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Md. State Police are monitoring Internet

March 10, 1999|By BRYN MICKLE

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Maryland State Police have begun undercover Internet sting operations similar to the one that resulted in the arrest last month of a Martinsburg businessman.

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The 10-member Computer Crimes Unit uses police investigators posing as children to visit chat rooms they believe might attract pedophiles, said Detective Barry Leese, who heads the unit.

"We pose as youngsters and see if someone wants to latch onto us," said Leese.

An Internet sting by Bedford County, Va., police resulted in the Feb. 22 arrest of Thomas D. Rice, of Martinsburg, on charges he used the Internet to arrange a sexual encounter with a 13-year-old boy.

The "boy" was actually a 28-year-old sheriff's deputy. Rice was arrested outside a Bedford County elementary school 190 miles from Martinsburg.

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Rice's attorneys have called the sex charges against him "mere fiction" and said police efforts in the case resemble entrapment. In addition, the Bedford, Va., law firm of Garrett and Garrett said that Rice had telephone conversations with the officer and knew the voice was that of an adult.

The Maryland State Police Internet operation got the go-ahead last October when a new state law went into effect allowing police to log Internet communications involving child pornography and child sexual solicitation.

Using tips from Internet users and Internet service providers, Maryland State Police set up their own profiles to pose as youngsters.

The state police unit also targets computer hackers, electronic mail harassment and Internet stalkers, said Leese.

Some defense attorneys, including Rice's, have claimed police Internet operations constitute entrapment, but Leese said the stings are no different than those in which undercover cops pose as drug dealers and prostitutes.

An attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Baltimore said entrapment is difficult for defendants to prove.

"Just because the government provides the opportunity for a crime does not mean it is entrapment," said Dwight Sullivan.

Earlier this year, Maryland State Police began contacting Internet service providers in Maryland to inform them about the new operation, said Leese.

One of the biggest supporters has been Internet giant America Online, he said.

AOL knows police have been using chat rooms and e-mail but does not get involved with specific operations, said AOL Assistant General Counsel John Ryan.

"They have the same level of access as anyone else. We have no way of knowing and no interest in what the police are doing," said Ryan.

While AOL's user agreements prohibit people from impersonating others online, that rule is set aside for police agencies, said Ryan.

Ryan wouldn't comment on specific cases but said the company has complied with police requests for records in the Rice case.

Legal requests for records can include subscriber information, billing details, chat room communications and electronic mail, said Ryan.

Carl Hillsman, co-owner of Intrepid Technologies Inc. in Shepherdstown, W.Va., said Maryland State Police and the U.S. Secret Service told him two months ago they were laying the groundwork for Internet operations.

The Secret Service investigates bank and credit card fraud as well as counterfeit operations involving the Internet, said an agent in the Secret Service's Financial Crimes Division.

Although Intrepid does not prohibit users from pretending to be someone they are not, Hillsman said the company does not condone anything illegal.

"But then it's not up to us to decide what is and isn't illegal," Hillsman said. "I believe in personal freedoms, but I also believe in protecting kids. This is a whole new age, and the Internet presents a slew of different problems."

Intrepid, which provides Internet access to users in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle and in Washington and Frederick counties in Maryland, has not been subpoenaed for any user information and Hillsman was not aware of any arrests involving Intrepid subscribers.

While he has not been approached by state police about the Internet sting program, the owner of Hagerstown-based New Frontiers Internet Services said he supports the concept.

"Police need to do what they can to protect our children and society from these devious acts," said Clint Wiley.

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