Missoula Police Detective Chris Shermer selects his words carefully at work. If he sounds too mature, too formal or in any way out of touch with current lingo, it could blow his cover. And that's the last thing the 39-year-old law enforcement veteran wants after developing an online rapport with a 49-year-old man he met in a chat room months ago. So far, the man thinks Shermer is a 13-year-old girl.
"He likes me," the detective quips.
As part of the Missoula Police Department's Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) program, Shermer studies up on teen culture, holding his own talking about the Twilight series, eighth grade math and Lady Gaga; "Poker Face," he says, is his favorite song.
"It's an interesting experiment for me," Shermer says of his work. "It allows me to get out of my own comfort zone. It is fun."
Credit Shermer for finding at least one "fun" aspect to finding online predators. On an average workday, he turns on his computer and, using high-tech software capable of tracking illegal pornographic images, searches for photos involving children. Next, adopting his teen persona, he cruises chat rooms. People online ask for his age, whether he's a male or female and what he's up to. Usually, when he tells folks he's a 13-year-old girl living in Montana, they go away. Other times, they don't. Inevitably a certain segment of the online population wants to talk. Some want more.
Shermer is one of dozens of detectives in Montana and hundreds more across the nation participating in the ICAC Task Force. The federally funded program aims to catch people who deal in child pornography and use the Internet to prey on kids. Since its inception in 1998, the task force has expanded into every state in the nation and dealt with an increasing number of child pornography cases. In Montana alone, federal prosecutors convicted 34 individuals on child pornography charges in 2008, up from only two in 2003.
"The percentage increase is remarkable," says Bill Mercer, former U.S. attorney for the district of Montana. "There's just a lot more people [than before] committing the crime in the state of Montana."
Shermer finds himself on the front lines of this new battle. Friday used to be his day off, but now he logs overtime. Since the federal government awarded the Missoula Police Department a $500,000 grant to stop cyber crime, there's sufficient cash to cover Shermer's overtime hours, as well as his salary as a full-time ICAC detective.
But this isn't just a 9–5 job. For instance, when he and his wife had friends over for dinner on a recent Friday evening, Shermer had to duck out every so often to text an older man he'd met online.
"He wants to constantly see me naked," says Shermer.
When he patrols online sites and chat rooms, men often ask Shermer if he's a cop. As with undercover narcotics operations, the detective isn't legally obligated to disclose his profession, and says "no." Things get a little dicey, however, when suspects want pictures. The detective usually tells them his scanner is broken. That doesn't stop a suspect from sending Shermer an image.
"They'll throw a [web] cam [feed] up of what they look like," he says, "and you're like, 'It looks like my uncle.'"
Shermer's training with the ICAC emphasizes finding people to talk to. He says the trick is separating the real-life threats—those willing to meet in person—from individuals who remain hidden behind a keyboard.
"Why are you going to meet a 14-year-old girl? And what are you going to do with me?" he says. "I have an idea, but what's the extra? Are you going to hurt me? Those are the people we really want to get."
Getting the criminals takes its toll. Shermer, a father of two, is keenly aware of the psychological demands of spending his days tracking down online predators. That includes looking at each image on every case he's involved with to determine that it's in fact child pornography—a necessary step to securing a search warrant.
"A lot of us police officers," he says, "we learn to disassociate our problems and put them away somewhere."
Before he was hired onto the task force, the federal government had Shermer fill out an 800-question personality test to evaluate his psychological stability. He also gets to visit with a Federal Bureau of Investigation psychologist yearly. ICAC training provides psychological tools, or pointers, to help detectives cope with what is a very emotional job. For instance, Shermer says law enforcement psychiatrists tell detectives to watch, but not listen, to pornographic movies that display children being sexually assaulted. Otherwise, they can hear the kids crying.
"It's not the best kind of work," Shermer says.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), law enforcement had largely eradicated child pornography trafficking by the mid-'80s. Producing and distributing illegal images was difficult, expensive and dangerous. But cyberspace's anonymity is constructing a vast trading post where, removed from social culpability, adults are increasingly looking at images of sexualized children.
"All of a sudden the Internet comes, and it's no holds barred," Shermer says.
ICAC detectives like Shermer focus on two primary areas: child pornography and enticement or solicitation of a minor for sex.
Police say 32-year-old Jason Allen Sands did the latter last fall. Sands allegedly contacted a teenage girl on MySpace, got her phone number and began sending her sexual text messages, or "sexts." Alerted to the situation, Shermer posed as a friend of the initial contact and took over communications as 14-year-old "Kayla."
The two texted for several days. "Kayla" told the St. Ignatius man that she just took a test and passed it. According to court records, Sands said he wanted to have sex with the teen and told her that he had been sexual with a 14 year old before. Sands then asked to meet. Shermer agreed, asking him to bring a kids meal and an orange drink to the location. According to charging documents, "Sands indicated that he would also bring condoms and asked 'Kayla' not to wear any underwear."
When arrested, Sands had a new box of condoms in his pocket and a Burger King Kids Meal with an orange drink on the seat of his pickup truck. Since the arrest, he's been jailed in the Missoula County Detention Facility charged with two felony counts of sexual abuse of children.
While Sands represents an important step toward taking an alleged pedophile off the streets, ICAC detectives spend a sizeable chunk of their time simply tracking pornography. And law enforcement is realizing that the crime appears to attract people from across socioeconomic and professional backgrounds.
"You see teachers, cops, federal prosecutors, judges, college professors, coaches," says Missoula County Sheriff's Department Detective T.J. McDermott. "It runs the gamut."
In July 2000, University of Montana assistant psychology professor John Christopher Caruso was found guilty of downloading child pornography. And in June 2009, Missoula Police Sgt. Jason Daniel Huntsinger was sentenced to a year in prison for receiving illegal pornography.
"I certainly was surprised in the number of people on the Internet from the Missoula area at any given time that are involved in the downloading and file sharing of child pornography," says McDermott, who works one-quarter time as an ICAC detective. "There's a lot of people out there doing it."
Law enforcement maintains a library of serial numbers that match existing pornography files. Using high-tech software that acts like radar, detectives are able to pinpoint duplicate illegal files online. Once they identify an illegal image being downloaded, law enforcement zeros in on what kind of person is receiving the image.
"Once we identify those individuals, we do our background," Shermer says. "We go to their house. We kind of look at their house and see who lives there."
Since its inception in Montana in 2007, ICAC has grown into a network of 24 law enforcement agencies at state, local and federal levels, with two special federal prosecutors in Montana who devote most of their time to child exploitation trials.