Breast Cancer Awareness
|
|
|
MailTribune.com
  • Neighborhood Watch

    High tech force sweeps up suspected child porn sites
  • The South Peach Street home was quiet, empty but for the police officers searching for images and videos of children being sexually abused.
    • email print
  • The South Peach Street home was quiet, empty but for the police officers searching for images and videos of children being sexually abused.
    A camera's flash lit up the darkened scene for moments at a time. Hands covered by latex gloves searched through drawers, shelves and in dark corners.
    Computers and other devices used to store digital data were the primary objective: SD cards, floppy discs, CDs, DVDs, video-game consoles, laptops, film, USB flash drives.
    Any place files containing child pornography could hide.
    The men and women collecting the evidence on Monday were members of the Southern Oregon High Tech Crimes Task Force. Based in Central Point, they are the only nonfederal law enforcement agency in the U.S. that solely does digital forensics and is accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors.
    The agency spent the week of Oct. 17 in a coordinated sweep of Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties.
    They entered homes with search warrants, cuffed suspects for alleged possession of images depicting child sexual abuse and pornography, and checked on convicted offenders.
    Federal and local agencies to the north did the same. All of it was in cooperation with the Oregon Department of Justice's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
    The state dubbed the sweep Operation Internet Angel and set the dates of Oct. 17-21 for the sweep.
    As of midday Friday, the Southern Oregon team had seized 71 pieces of digital evidence, served seven search warrants, conducted 25 investigations and made four arrests.
    "We've been preparing for this week for a couple months," said task force leader Lt. Josh Moulin.
    Under Oregon law, it's a Class B felony to produce, sell or share photos or videos involving children engaging in sexually explicit acts.
    "This is images and videos of children being sexually abused, physically abused, tortured," Moulin said. "Sometimes we find children who are being sexually abused by animals. Anything you could imagine, unfortunately, we find."
    Sometimes the search takes them in unexpected directions.
    Officers had tracked images of child sexual abuse to the Peach Street location, but a few days later determined that the home's occupant, Michael Swift, was not involved. They arrested Swift's neighbor, Jack Paul James Avila, who lives just a few doors away and who police suspect had been using Swift's wireless signal to log onto the Internet and look for child pornography.
    Swift arrived home in the middle of the Monday investigation. His daughter had called, asking about the police swarming around his home. He went straight there, was read his rights and interviewed. He told police they had the wrong man.
    "That's not me," he said.
    Four days later, he was exonerated. Avila was arrested Friday and booked in the Jackson County Jail, held on a parole violation pending further investigation.
    "It makes me feel very violated. I didn't know that he could pick up my IP address," Swift said.
    Swift said he plans to pursue civil action against Avila. He also plans to get a new wireless router and put a lock on the signal.
    Slow process
    The task force's work is hardly TV-drama subject matter. There's rarely resistance during searches or arrests and even when investigations produce damning evidence, it's often months before an arrest is made.
    But the need for the work keeps growing. In its first year, 2005, the task force handled 12 high-tech crime cases, according to data compiled by Moulin. By 2006, that number had shot up to 67. By 2010, it had reached 185, 26 percent of which were online child-exploitation cases.
    This year, 50 percent of the 154 cases task force members have worked so far involve child exploitation. The other half involve crimes such as identity theft and computer security breaches.
    "There's a huge need for what we're doing," said J. Adam Peterson, a deputy district attorney assigned to the task force. "The reality is it's in every community."
    Those exploiting minors and DUII offenders cross socioeconomic lines more than any other criminal type, Peterson said. Some have successful careers. Some have children of their own. Some are homeless.
    "It runs the gamut," Peterson said.
    The task force is born
    The task force started in 2005 when the Central Point Police Department formed a high-tech crimes unit.
    It was Moulin's idea. He'd grown up with computers and had built his own. Even as a child, if a neighbor had a problem with a computer, they'd sometimes seek him out for help.
    During his time as a patrol officer for the Central Point Police Department, he approached his chief and the city manager and raised the idea of forming a high-tech crimes division.
    "I thought I could combine my law enforcement experience with my computer knowledge," Moulin said.
    His bosses gave the go-ahead. He trained and then started slowly, dividing his time between general detective work and computer crimes.
    Other agencies got wind of the work the department was doing and the phone started ringing. For the next two years, Moulin worked with the other agencies by himself. They sent digital evidence to him, which he analyzed. Medford police assigned Det. Brandon Bloomfield to the task force full-time in 2007, which brought in more equipment and resources.
    By 2008, the then-small division had provided services to 53 law enforcement agencies around the state.
    Then the FBI got in touch. By 2011, the task force had grown to nine members from several agencies, including Grants Pass, Medford, Ashland, Klamath Falls and Central Point police departments, the FBI, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Jackson County District Attorney's Office.
    The task force is funded by grants and the city of Central Point. Individual agencies pay the salaries of officers they've assigned to the group.
    Taken away in handcuffs
    Later Monday, Bloomfield, Grants Pass detective Josh Nieminen and FBI agent Miles Wiltrout broke off from the South Peach Street investigation to go to a Medford business, where they arrested 51-year-old Michael White at his workplace.
    White's case had taken four months. Officers held interviews and conducted a search warrant and said they found images of child sexual abuse at White's home.
    It took two tries to make the arrest — White was not at his work when they first arrived — but officers eventually left with White in handcuffs.
    Bloomfield patted him down at his unmarked car and helped him inside.
    White was booked in the Jackson County Jail on 20 counts of encouraging child sex abuse in the first and second degrees.
    Getting on the radar
    Honing in on a location that could contain images and videos of child sexual abuse is a complicated, slow process.
    Tips about child porn crimes come from a variety of sources. Officials get calls from computer repair shops and neighbors. Internet service providers have content monitoring teams that look for illegal content on their respective websites.
    Once the images are spotted, those service providers must report them to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a federal nonprofit organization out of Virginia.
    The center then tracks the media back to a location and issues a cyber tip to local law enforcement. A majority of the Southern Oregon task force's cases start with cyber tips from the center, either with information about the victim or the suspect, or both.
    Nieminen, a Grants Pass officer assigned to the task force, was unaccustomed to the pace when he started in January. He'd come from patrol. His job usually involved distinct beginnings and ends.
    "You catch the bad guy, you put him in jail overnight. It's over and done with," Nieminen said.
    That job of beginnings and ends changed to one with slow-resolving conflict. And constant training.
    "When (Windows) Vista came out, we had to go to school for Vista. When Windows 7 came out, we had to go for Windows 7," Bloomfield said. "Everything changes and evolves so quickly."
    Nieminen said the learning curve keeps him engaged and helps him deal with the otherwise-horrifying job of investigating the sexual abuse of children. Technology is in his blood. He builds his own computers and is the default IT guy during the graveyard shift when all other tech-savvy employees have gone home.
    Search and arrest
    On Wednesday morning, members of the task force moved quietly toward a home on Walnut Grove Lane in Central Point, a dog's bark the only noise echoing down the street. The group knocked. A woman answered. Officers led her and her two children outside to the driveway.
    Detective Mike Vanderlip with Ashland police spoke to them while other task force members entered the house. They brought out CDs, phones, computers and USB jump drives. Bloomfield and Detective Mike Anderson of Klamath Falls police went through an initial pile and returned it without finding any incriminating evidence. But there was still a lot of data to go through. The team gathered up the seized computers for further analysis back at the station.
    No arrests were made. It didn't mean the task force had struck out, though.
    "In our history we have yet to go to the wrong house," Moulin said.
    Residual effects
    The thousands of images that task force officers have sifted through during their careers hits them hard at times.
    "Seeing what these people are into, yeah, it's tough," evidence specialist Debby Miller said.
    Moulin said all task force members got a rundown of what they would see when they started.
    Then they actually saw it.
    "Some people have a physical reaction. Some people shake their heads and scoot their chair back," Moulin said.
    The group just received a grant to pay for a therapy program. Many members say they plan to utilize it.
    Anderson has processed digital evidence for the past seven years. He said his Christian faith keeps him grounded.
    "I couldn't do this without the Lord. I couldn't," Anderson said.
    The work and effects of the images the task force processes have to be kept in check. Bloomfield plays music and wakeboards, for example. Non-work-related hobbies are crucial, he said.
    Slow and steady
    Forensics analysts Bloomfield, Anderson and Moulin will have to dig into the evidence the sweep produced, examining every corner of the devices they found. That will likely take weeks and months of investigation.
    Vanderlip, who started with the task force in January, said investigating the digital evidence is slow and impersonal casework involving IP addresses, code, phone numbers, addresses and website URLs. It's only in the final stages of the investigations that human beings are brought into the equation.
    Vanderlip worked the cases of David Cassidy and Francisco Isaias Acosta-Costillo. Cassidy, 57, distributed images of prepubescent children being sexually abused. Acosta-Costillo, 20, pretended to be a teenage girl online to get nude photos from a teen boy. Upon receipt, he demanded more, making threats to send the images to the boy's family if the boy didn't agree.
    On Oct. 14, both men were sentenced to two years in prison and three years of post-prison supervision for possession of child pornography. Acosta-Costillo, who is in the country illegally, will be deported to Mexico once he is released.
    "I'm now starting to see some of the fruits of my labor," Vanderlip said.
    Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at rpfeil@mailtribune.com.
Reader Reaction

      calendar