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Most police don't track online porn, pedophiles

February 23, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Law enforcement officials in the Tri-State area pursue high-tech child pornography cases when they receive tips, but they do not have a systematic way of tracking would-be pedophiles on the Internet.

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"Anything we would do would probably be reactive," said Hagerstown City Police Chief Dale J. Jones. "The whole aspect of computer crime really involves a huge new area that's going to require additional training."

Local police and prosecutors said they have nothing that approaches the operation in Bedford County, Va., where "cyberpolice" over the weekend charged Berkeley County, W.Va., political figure Thomas D. Rice with attempting to have sex with a young boy.

Bedford County authorities won a $200,000 federal grant last year to launch a computer crime task force.

Sheriff Michael J. Brown said the grant allowed the office to expand a unit that began several months earlier with a deputy who worked about 12 hours a week looking for pedophiles on the Internet.

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Brown said the department completed eight cases in a little more than three months and collected 12,000 highly explicit images.

Among those charged were a police officer from Gaffney, S.C., a U.S. Border Patrol agent from the San Diego area and a Boston child-care worker.

Brown said the experience was an eye-opener in an area with a population of about 62,000, fewer than half that of Washington County.

He called child pornography on the Internet an "epidemic" that largely goes undetected because police agencies do not have the resources to keep up with it.

"This problem is far deeper, wider and larger than anybody could imagine," he said.

Tri-State area officials said they do not investigate many computer crimes.

The Washington County Sheriff's Department charged a man last March with using a computer at the Washington County Free Library to obtain child pornography.

Investigators in that case were alerted by a teacher who learned of a letter that a 13-year-old boy found at his bus stop.

But Sheriff Charles F. Mades said detectives don't have the time or resources to search for criminals online.

The Bedford task force sprang from a high-profile case in which a girl was asked to perform pornographic acts in a film.

Jones said Hagerstown detectives have investigated computer crimes in the past, most often in cases involving record-keeping and financial crimes.

The Pennsylvania State Police formed a computer crime unit in 1993 to deal with emerging Internet crime. The team, which has three members, primarily investigates child pornography cases and provides technical assistance to local police departments, said agency spokesman Jack Lewis.

Lewis said it is exceedingly difficult to track people because Internet sites pop up and then sometimes are gone within days.

"We think that child pornography is extensive on the Internet," he said.

Blue Ridge Thunder

The Bedford program began when Sergio D. Kopelev was assigned in December 1997 to investigate a case in which a drug dealer was selling marijuana over the Internet.

Last February, a Bedford County woman complained that a Florida man called to ask her teenaged daughter to make a pornographic film.

Kopelev, 28, said he grew up around computers but had no previous experience as an Internet investigator. By posing as teenagers in Internet chat rooms, though, he was able to locate pedophiles from across the country.

It wasn't long before he convinced Brown and Bedford County Commonwealth Attorney Randy C. Krantz that a full-time unit was needed.

Bedford's was one of 10 police agencies to win a grant last October.

Kopelev, who was promoted to sergeant, now commands the Blue Ridge Thunder Task Force, which includes two other investigators, an analyst, and part-time help from several other law enforcement agencies.

Although the FBI investigates child pornographers, Krantz said it is important to pursue cases on the state and local levels, too.

Just as federal authorities concentrate on large drug rings, they cannot catch every small-time Internet pornographer, he said.

"If you're totally dependent on federal authorities, a lot of these cases will slip though the cracks. And the offenders know that," Krantz said.

Aside from the arrests the it has made, the task force has acted as a deterrent. Kopelev said he has been greeted with hang-ups in chat rooms after he has let pedophiles know where he is from.

Kopelev said the message has gotten out: "If you do this in Bedford, I'm going to come get you."

Kopelev said Internet pedophiles often target rural areas and other places where they think police are not sophisticated.

The computer allows them to seek out victims with an anonymity their counterparts hanging out at playgrounds could never have.

"They're very smart at picking their victims," Kopelev said.

A growing menace

Experts said the Internet has thousands of child pornography sites, many of which move around.

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