Last month, the FBI announced the arrests of dozens of people in a child pornography sting operation called "Operation Candyman." The sweep targeted an online child porn club with 7,000 members worldwide. Child advocates praised the effort. But some say it only scratches the surface of a growing problem. There are efforts in Minnesota - both public and private - to hunt down online sexual predators and consumers of child pornography.
Diane Hazelton of Bemidji remembers the awful feeling she got when she learned a sexual predator was infatuated with her 14-year-old son. The boy started getting strange phone calls from the man. Police later learned the predator was a substitute teacher from a nearby town. He used his cell phone to sexually harass about 20 boys in the Bemidji area.
"I felt violated. My son was scared. I didn't want him to be alone," says Hazelton. "I was angry to think that this pervert was...in his car somewhere, calling my son and talking to him."
Child advocates say bizarre as this incident seems, it could be happening more than most parents know. These days, sexual predators are more likely to be sitting at computers, reaching kids through chat rooms on the Internet.
The Minnesota Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force is a federally-funded unit that works with law enforcement agencies across the state to catch predators. Brook Schaub, a St. Paul police investigator assigned to the task force, says despite warnings over the years, many parents still don't realize the danger.
"The predators are out there. They're actively seeking the children to engage them in conversation - sometimes in a grooming process - and for the ultimate purpose of soliciting the child or molesting the child," says Schaub.
Schaub says the task force's other mission is to nab the manufacturers and possessors of child pornography. He estimates the task force probably indentifies one Minnesota child every month who has been sexually abused and photographed. But Schaub says the problem is much bigger than that. It's a multi-million dollar business.
"It's not the tip of the iceberg. We're just seeing the snowflake on the iceberg right now," says Schaub. "It used to be, 15 years ago, images of children or child pornography had pretty much been eradicated by efforts from Customs and the Postal Service. But the opening of the Internet has...just expanded the distribution and the market for images of minors engaged in sexual performance."
The Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force has been running for about a year. It's provided training to 2,000 Minnesota law enforcement officers on the dangers of the Internet. Actual investigations, though, can be time-intensive and costly. Most police and sheriff's departments have neither the funding nor the technical expertise to do it themselves.
But law enforcement investigators are not the only ones hunting down online sex criminals.
Wendell Kreuth, 53, lives in the tiny town of Kelliher in northern Minnesota. Long-haired and bearded, he makes a meager living buying and selling player-grade vintage guitars.
About two years ago, Kreuth and a partner in Cincinnati, Ohio, created a non-profit, online-based organization called Predator-Hunter, Inc. Kreuth says he got interested in hunting pedophiles when he saw how organized they were online. He was also shocked at the number of legal Web sites and chat rooms dedicated to pedophilia, which are protected by the First Amendment's right to freedom of expression.
"At the top you'll see the telltale, triangular blue symbol that's a rather semi-secret symbol of pedophiles," says Kreuth as he calls up a Web site on his computer. "This is called a support board, where they get together to talk about their interest in minor boys."
Predator-Hunter has anywhere from 30 to 100 volunteers working at any one time. Sometimes they assume fake identities to infiltrate pedophile clubs.They also use the latest technology to trace illegal Web sites to their points of origin.
Kreuth says volunteers never download illegal material themselves. But they have worked with child porn photos that have been "sanitized" by law enforcement officials. Those are pictures with the sexually explicit parts blocked out. Kreuth says those photos can sometimes provide clues about the identity of the child or the porn producer.
"There's photo series that exist, that document a child's life of sexual abuse for photographic purposes over a span of several years," Kreuth says. "There's thousands of kids out there like that. And to a certainty, not enough effort and resources are being put forth by law enforcement agencies to make a really proactive effort to track these producers of child pornography down."
Kreuth says Predator-Hunter has given the police information about thousands of illegal child porn sites. And they've helped nab predators, too. Their most recent success was a highly-publicized case in California.
With the help of an anonymous hacker known simply as "Omnipotent," Predator-Hunter exposed an Orange County Superior Court judge, who is now under house arrest awaiting trial on six counts of possession of child pornography. When asked about using information that may have been illegally obtained by the hacker, Kreuth says he just passes it on, and leaves it for the courts to decide.
Kreuth says with inadequate public resources going toward the problem, for now, the best hope for helping victimized children lies with private citizens.
"It's not the tip of the iceberg. We're just seeing the snowflake on the iceberg. The Internet has...expanded the distribution and the market for images of minors engaged in sexual performance."
- Sgt. Brook Schaub
"We are not in any way, shape or form Internet police....We view ourselves as citizen investigators. And our goal is to turn stuff that we find on the Net over to law enforcement agencies, with the expectation that it will be diligently investigated," he says.
There are other, perhaps less aggressive organizations fighting child pornography. One of the oldest and best known is SOC-UM, or Safeguarding Our Children - United Mothers. SOC-UM traces illegal sites and turns them over to authorities. The group also focuses on public education and survivor support. SOC-UM director Colleen Pacheco says hunting for child porn on the Internet is not for everyone.
"Because it does get very, very disturbing at times...I know that there's pictures I've seen that will stick with me forever - ones that you can't help wondering who those children are and who would be doing this, and you wonder about their lives," says Pacheco.
Sgt. Brook Schaub of the Minnesota Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force says parents can take steps to protect their kids, but taking away Internet privileges is not the answer. He says the keys are communication and supervision.
"Sit down, talk to your kids, know what they're doing on the Internet. Make sure they're not putting out private information on the Internet," Schaub recommends. "Get rid of those Web pages that give away too much information. If you wouldn't give...that type of information to a stranger at 9 o'clock on Hennepin Ave., then don't put it out on the Internet."
Schaub says the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force has been working with the Legislature to toughen laws against child pornography. The agency also plans to ask the state for more funding.More from MPR