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.
Nationally, ICAC features 61 task forces spread across the country. Comprised of more than 2,000 federal, state and municipal agencies, it also includes outposts in Australia and Britain. And Congress, which created ICAC in 1998, is increasingly paying to support the program. The federal government awarded ICAC a $25 million base budget this year, plus $50 million in stimulus funding. In 1998, the ICAC budget totaled $2.4 million.
According to the DOJ, the investment is paying off. Federal attorneys across the country brought more than 2,200 computer-based child exploitation cases in 2008, compared to just 313 child exploitation cases in 1994.
As funding and personnel increase, Montana prosecutors and police say they're starting to make headway. But they caution the problem isn't going away anytime soon.
"The greatest increases are probably just around the corner," says former U.S. Attorney Mercer. "I don't think we have seen the high water mark."
Eric Fevold knows computers. When U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents tracked down the Missoula resident in June 2007, a forensic analysis of his homemade computer found 40,000 child pornography files, some of them containing sexual images of infants.
Fevold lived in the basement of his parents' Rattlesnake residence and worked for BobWards.com. He was filling the hummingbird feeder at the family home when agents first showed up to talk with him.
ICE began investigating a criminal organization operating approximately 18 commercial pornography websites in April 2006. The investigation, dubbed "Operation Flicker," identified nearly 5,000 people in the United States who had paid to access child porn through the organization. Fevold was one of them. According to court records, Fevold admitted charging $79.95 to his credit card for a 30-day membership to the sites.
In a second interview with law enforcement, which took place in an agent's vehicle outside Fevold's workplace, Fevold admitted to looking at child pornography. He says that he knew the images on his computer were illegal, but he didn't realize the extent of the legal ramifications.
"I expected some kind of warning," says Fevold, now 50, in a phone interview with the Independent from a federal penitentiary in Beaumont, Texas. "[I expected] something telling me not to do that."
Fevold's family describes him as a regular guy. In letters to the court, they depict a Boy Scout who enjoyed math, geology and bird watching.
"I still feel like I'm a normal person," he says, "that strayed from the right path."
For about five years prior to his arrest, Fevold felt socially isolated and increasingly sought out illegal pornography. "It sort of built up, snowballed," he says. His family told the court that they had never seen Fevold be sexually inappropriate or violent, although he had been arrested for driving under the influence and disorderly conduct prior to his pornography arrest.
Regardless of criminal history, federal sentencing dictates a mandatory five-year minimum sentence for receiving child pornography. The mandatory minimum can also be coupled with what are called "enhancements," which increase punishment based on a variety of factors, including portrayals of sadomasochism, a large collection or images of pre-pubescent children.
In child pornography cases, enhancements come into play when an offender uses a computer to download images instead of obtaining hard copies via snail mail or in person. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a computer enhancement adds, on average, about a year and a half onto pornography-related prison sentences.
In November 2008, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy found Fevold guilty on one count of receiving pornography, sending him to prison for seven years. Molloy issued a shorter sentence than federal sentencing guidelines recommended.
Nonetheless, Fevold's family questioned the value of sending him to prison rather than providing community-based psychological treatment. Eric's brother, Steve Fevold, wrote in a letter to the court: "I have a hard time seeing how a severe sentence would be of any benefit to helping Eric in being a productive person in society. Sending him away for even five years would likely harden him as a convicted criminal by giving him similar treatment as a person who actively distributed child pornography."
John Rhodes, Fevold's court-appointed attorney, says his client is not unusual among people convicted of child pornography offenses.
"The typical child pornography client has no record, does not have substance abuse problems and is, relatively speaking, well educated," says Rhodes, who has served as an assistant federal defender in Montana for 12 years.
Rhodes believes federally mandated minimum sentences are unjust, and testified against them before Congress in 2005. Specifically, Rhodes argued to eliminate the Feeney Amendment, which, as part of the PROTECT Act in 2003, implemented minimum sentencing mandates for pornography-related offenses. The Feeney Amendment created the five-year minimum sentence for downloading illegal pornography.
Rhodes, who has three small children, acknowledges that friends sometimes ask him to justify defending people who victimize kids. But he says his clients are "human being with strengths and flaws like all of us" and, when removed from reality, they lose sight of the fact that their actions cause harm.
"There's the cyber reality that people think is different from everyday reality," he says. "There's not an immediate perception that someone is being harmed."
According to 2006 DOJ statistics, 79.9 percent of federal child pornography defendants had no prior felony conviction.
"Many if not most of my clients could be more effectively rehabilitated in the community rather than incarcerating them for five years or more," argues Rhodes.
Congress, however, has steadily pushed federal sentencing up. Between 1996 and 2006, pornography sentences quadrupled, jumping from 15 months on average to 63, according to the DOJ.
The push doesn't make sense to Rhodes. Mandatory minimums remove judicial discretion and, in turn, don't take into account individual circumstances.
"One sentence does not always fit every offender and that's the problem with mandatory minimums," he says. "They're frequently unjust."
In particular, he believes the computer enhancement is antiquated. He's never had a case that didn't involve a computer. During Fevold's sentencing, Judge Molloy also deliberated aloud the merits of the computer enhancement guideline.
"I have trouble with the computer part of it because, as I have indicated, I can think of in 13 years, only one case [where no computer was involved]," Molloy said during Fevold's sentencing hearing. "And frankly, and frankly, there may have been a computer involved in that."
As Congress mandates longer sentences, Fevold's case highlights a growing rift in the federal judiciary. For instance, when the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's decision to send a 65-year-old man with no criminal record to prison for 17.5 years for downloading pornography, Judge Gilbert S. Merritt issued this dissent:
"Our federal legal system has lost its bearings on the subject of computer-based child pornography. Our 'social revulsion' against these 'misfits' downloading these images is perhaps somewhat more rational than the thousands of witchcraft trials and burnings conducted in Europe and here from the 13th to the 18th centuries, but it borders on the same thing."
Missoula clinical psychologist Michael Scolatti says child pornography isn't just about sex. It's also about gaining power and control, and escaping unpleasant emotions.
"They use it to medicate negative feelings," says Scolatti, who's treated sex offenders in Missoula for 27 years.
Most of the clients he sees who have been charged with pornography-related offenses are functional members of society. They have a job and a family, and child pornography is an anomaly within their behavior.
"These guys are incredibly normal," he says.
Law enforcement points to studies conducted within the Federal Bureau of Prisons that indicate between 60 and 80 percent of individuals incarcerated for pornography-related offenses have committed hands-on sex crimes.
Scolatti disputes those numbers, pointing to polygraph tests given by the Federal Prosecutors Office and his cases. He estimates roughly 40 percent of child pornography offenders have at some point committed a hands-on offense.
Scolatti first treated someone with a child pornography addiction in 1997. Since then, his caseload has steadily grown. These days, he serves between 20 or 30 offenders a year.
"It's just been crazy in that sense—the explosion," he says.
As technology carries contraband further into homes, schools and workplaces, Scolatti says the crime is increasingly present in rural Montana.
"The technology has brought them out of the woods," he says.
In turn, federal penitentiaries are having a hard time treating the flood of offenders. Scollati warns that there are not enough treatment programs in place, and most leave prison without receiving help.
Fevold, for example, says he's not currently in treatment for pornography addiction. And as with alcoholism, or any other addiction, Scollati says the compulsion never entirely goes away. For those who are truly hooked, long-term treatment is required. And prison doesn't appear to be the solution.
"We are wasting millions of dollars," Scollati says, "incarcerating these guys."
Every picture has a victim. That's one of the messages law enforcement officials remind themselves of as they fight against child pornography.
The public saw this firsthand when the face of child pornography, 13-year-old Masha Allen, testified before Congress in 2006. Her adopted father, Matthew Mancuso, started taking photos of her nude when she was 6. He posted more than 200 sexually explicit photos of her on the Internet.
In a 2006 interview with CNN, Allen discussed living with the lingering reminders of her abuse.
"My pictures that are on the Internet disturb me more than what Matthew did because I know that the abuse stopped," she said. "But those pictures are still on the Internet."
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has received 750,000 calls, e-mails and letters about child exploitation crimes since Congress directed the nonprofit to create a "CyberTipline" in 1998, says John Shehan, who directs NCMEC's exploited child division out of Arlington, Va.
NCMEC acts in conjunction with law enforcement. After scrutinizing tips that come in from the public and Internet service providers, the advocacy organization alerts local authorities. The vast majority of leads NCMEC fields are child-pornography based.
"We're essentially doing analytical work for law enforcement," Shehan says.
The nonprofit also works with police to find and rescue children affected by child pornography. Shehan says law enforcement agents assigned to NCMEC review approximately 250,000 photos and videos submitted by tipsters and other authorities every week to help identify victims.
"Our numbers are not decreasing," Shehan says. "We're seeing larger volumes."
The same holds true for Shermer in Missoula. The detective recently returned from an ICAC training course in Ohio. He's now set to teach other detectives across Montana the new techniques he learned to track Internet crime.
But back in his office, he's first focused on the task at hand. Shermer logs onto his regular chat room and the 49-year-old man he's been communicating with pops back up after disappearing for several weeks.
"He immediately wants pictures of my breasts," says Shermer. "That's his forte. I guess he likes that stuff. I said, 'You want pictures of my undeveloped'—I didn't say undeveloped, but, 'my 13-year-old breasts?'" Shermer says.
Shermer's careful to take things slow with the older man. He sticks to mundane topics like being mad at mom.
"I want him to talk to me about my age and see what's in his mind," Shermer says. "My job is to see if his desire is to actually have sex with a 13-year-old."
But the man doesn't seem to want to hear much about a teenage girl's daily frustrations. He's set on talking sex. So Shermer strings him along, hoping to learn more.