I-Team: Catching child predators is constant high-tech warfare

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by Kevin Reece / 11 News

khou.com

Posted on December 16, 2010 at 11:07 PM

Updated Friday, Dec 17 at 11:57 AM

HOUSTON – When deputies, prosecutors and investigators swarmed a mobile home park near Humble in search of Daniel Lloyd Irvin in early December, it was a well-planned and orchestrated mission.

That’s because the officers involved were part of a specially trained task force devoted solely to catching child pornographers and predators.

Members of the Houston Metro ICAC (Internet Crimes Against Children) Task Force have arrested more than 200 suspects this year on a variety of charges related to the possession and promotion of child pornography.

The task force is comprised of approximately 50 officers at 41 different police agencies, including Harris County Constable Precinct 4.

Irvin, a Continental Airlines mechanic, was captured with the help of software used by investigators at the High Tech Crimes Office at Precinct 4. Every picture on the Internet has a hash value—an identifiable code number. A national database stores every known child porn image or video and the code numbers that go with them.

When arrests are made and new child porn confiscated, the images and their code numbers are added to the database. Software searches for those numbers and the IP addresses of the computers that are downloading them. Investigators then file search warrants to request the physical home addresses attached to those IP addresses. Investigators with the Houston Metro ICAC Task Force say Daniel Irvin’s IP address appeared on the investigative software hundreds of times.

When investigators descended on his mobile home, Irvin wasn’t there. But a neighbor called him in Mexico. That neighbor handed investigators the phone, and they implored Irvin to return to Houston immediately. When he did return on a flight that afternoon to Bush Intercontinental Airport, he was arrested on multiple charges of possession of child porn. Investigators ran searches on five different computers in his home and found hundreds of images of child porn on his personal laptop computer.

"Hard core stuff," said Sgt. Gary Spurger. "Movies, pictures, it was all there. There are videos and pictures. So this guy is collecting both."

But investigators point out that the relative ease of Irvin’s arrest—and his near-immediate confession—can be misleading. Irvin is just one suspect. And he’s far from being alone.

There are 61 ICAC teams across the United States. Texas has three ICAC task forces: Dallas, Austin and Houston. And the Houston Metro ICAC office alone covers 49 counties. That’s 8.5 million people.

So that computer in Spurger’s office tracking suspicious Internet activity can be easily overwhelmed with the sheer volume of child pornography being shared across the Web.

"More than I want to count," said Spurger, when asked the number of times his software program will generate a suspicious IP address in the course of one day. "I don’t want to count that high."

In the span of just 35 minutes, the software identified more than 50 suspicious addresses.

Other investigators add to that total number of potential cases by visiting common social-networking sites. Investigator Nick Foty has online profiles that lead potential pedophiles to believe he’s actually a 14-year-old girl or a 14-year-old boy.

"You wouldn’t believe how fast you can get someone to respond to you," he said. "It’s crazy. And when they get there, instead of meeting a 14-year-old girl, it’s me and a bunch of other cops. So they’re not happy when they get there."

"We’re never going to arrest our way out of this," said Houston Metro ICAC Task Force member and Harris County District Attorney Eric Devlin. "You have a culture within our society that preys on children. And that culture is very dangerous, very concerning."

But a small team of officers from several different agencies continues to execute stings—like the one that nabbed Irvin—on a weekly basis to catch potential predators before they become suspects, like Rodney Kevin Williams.

Earlier this year, he was convicted of sexually assaulting his 5-year-old daughter. He was also convicted of possession of more than 70 images of child pornography. Since each image is considered its own charge, punishable by up to 10 years in prison each, Williams received more than a life sentence. His combined prison sentence was 1,020 years.

"Do I like to get the guy who’s collecting? Absolutely. But that’s not my goal. That’s not any of our goals," said Devlin. "We’re looking for the person who is actively molesting a child, or the person who is getting ready to molest a child. If I can prevent one child from having to go through being raped by her father, by her grandfather, by a stranger, by anybody then I’ve won. I’ve succeeded."

"It will be one more individual I don’t have to worry about later messing with a kid," said Spurger.

"Their impact is dramatic," said Precinct 4 Constable Ron Hickman.

He says he staffs as many members on the High Tech Crimes Division and Metro ICAC Task Force as budgets will allow. But to the potential predators that easily outnumber the cops, he still offers a warning. Of the ones they do catch, 98 percent confess after being confronted with the intricately documented Internet trail that led to their arrest.

"Anybody who is in our region who is trafficking in child pornography, or is interested in being a child predator, they need to be aware that we’re looking for them," said Hickman.

"Take him out of the pool, take the predator out of the way," added Spurger. "He’s not going to have the chance to touch somebody. So one bad guy at a time. One bad guy at a time."

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