A depraved world: FBI agents wage a stressful battle against child pornography

30/12/2012 07:26

By Jason Grant/The Star-Ledgeron December 28, 2012 at 12:15 PM, updated December 29, 2012 at 1:43 PM

NEWARK — Tim Ryan climbed from
his FBI-issued van and started toward the beige-brick building that
holds roomfuls of forensic evidence from across the state: blood
samples, human skeletal fragments, markings from tools used in crimes,
ballistics results.

He swiped his security card and passed through several doors. Then he
walked through long corridors before stepping inside the forensic

computer lab.

On a table in front of him sat a DVD. It had two simple words scrawled across it in black.

Baby Pics.

"God, please get me through this," the FBI agent prayed silently.

As he lifted the DVD and carried it toward an open computer tray,
grim memories trudged through his mind. Ryan knew that in his job, DVDs
crammed with thousands of images of young children’s bodies usually
depicted a choreography of vile and depraved crime scenes. And little

"I don’t know if I can do (review) a whole DVD disk, 4.67 gigabytes of a baby being raped," Ryan said to himself.

This scene — and others that follow — are taken from a long series of
interviews with Ryan and other FBI agents. The incident happened in
2008, early in Ryan’s career as a child pornography investigator, but
it’s a day he said he remembers because he was still learning the
horrors of his assignment.

He and other agents agreed to talk about the bureau’s specialized
team of child pornography and sexual abuse crime fighters in New Jersey —
providing a rare glimpse into a world the public never sees and
detailing the stress it exacts on the agents.

Like colleagues across the country, these agents spend days and
nights immersed in a depraved, internet-based society that encourages
and trades on the monstrous abuse of children.

To do their
jobs, they are forced to struggle and adjust, hopefully
creating an island of calm and normalcy in their own minds, even as they
are surrounded by depictions of evil.

Ryan left the FBI five months ago, but said his struggles changed
him, as a man and a father. He admitted watching over his own children
much more carefully and scrutinizing men who drift through public
spaces. Are there any child predators among them, he will ask himself.

The moment from early in his career also represents, he said, the
kind of psychological battles waged deep within many men and women who
staff the FBI’s euphemistically named "Innocent Images" unit. Ryan left
the FBI after four years of supervising the "Innocent Images" team in
New Jersey. But he will look people in the eye as he describes the
never-ending battle between the abusers and the agents who go after them
and try to save the children.

"Like pedophiles have a nose for vulnerable kids, we have a nose for
pedophiles," he said. "So … they can smell a child they’re going to be
able to groom. Well, we can smell a pedophile."


To grasp how explosively images of child porn and sexual abuse are
proliferating across the internet, consider: In 2010, law enforcement
officers across the country sent nearly 14.2 million images and videos
of child pornography to the National Center for Missing & Exploited
Children, a congressionally authorized clearinghouse for child porn that
assists criminal investigators.

In 2011, that number jumped to more than 22 million.

The 55 percent increase, said Michelle Collins, a vice president at
the center, is one example of what investigators know already:
Internet-traded child pornography has multiplied exponentially over the
past decade, as hoarders of often violent material use increased access
high-speed internet and the vastly increased digital storage of
computers to their advantage.

Even as inventions such as
smart phones, thumb drives and cloud
computing have also made it easier for these offenders to round up child
pornography, Collins said, other tools such as anonymizers and
encryption have enhanced their ability to stay hidden.

The pornography itself focuses mostly on prepubescent children,
experts and investigators said. Collins reports that of the identified
victims her clearinghouse sees again and again in images and videos, 76
percent are preteen or young teenagers who have yet to show physical
signs of sexual maturation.

Among that 76 percent, one in 10 is an infant or toddler.

Meanwhile, the abuse seems to know no bounds.

"You are seeing babies having their diapers removed so they can be
assaulted," said Joshua Wilson, an FBI agent based in New Jersey who has
spent nearly five years working full time on child pornography.


Ryan, a fit man with thickly muscled shoulders, talked in quiet and
reserved tones about how agents spend hours, even days, reviewing and
cataloguing often-revolting images. And he explained that for many
agents, the first six months are the toughest. Growing animated, he also
described the high-wire moments of the "bust" — those tense hours,
often beginning near dawn, during which a team of FBI investigators
descends on a suspect’s home, warrant in hand.

His most memorable raid, he said, took place in April, 2009, not long after dawn.

Ten FBI agents, clad in dark-blue tactical vests draped with
handcuffs, batons and bullet-filled clips, hustled up the narrow flight
of steps to the house’s second floor. Ryan, a commander of the team,
kept watch from somewhere in the group’s center. (The details of the
raid come from him.)

"FBI, search warrant, open up!" screamed out two agents as they pounded on an apartment door.

Outside, in the dim light of an early spring morning, several black
utility vehicles blocked off a small street in Hudson County.

Two or three minutes passed as the agents stood in the hallway. They
waited, they knocked. They yelled. Ryan said eventually a nervous and
diminutive-looking man, single and in his mid-30s, opened the door.

Suddenly the 10 team members rushed in, controlling where the man
could sit and stand. Then, quickly, they started to sweep and clear the
dirty, smallish apartment, looking for signs of danger.

Ryan said he remembers standing in a cubby-hole of a space — a "man
cave," he called it — where the suspect kept his computer, along with a
lockbox, pictures, papers and receipts. He began to rifle through a pile

An FBI agent works on a a computer in the bureau's office in Newark.
Tony Kurdzuk/The Star-Ledger

"Tim, you need to see something," another agent said as he walked
into the study. Ryan moved, in turn, to the kitchen, where he stared
wide-eyed at a refrigerator. Suddenly, his urgency and adrenaline shot

Staring back at him were three coloring-book pages, adorned with the
block-letter crayon-red writing of a small child. Two of the sheets also
had the chubby-faced outline of a six-whiskered "Hello Kitty" figure
printed on them.

One of the child’s crayon messages read simply, "I Love You." The
other appeared to describe what Ryan and his fellow agents believed to
be a sex act. "I love it when you do …" it began.

Remembering the feeling among the "Innocent Images" agents as they
started to realize that the mid-30s man had done much more than possess
pornography, Ryan said, "All of the sudden, you just realize you’re in
Satan’s Den." Then: "Anytime you find indications of contact with a
child — anytime — you know it’s probably going to be a problem. ...
We’ve seen cases where right next to the guy’s computer are children’s
toys, like a tea set for kids to play with.

"In this case, it was ‘Hello Kitty’ pictures. And kind of what made
that stand out was they were clearly … I mean, clearly it was a child
who was writing to him, like, a love letter."

Immediately, Ryan said, he and other agents started thinking the same thing: We have to find the victim. Right away.

Around the same time, the 30-something man, who’d said little to the
agents, confessed only that he recently had yanked a hard drive from his
computer, then torn out its plates and tried to destroy them. He said
nothing about contact with children.

Ryan then phoned a federal prosecutor in Newark. And soon he had the
man taken away in handcuffs. Meanwhile, FBI experts in the "man cave"
turned on a home computer there and started to analyze its contents,
using forensic-technology tools and disks they’d carried in with them.

The hunt for clues about the "Hello Kitty" child was now on — full tilt.

"Are there envelopes with these letters?" Ryan said he wondered.
"Where does it look like they came from? What language is on an
envelope? What weird words are used in the message?

"We need everything from within the apartment: all his receipts, his phone records, his mail, everything."

Then another agent spotted a new picture — a photograph of the man
from the apartment standing next to an approximately 13-year-old girl at
an amusement park. The photo sat on top of a TV cabinet, and the girl
was clearly much older than the child who wrote the "Hello Kitty" notes.

The agents’ focus would shift again.


In New Jersey’s Newark Division of the FBI, a small but close-knit
team of four agents works exclusively on child-porn and sexual-abuse
investigations. In addition, said Michael Ward, the division’s head,
more than a dozen other agents who focus on cyber-intrusion crimes jump
into the fold when caseloads spike.

The unit is aided by forensic computer specialists who mine
confiscated computers for evidence and leads. At the same time,
investigators also work closely with federal prosecutors who staff New
Jersey U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman’s general crimes unit based in Newark.

The cases themselves come frequently and can develop quickly, making
child porn and sexual abuse among the most prosecuted crimes in
Fishman’s office of 130 prosecutors, he said. In 2012, his office has
sent out 47 press releases on perpetrators and alleged perpetrators
being charged, pleading guilty and/or being sentenced for their crimes.
In 2011, that number was 36; in 2010, it was 24.

Ryan, meanwhile, talked about the high numbers of child sex crimes
potentially being perpetrated across New Jersey in a different way. He
described a specialized Google map that investigators populate with
electronic pins as sources tell them about alleged pedophiles in the
Garden State. "If you go for like a week," he said, "the state of New
Jersey is covered in these pins."


As he answered more questions about the Hudson County raid in 2009,
Ryan recalled he and other agents walking up to and staring at the photo
of the alleged offender and the 13-year-old girl, standing shoulder to

It was an eerily friendly seeming picture, sitting in open view. Ryan, though, felt unnerved, he said.

New Jersey Attorney General Paul Fishman is pictured in 2011.
Noah Addis/For The Star-Ledger

Meanwhile, near the kitchen, other agents pored over envelopes and written words for clues to the "Hello Kitty" child.

Ryan said he thought about the stacks of papers and receipts strewn
across the man cave and its adjacent bedroom. He was hungry for
information. Minutes later, he and other FBI agents started sliding out
desk drawers in both rooms — and rifling through the lockbox they’d
opened with the man’s key.

It was hours into the raid, and the victims’ identities and whereabouts remained a mystery.


Both Wilson and Ryan emphasized that investigators must communicate
openly and often to deal with the flood of emotions and psychological
challenges they confront. Some agents said they must fight the urge to
keep going — and always do more — even as they sink deeper into a battle
that seems impossible to win completely.

"If I were single," said Wilson, "I would work myself to death.
Because how do you justify going home to watch TV at night when you
could open another case, or prepare another search warrant, to try and
stop a kid from getting abused."

Sitting at a long brown table in an FBI conference room, his
sunglasses resting next to him, Wilson was reluctant to dissect each and
every way his job has affected his life. But once the topic of the
images and videos he’s pored over was raised, his struggle became

"It wasn’t all in one day," Wilson said, "but I think the largest
review I’ve ever done consisted of over 8,000 images and over 800 videos
depicting child pornography." The kindly looking, round-faced
investigator then added quietly: "The work definitely brings you down.
It’s depressing, saddening — and it kind of makes you angry, too. You
run the gamut."

Wilson also admitted he and fellow investigators will turn away and
seek out a colleague during a review when the toll becomes too much.
They work in mostly banal computer rooms, said investigators, that
typically feature charts on the walls, screens and computer tools on
desks, and family pictures perched on shelves. But a place to sit for
lunch is not too far away, Wilson pointed out. And a hurried
conversation about sports can divert the mind, he said, as can a walk
outside on a breezy day.

Now in his early 30s, Wilson also remembered one of his methods of
coping with his job, after first volunteering to join the FBI’s
"Innocent Images" group in 2007. "If anything," he said, "I was probably
over-reacting in my head to compartmentalize — just trying to put up a
massive wall between my work and my home."


Ryan said he remembered looking up from a stack of papers as an agent
approached him, eyes wide, several hours into the "Hello Kitty" raid
three years ago in Hudson County. In the man’s home-computer room, he
was shown a new image of the 13-year-old girl. In it, she was performing
oral sex on a male whose head and face were not revealed.

Ryan noticed that the man was wearing a unique article of clothing,
he said. And he and some other agents soon recalled that only hours
before, they’d seen the same type of clothing — of the same color — in
the man’s apartment.

A strong evidence-link was forged.

Other agents, meanwhile, flipped through papers they’d yanked from
the man’s lockbox. Eventually, said Ryan, they found travel documents
and ATM receipts that indicated the man had been in Illinois earlier
that month.

Agents also located an Illinois phone number in the apartment. Then,
finally, they found a revealing letter from a girl with a home address
in Illinois.

Ryan said he dashed down the steps inside the house, then walked out
to a front-porch area. He hoisted his cell phone. He punched in a number
that would help him soon be connected to a cyber-crimes FBI supervisor
in Illinois.


According to a study conducted by Michael Bourke, a leading
sex-offender treatment specialist and chief psychologist for the U.S.
Marshals Service, 85 percent of men arrested for the possession and/or
distribution of child pornography have also committed a hands-on offense
against a child.

AP PhotoIn
2010, law enforcement officers across the country sent nearly 14.2
million images and videos of child pornography to the National Center
for Missing & Exploited Children, a congressionally authorized
clearinghouse for child porn that assists criminal investigators. In
2011, that number jumped to more than 22 million.

The researcher, who said he has interviewed more than 1,000
pedophiles, also noted that, on average, the abusers in his 2009 study
admitted to having violated between nine and 13 children each.

"These are guys who had 40,000, 50,000 — sometimes 900,000 images of
child pornography" on their computers and digital devices, Bourke said
of the 155 men he studied at a federal prison in Butner, N.C., that
specializes in housing sex offenders. "How many people are in possession
of 20,000 baseball cards and have never been to a baseball game?" he
then asked, rhetorically. "Or, if given the opportunity, wouldn’t go?"

He also said, "Sex is a drive. … And some of these guys are in white
water rapids as far as the strength of their drive. And there is no
research that shows that pedophilia can be cured."

At the same time, the sexual abuse of children is a "crime of
access," said both Bourke and Collins, the vice president at the missing
and exploited center. They said offenders usually have legitimate ties
to their victims. And Collins said that of the child-porn manufacturers
her national clearinghouse is aware of, some 22 percent are parents or
guardians of their victims, 10 percent are otherwise related, and 47
percent are family friends.

Meanwhile, Bourke said more than 90 percent of child-porn watchers and producers are male, and most are Caucasian.

In New Jersey, Fishman was emphatic when he described how his office
devotes key resources to investigating and prosecuting cases of child
pornography and sexual abuse.

"We are trying to send a very powerful message with these
prosecutions," he said. He then launched into a passionate defense of
child-porn federal sentencing rules that are both tough and, to some,
controversial. The statutory minimums include five-year sentences for
receipt or distribution and 15-year sentences for production.

"Even if they (defendants) are sharing or possessing the pornography
only," said Fishman, "they know they’re creating a market for other
people out there to commit this reprehensible offense."


During many child-porn takedowns in a suspect’s home, Ryan and Wilson
said, the alleged offender will confess to some or all crimes right
there. In fact, Wilson said, "I’ve interviewed several individuals where
I start talking to them about what they’re into, and what child porn
they view, and what search terms they use to find the material on the
internet, and they actually look relieved as they’re speaking to me.
Because they’ve never talked with anyone in person about this material,
and about their desires."

But when a suspect believed to be a hands-on child abuser doesn’t
confess, agents said, the hunt for clues can take on a raw intensity.

Most prolific child abusers shield their own face and sometimes the
youngster’s, too, as they produce images, Ryan said. But the rest of the
scene may unlock identities and locations, agents said — showing, for
instance, a local school name or mascot, an area phone book on a shelf,
or a soda can or bottle found mostly in one area of a country or the
world … to name just a few.

Before an alleged-offender interview during a bust starts, Wilson
said, he often knows "exactly what they’ve been looking at, and where
they’ve been going on the internet." He and colleagues have often used
various methods — some of which they won’t discuss — such as posing
undercover in internet chat rooms, reading sensors that alert law
enforcement to people viewing child porn, and/or securing a search
warrant before digging through a perpetrator’s computer to lift out
information that will create a map to a different offender’s actions.

Listening or reading along as an alleged offender communicates online
can take a toll on an investigator, too, said Wilson, even when no
images or videos are involved.

"You have to hear these guys (offenders communicating via the
internet while being monitored by agents) the night before we arrest
them," he said. "He is unabashed. ... He’s talking about kids like they
are vile objects to be degraded. He’s saying what he would do to them.

"Hearing that can be just as freaky as seeing some of the images. And
then the next day, you arrest him and he’s in tears. But we know who he
is really — the computer tells you who somebody really is."


By mid-morning of the Hudson County raid, Ryan was able to describe
for the FBI agent in Illinois some of the items unearthed in the man’s
apartment, he said; then he gave the supervisor what he believed to be
the home address of the girl.

Moments later, he walked back into the apartment. Ryan said he soon
grabbed some papers and studied clues discovered among the "Hello Kitty"
coloring-book pages and notes penned by the child, who he believed was
about 5 years old. He also examined an envelope bearing a return address
that indicated the child lived in a southeast Asian country.

Ryan still doesn’t know whether the "Hello Kitty" child was rescued.
But he said he was certain the FBI’s legal attaché in the Asian country
was given all the relevant information and worked with authorities there
to do all they could. He also said: "I think he had a contact overseas.
He (the mid-30s man) is from the U.S., but somebody in that country was
grooming the child for this behavior."


According to a BBC article, in 1874 the London studio of Henry
Hayler, one of the Victorian Era’s most prominent producers of
pornography, overflowed with 130,248 obscene photographs. The sheer
amount of the material, the article claims, "gives some idea of the
extent of (pornography’s) appeal" in 1870s England.

Ryan said Hayler’s pornography included images of children — his own.
"He’s the one I use when people ask me, ‘Oh, isn’t child porn really an
internet phenomenon?’

"You know, it’s really not. The internet is just the latest way for pedophiles to indulge themselves."

Sitting in a dark-tinted SUV parked behind Newark’s federal
courthouse, Ryan also said that in today’s world — unlike Hayler’s —
duplicating a picture "hundreds of times is as easy as clicking a

"Most child porn that we find on computers we’ve already seen," he
said, "Like take a series. So there’s a little girl who’s been abused
repeatedly, let’s say her name is Vicky — the ‘Vicky Series’ becomes
well known and spreads, and we find it on many different computers."

Agents and experts also said many children, including those contacted
via the internet only, stand little chance against adults who will
spend years "grooming" victims for sex.

The deliberate process of bending the prepubescent child toward the
act, Wilson said, can be devious, even ingenious. In just one example he
gave, a perpetrator will chat on the internet with a youngster and
convince him to remove his shirt in front of a video-cam for money — or
admit he’s smoked a cigarette or used drugs. Then the offender will find
the cell phone number or e-mail address of the child’s father. Next, he
contacts the boy again and tells him that if he doesn’t go much further
sexually this time, he’ll tell the father about his smoking or drug
use, or send the father images of the boy removing his shirt in front of
a camera.


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Still, when a child-porn voyeur or producer is caught, Bourke said,
they will often tell him that they don’t believe their actions have
harmed the child.

"They (offenders) may say to me at first, ‘Well, what I did, yeah,
the child didn’t enjoy it, but you know, the next day when he saw me he
gave me a big hug," and that shows that what the offender did was okay,
Bourke said.

"Or they will say, ‘Well, she came on to me,’ or, ‘She was dressed
seductively and she was touching me.’ Then when I ask, ‘How old is your
victim?’ the offender may say, ‘Well, she was 4 years old.’ "


As Ryan drew near the end of explaining the day of the bust in New
Jersey, he went on to explain how events unfolded that day in Illinois.
The FBI was scrambling. It was hours after the start of the raid in
Hudson County, and several agents in Illinois parked in front of a home
where they hoped the 13-year-old girl lived. They knocked on the house’s
door, Ryan said, and soon an agent placed an image of the girl in front
of a mother’s eyes and said, "Is this a picture of your child?"

"Yes," she answered.

The agent also showed the woman an image of the thin, approximately 5-foot-5, mid-30s man from Hudson County.

In turn, Ryan said, the mother told the agent she knew "of" the man
from New Jersey, but didn’t suspect he might have close ties to her
daughter or may be harming her.

"Did you know he was here in Illinois, just two weeks ago?’ an agent asked the woman.

"No," she responded.


For Ryan, the fact that agents in Illinois told the teenage girl’s
mother about the abuser meant his job was done, and the girl was
hopefully "saved." He doesn’t know exactly what happened in the ensuing
days, but said, "Without our work, this girl might still be getting

The man whose apartment was raided eventually pleaded guilty in
February 2010 to the federal crime of interstate travel for the purpose
of engaging in illegal sexual conduct with a minor, according to a law
enforcement source who worked on the case. The man is Eric Duprey, the
source also said, and he was living in West New York at the time of the
bust. In August 2010, Duprey was sentenced to nearly 21 years in prison,
the source further confirmed. The same source also said that, according
to a federal complaint brought against Duprey, investigators found a
"sex slave contract" on Duprey’s nightstand, signed by both Duprey and a
teenage girl who was living in Illinois.


Wilson, still sitting at the long table in the FBI conference room,
said he remembers vividly his initial encounter with a graphic image of
child pornography in his line of work. "I’ll never forget the first
time," he said, looking up from the table, his eyes focused and

"One of my coworkers was printing out images to present to a
prosecutor on the printer," he said. "I grabbed the stack from the
printer. It was completely shocking to me.

"I immediately flipped the papers back down. I think the natural
reaction is that you’re seeing something that no one should ever ..."

But Wilson also said that over time, the mind and the body do become
somewhat more accustomed to the violent sexuality they ingest. And both
men, Wilson and Ryan, said unwinding and focusing on other parts of
their lives is crucial to managing the anxiety.

For Wilson "time with your children is a great remedy," he said. And
he also keeps in mind that his efforts each day are making a difference.
"My wife says things like, ‘I’m very proud of the work you do,’ " he
also said, while offering a brief smile.

When Ryan did the job, he said he leaned heavily on "a really good church."

"I think hearing the sermon once a week, that was about the right cycle for me, when I was getting burnt out," he said.

Then, Ryan shared — in plainspoken detail — one more story from his FBI career.

It was a crisp fall day in 2010. He said it was one of the days that
told him how his work had changed the way he sees the world. The "Hello
Kitty" bust was long over, and Ryan said he was taking an afternoon walk
with a friend through a wooded area that sits near the beige-brick
building that holds forensic evidence from across the state.

Ryan was on a break, and as he emerged from a cluster of trees, he
saw a parking lot dotted with cars — and just beyond that, a small park
where children were playing.

A man was sitting not far from the kids — and he appeared to be alone, except he’d brought a puppy along with him.

A thought ran through Ryan’s mind: "Most people would see this and
say, ‘Oh, here’s a guy just taking a break from work and walking his
dog.’ But to me this is a man in a highly trafficked child area with a
lure," an adorable little dog.

Ryan walked on.


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