The crime often starts with an innocent chat on the computer, or at least it seems innocent to the child.
A minor looking for new friends stumbles upon a person willing to talk and the conversation continues over days, even weeks. A sense of trust develops between the internet friends.
When the new acquaintance asks the child to send a nude photo, there is reluctance at first, but then compliance. The child’s photo flows into a pool of millions of illegal images swirling through cyberspace every day.
In some cases, the minor is lured into a meeting where sexual activity adds to the criminal conduct.
Staying ahead of such predators is more and more difficult in a digital age, according to John Milhiser, U.S. attorney for the Central District of Illinois.
“There are horrific things going on. They’re able to share this information because of the internet and the cyber world,” said Milhiser, who oversees a federal jurisdiction spanning 46 Illinois counties.
Child pornography cases are prosecuted at the state and federal level. The decision on where a case should be handled often comes after discussions between federal and state prosecutors.
The Secret Service, FBI, and federal prosecutors assigned to crimes involving minor victims play a part in putting together and prosecuting child pornography cases.
Cases come to the attention of authorities through different avenues, said Milhiser. Federal agents posing as minors frequently connect with predators on the internet as a means of intercepting abuse. Or a parent may find inappropriate photos on a child’s cell phone and contact police.
“Everybody has a smart phone with the ability to reach across the world and talk to somebody, so parents need to be aware of that and have conversations very routinely with their children to see who they’re have contact with on the internet,” said Milhiser.
Computer-savvy criminals with encryption skills can hide evidence, he said. The use of search warrants to gather information from service providers before it’s locked away has been helpful.
“We’ve had cases here in the Central District where we found victims out of state who would never have been known about, but for this information we received. If it goes on to be encrypted where we can’t access it—even with a warrant—that is a big, big concern for law enforcement as it should be for everybody,” said Milhiser.
Project Safe Childhood, a Department of Justice initiative to combat exploitation and abuse of children, helps coordinate federal resources for the investigations. The Center for Missing and Exploited Children also works closely with federal officials to track threats such as sextorition, an emerging danger to children who are coerced or threatened onto sending illicit photos.
In a recent federal investigation, 15 central Illinois men were charged with using social media to lure minors into sending sexually explicit photos or meeting for sex. FBI agents posed as minors in the case.
McLean County sheriff’s Deputy David Fritts will never forget the confession made by Michael Hubbard in 2013 at a kitchen table in Hubbard’s Bellflower home. The 28-year-old suspect admitted to sexually abusing and videotaping a 6-year-old boy as the child engaged in sexual activity with Hubbard and another minor.
“To have that conversation with a person is completely horrific,” said Fritts.
The horrors visited upon children like those in Bellflower puts child pornography in a category of its own, Fritts and others handling the cases agree.
Hubbard received one of the longest sentences – 265 years—ever imposed in McLean County for any offense.
Hubbard’s access to the child began after the boy’s mother, a single parent, accepted Hubbard’s invitation to spent time with the child, said Fritts.
“It was one of those textbook cases of grooming a child,” said the deputy.
Assisting the sheriff’s department was Bloomington Police Detective Bill Lynn, a cybercrimes expert who was assigned at the time to the Secret Service task force on child-related crimes.
From the home he shared with his parents in the small, rural community, Hubbard used a computer to download pornographic images of the two boys who frequently stayed overnight.
Fitting The Profile
In addition to his grooming of the children with gifts and attention, Hubbard fit other traits common among child predators, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The majority of child pornographers are white, single, males with a high school education or less, according to a 2015 federal study of 370 defendants convicted of producing child pornography. Their median age is 35. For most defendants, the charge that sends them away to prison for an average of 20 years is their first serious crime, said BJS data.
The number of child pornography cases referred to federal prosecutors from local agencies grew by more than 44% between 2011 and 2015, according to the most recent BJS numbers. A third of the almost 2,000 suspects facing human trafficking charges also were accused of child pornography.
Evidence in the small number of child pornography cases filed in McLean County (Bloomington reported eight in 2019) is often linked to what McLean County State’s Attorney Don Knapp calls “a triggering event.” The event could be another charge against the suspect that results in a search warrant for cell phones and computers.
The 35-year-old Bloomington man was in Bloomington police custody for allegedly stabbing a woman 105 times when police found images on his cell phone of a teenage girl. Police later learned the girl’s mother had allowed her to stay with the suspect over spring break in 2017. Brestan must serve 36 years on the child porn charges in addition to the sentence imposed in March for murder.
The cooperation and assistance counties receive from the U.S. attorney’s office allows local authorities to identify and track down perpetrators, said Knapp. The decision to move any case to the federal level “involves a determination as to what outcome makes the most sense for that specific crime,” said Knapp.
Authorities are aware, said Knapp, that not all evidence of potential child pornography is turned over to police. For example, parents may opt to handle situations on their own without involving police.
As technology becomes more sophisticated, “more and more people understand things don’t go away on their devices. People are savvier but they’re still doing things they shouldn’t,” said Knapp.
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