University of Montana senior Shannon Adkins was training her puppy to walk on a newly acquired treadmill in the basement of her Phillips Street home Nov. 22 when she heard voices in the hallway upstairs. She thought a friend had stopped by to visit. Then she heard a man holler, "Come out with your hands up!"
"I almost said, 'If you are so big and bad why don't you come here and get me?'" she recalls, thinking the visit was a prank.
Adkins, 39, is glad she didn't say that, because when she peered upstairs several police officers stood at the top of the staircase, guns drawn. They pointed a flashlight in her face.
"There was just a pile of dudes at the top of the stairs," she says. "It was like a small-town version of SWAT."
Police told Adkins they had obtained a warrant to search the house after discovering someone had downloaded illegal child pornography from her home's wireless Internet service.
"I was like, 'It ain't me, pal,'" Adkins recalls telling detectives.
Her two roommates, including Leonard Solis, who was home when police arrived, denied wrongdoing, too. However, Solis, 26, who has a criminal record for driving under the influence and keeps a stash of legal pornography in his bedroom, was shaken by the unexpected visit.
"Here I am, a mid-20s male with a criminal background and I've got a stack of porn in my room," Solis says. "It was scary, man."
Law enforcement separated the two roommates, interrogated them and searched the house. During the police interviews, it became increasingly apparent, to the roommates at least, that someone outside of their home had been using their unsecured wireless connection to download illegal images. However, police weren't yet convinced that was the case. When law enforcement left, they took with them four computers they sent to a Helena crime lab for forensic analysis.
Problem was, Adkins, a Native American Studies major, was heading into the final stretch of fall semester and had two papers saved on the seized laptop. She was forced to explain to her professors why she was unable to complete projects on time.
"I had to tell them that I got raided for child porn and I didn't have a computer," she says. "Just to have to go in there and say that, that's icky. Who wants to say that? Not me."
Adkins is angry. The incident left her unnerved for weeks. She asserts law enforcement could have allowed her to, at a minimum, download her schoolwork. And she maintains police could have simply knocked on the door to ask what was going on, rather than charging in with guns drawn.
"It's mostly about principle," she says. "You're definitely guilty until you prove yourself otherwise."
Detective T.J. McDermott of the Missoula County Sheriff's Department says no charges have been filed against Adkins or her roommates. He acknowledges no illegal material was found on the seized computers, which were returned three and a half weeks after the raid.
"Once we knew no evidence of child pornography was discovered on any computers that we had seized," McDermott says, "we did our best to get that property returned as soon as possible."
McDermott is a member of the federally funded Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. He says he's sympathetic to Adkins' concerns, but sexual abuse of children—prerequisite in the production of child pornography—is something law enforcement takes very seriously.
"We have a duty to investigate it," McDermott says. "In doing so, we don't have a lot of luck just talking to people and asking if they are downloading child pornography. Therefore, we follow all the legal guidelines. We obtain search warrants to enter property and seize any item that could possibly contain evidence."
Law enforcement now suspects what the roommates first guessed— that someone accessed illegal images from outside Adkins' home via her wireless Internet connection that the landlord hadn't password-protected. The incident highlights the prudence of locking wireless connections. However, McDermott says the Phillips Street case stands out as unusual. He recalls only one other recent circumstance in which law enforcement tracked illegal images downloaded by someone outside of a household via an unsecured wireless connection.
That said, police say savvy viewers of child porn are employing tactics to maintain anonymity, like, for instance, using wireless hot spots in public places to evade law enforcement scrutiny. In fact, McDermott believes the suspect who accessed Adkins' Wi-Fi also downloaded illegal images from at least one local public wireless connection.
"It's certainly a hurdle for law enforcement," McDermott says.
As for Adkins and Solis, they've locked their wireless network.