge stopped the court proceeding to ask a juror if he was OK," she said. The juror had leaned over with his head in his hands as he listened to Perkins read the transcript of her online conversation with the defendant. "Soon after that, the guy (accepted) a plea (bargain). The district attorney said I made it real."

The job isn't any easier for her colleagues. Sullivan, with help from Anderson, handles the extraction of photos and videos from seized hard drives and cell phones. The amount and content of pornographic photos can change the severity of felony charges, so the two detectives, along with part-time Task Force member Capt. Scott Richardson of MU Police, have to flip through images by the hundreds.

Sometimes, the victims are as young as 2 years old.

"There are always going to be some images you never get out of your head," Anderson said. "You just don't. You have to live with them."

Surviving the job

Like Perkins, Sullivan came from a position as a DARE and school resource officer. Hailing from the Kansas City area, he somehow resembles a youth baseball coach. He's a large man, tall and heavyset. Thin glasses and close-cut hair frame his face. He says "you know" a lot as he organizes his thoughts.

His first case was aiding Randolph County law enforcement in data extraction, giving him his first taste of the graphic nature of the images he would be living with for the next five years. "It was gut-wrenching," he recalled. "My own daughter was 8 at the time."

"Things stick in here," Perkins said, pointing to her head. During her investigations spent undercover as a child, she's bombarded with videos of pedophiles exposing themselves to her, demanding she do the same in return.

In other investigations, she's found pictures of children engaging in sexual acts. Or worse, videos with sound that lasted for a half an hour.

She learned early to keep her computer on mute.

"The sounds ... the sounds will drive you crazy," she said quietly.

After those first cases, Perkins hardened herself, learned a system. Unlike Anderson and Sullivan, she needs to look at a video or image only long enough to determine it's pornography. Not an image or frame more.

Humor helps. Perkins, Anderson and Sullivan try to keep the atmosphere as light as possible. They make jokes and talk about their families. All three have kids of their own, and Anderson has grandchildren. Sullivan and Anderson are Kansas City Chiefs fans, so football is a common topic of conversation now that the team isn't an embarrassment.

"We like to kid around, you know, lighten up the office a little bit," Sullivan said. "You almost have to." That humor has stopped cases from eating at Sullivan as time goes by. But he stressed that the weight of the job is always there. All three detectives are quick to laugh, often a nervous laugh in the middle of some horrifying description of what they've seen.

Perkins said she now laughs and rolls her eyes when pedophiles in chat rooms expose themselves to her. "Oh, geeeeez!" 

In one investigation in which she pretended to be a child, a Minnesota man wearing only a T-shirt video-chatted with her. The T-shirt read, "It's not illegal unless you get caught." When local authorities served the search warrant, she asked for the shirt.

Jumping through the screen

It all seems worth it when they take the bad guy away.

When Anderson and the Task Force searched a local man's residence, they found more than 1,200 photographs and 20 videos of sexually exploited children.

His name is Karl Ball, and he first appeared on the unit's radar in May, when a report from Microsoft alerted them that child pornography was being uploaded to its servers from mid-Missouri. Internet service providers such as Microsoft are legally required to file such reports should they suspect a crime against children is taking place. These reports are often compiled at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, where they find their way to units like Anderson's.

This type of investigation, which Anderson refers to as a reaction operation generated by reports rather than an undercover, proactive investigation, has become the new normal for the Task Force. Reports like the type that led to Ball's arrest and tips from parents or concerned adults have started generating the majority of the Task Force's caseload.

Once the unit received Microsoft's report, it began churning out court orders and subpoenas for Internet provider records. Eventually, it found the digital address that led them to Ball.

Soon after it received the report and the investigation began, the task force arrested Ball. He's since pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography and failure to register as a sex offender. 
When a suspect such as Ball is arrested or a residence is searched, the entire unit goes to knock on the door. That often includes Richardson from MU Police and Special Agent Scott Armstrong, who works out of the FBI's Jefferson City office, both of whom work with the unit part time.


It feels like tangible success after hours of virtual nightmares.

"We like to take everybody when we serve search warrants," Anderson said. "And it's always great" if they have the opportunity to save a victim.

Picking up the pieces

The unit is doing more than just counting when it combs through photos and videos. It's also looking for familiar faces. Sometimes it means seeing the face of a child rescued in a previous investigation, either by this Task Force or another unit somewhere in the country.

Other times the connections are less positive, and it's a child they recognize but in several photos. Multiple different images of a single victim are placed in a series, denoted with the child's name, like the *Jane Doe series. Jane Doe was victimized between the ages of 10 and 12 before being rescued.

"The (Jane Doe) series is a common download. I hate to call it that, but it is," Perkins said. She brushes her hair back with a hand that stays on her forehead. "You see the child grow in these series. And it can be very disheartening."

Once the unit analyzes and catalogs the images, they're uploaded to a database, accessible to other units around the world. It allows task force coordinators like Anderson to pool information and understand the scope of a victim's exploitation.

Confiscated hard drives are destroyed or reconfigured for the use of the Task Force. Any money generated by the sale or distribution of the pornography is also seized, though the Task Force hasn't seen too many bags of cash.

Outside the office, the detectives escape to the world, to favorite sports teams, and family.

"Being able to get home and give my own daughter the biggest hug in the world, you know, it's kind of reassuring that she's safe and sound," Sullivan said.

As her time in the Task Force approaches the seven-year mark, Perkins tries to distance her life from her work.

"I can't take it personal," she said.

But, like Sullivan, her experience in the Task Force has changed the way she sees the world. "People need to understand that the world is very dark. There's an underground world out there that goes on while we sleep at night. ... I have children of my own, and I have to protect them." 

Perkins doesn't know why pedophiles do what they do. But she knows that it can be anyone.

"They can't stay away from it," she said. "And that's when I find them."

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.


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