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Homeland Security Investigations Agents Use Technology To Uncover Clues

10:22 PM, May 29, 2013   |    comments
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FAIRFAX, Va. (WUSA9) -- It's the only lab of its kind in the nation dedicated to identifying victims of child sex abuse and rescuing them before it's too late.

In just the last 18 months, more than 80 children have been rescued in cases that started in this victim identification lab in Fairfax, Virginia.

WUSA9 offers a rare glimpse of a place where special agents work around the clock, and across the world, to win a high-tech race against time.

One piece of evidence in a case already prosecuted is a recording of a little boy and the man who repeatedly molested him, on videotape.

"How you going to video it? Right there. Video that?" asks the child. 

An adult voice, that of the now-convicted pedophile answers,  "Hmm-hmm."

"Why ya gonna video?" asks the boy. It's just an audiotape, but it is nonetheless chilling.

That child was rescued, and agents here are working relentlessly to save others. One by one, they piece together an intricate puzzle...and uncover a perplexing set of clues... clues that convince them the victims and abusers are in the United States. But unlike a jigsaw puzzle, investigators don't have a clear sense of the final picture.

"It was one of those ah-ha moments. It really was," said Special Agent Jim Cole.

He and other agents raced to Kansas when they spotted this highway sign in the background of a graphic photograph of child exploitation.

"We drove every highway in the state of Kansas that ran east to west and started with a 2," he said. 

In the meantime, agents in Detroit spoke with auto manufacturers to learn the make, model and possible year of a car revealed in some pornographic photos.

"It was a monumental moment," recalled Cole, describing how he and a fellow agent criss-crossed the state to find the precise location depicted in the photograph. 

"Once I saw the round hay bale, I knew that it was it. We literally stopped right in the middle of the highway, I got out, dodging traffic, grabbed my camera, went over and started taking pictures," said Cole.

That ultimately led to the rescue of an 11 year-old girl. The suspect had been asking for advice online about how to rape her and get away with it. Just 13 days after agents had the images, the suspect was in custody.

"We were elated," he said.

Many of the cases involve so-called John or Jane Does, pedophiles like this man. Investigators zoomed into the logo on his shirt, a business in Maryland where he was a former employee. He'd been sexually abusing two girls.

"This was a case where we had images of this offender abusing this victim," said Cole. 

When pornographic material was discovered involving a child and the older woman next to her, agents narrowed down the location to Minnesota by studying the trees and their catch.

"We took a look at the fish, we consulted with scientists who are experts in genus and species of fish," he said.

An office sign provided a critical clue.

"If you've been there, then you know where this is. Right? Some type of lodge slash campground, where there's fishing going on," said Cole.

Technology allowed agents to remove the woman and girl from the image and distribute the rest of the scene to people in the parks and recreation industry, including those who advertised in a magazine.

"One of the advertisers said I think that's such and such a location. Our agents then contacted that location and emailed them this picture, because they were very rural and said is this a picture of your location and the owners confirmed that it was," said Cole.

In another case, pornographic images revealed lettering on a t-shirt and a swimming pool. The palm tree in the background and a building with a number on it were all that investigators needed.

"I know that building numbers are very, kind of unique to government installations and particularly the military," he said.

In the end, those clues led agents from a pre-school in Virginia Beach, Virginia to a Pearl Harbor military community in Hawaii.

The District of Columbia is unique in that it's the only jurisdiction in the country where investigators can get a -nationwide- John or Jane Doe arrest warrant for suspects who haven't been identified, by name or by location. 

"What we were dealing with was a video depicting an adult male apparently in his 50s engaged in oral sex with what appeared to be and in fact was, a pre-pubescent female, 11years old," said Special Agent Neil O'Callaghan, discussing a recent case. In that, a so-called 'John Doe' was arrested within 24 hours of his photograph being released to the public. A bag of pretzels in a frame of video was enough to conclude he was in North America.

"There are two types of packaging. One distributed exclusively in the United States and one distributed in Canada. So though the packaging was similar, they were different," said O'Callaghan.

David Stephens is now facing charges. The married 58 year-old musician from Northern California videotaped his graphic sex acts with at least one little girl in his soundproofed garage.

"This is not normal. This is not okay. This is something that needs to be stopped and our children should not be put in danger this way," he said.

Child predators rarely work alone. Most are actively engaged with online communities, where the currency isn't cash, but fresh images of children. And often, an escalation of the crimes committed against them, including torture.

"The more rare, the newer, sometimes the more extreme material, the higher its value," said O'Callaghan.

In all the cases we have shown you, a suspect has been arrested, a child, saved. But there are countless others... just a snapshot or video frame away. 

To report a suspected child predator or a potential victim, you can call the ICE tip line at: 866-DHS-2ICE or 866-347-2423. Or you can submit your tips online at: 

http://www.ice.gov/exec/forms/hsi-tips/tips.asp

For more information on the program, go to:

http://www.ice.gov/predator/

Written by Andrea McCarren, WUSA9

Editor's note:

We want to make it clear-Andrea worked closely with the special agents to ensure that we did NOT give away too many investigative techniques that could tip off child predators. Agents agreed to disclose the information in this report to help increase public awareness and let child pornographers know they will do everything possible to bring them to justice. 

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