Pouncing on Suburbs' Pedophiles Catching Prey Easier since Police Found That Internet Child Porn Leaves a Strong Electronic Scent

Article excerpt

Byline: Joseph Ryan Daily Herald Staff Writer

A swim coach in Barrington.

A tutor and coach in Crystal Lake.

Cary's village attorney.

An Aurora police officer.

The list of area child pornography arrests, officials say, is getting longer, faster.

Tech-savvy federal, state and local investigators in cutting- edge computer labs across the area are spinning an online web to snag the once-hidden world of child exploitation.

Like so many other facets of society, the Internet has revolutionized pedophilia, as well as the resulting arrests and prosecutions. Even perceptions about the crime and the offenders have changed.

Investigators say they have so many leads that they must prioritize, going first after those working with children or potential abusers.

"We try and take immediate action. It is extremely serious," said Monti Price, a Department of Homeland Security special agent who supervises a squad that works to weed out area child pornography viewers and producers.

The new suspects

The publicity surrounding the arrests of once-trusted figures - educators, police officers and guidance counselors - is quickly eroding the stereotype of child predator, said Michelle Collins of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"We should no longer be looking in the bushes for a scary man in a trench coat," she said.

Officials and experts agree that the arrests of such figures are the direct result of a child pornography world made more available and more prosecutable through cyberspace.

For decades, police and child advocates raided seedy adult bookstores and scanned suspicious mail to disrupt the child pornography trade. Those wanting sexually explicit photographs and movies of children had to search harder and pay more, so their numbers are believed to have been lower.

Now, thousands of child pornography images, chat rooms and even live children are just keystrokes away.

Officials say it's difficult to pinpoint the number of people looking at child pornography, or to chart an increase or decrease. But the ease of collecting such material might be leading the curious to become chronic child abusers, experts say.

"It is like we saw with Internet drug sales," Price said. "Those who would never go to a shady street corner to buy drugs now do it from their own home. People believe there is a certain degree of anonymity on the Internet, so they will do things they wouldn't normally do."

At the same time, the viewing, trading and manufacturing of child pornography on the Internet often leave a strong electronic trace, easily sniffed out by investigators.

A child pornography Web site bust can net authorities a large database of user names and credit card numbers, providing a basis to secure search warrants. The leads are then passed out for regional investigators to track down. Also, investigators can hover from chat room to chat room, watching for potential predators.

"We have a greater number of police online than we did just two or three years ago," said Michael Sullivan, who heads a Naperville Police Department unit that surfs the Internet daily to track and lure pedophiles.

"Law enforcement is more computer literate, and I think we are just starting to realize how substantial the online child exploitation community is."

Catching up?

While there is no central database on the number of arrests or convictions for pedophilia offenses, individual federal authorities say the numbers are rising. Meanwhile, some evidence points to a boom in the use and depravity of Internet child pornography.

Three Chicago-area task forces equipped with computer crime labs assist local departments with the often costly and complicated investigations of Internet pedophilia crime.

The Department of Homeland Security's Operation Predator is the most recent addition, with about 12 investigators who take information from national stings and work to track down local child pornography collectors. …