Police snag internet sex predator

Published on Thu, Jan 24, 2002 by Meg Olson

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Police snag internet sex predator

By Meg Olson

A Blaine 13-year-old could have been one of dozens of young girls whose sexually explicit pictures were seized from the computer of a 72-year-old Santa Barbara man. She thought she had a 16-year-old cyber-boyfriend who wanted sexy pictures. Instead, she would have become the latest victim of an internet predator, had not her mother smelled a rat and called the police.

“She told us her daughter had received three envelopes with $20 each in them,” said officer Debra Hertz, the Blaine police department’s specialist on sexual abuse. “It was from someone she didn’t know that her daughter had been chatting with online.” Hertz interviewed the reluctant girl, and came away with the chat room she had met her online friend in and his screen name.

Back at the police station, Hertz pored through profiles of chat room participants and got lucky. Aside from his age and a tweak to his screen name, information from the purported 16-year-old the girl had been chatting with was identical to that of a 72-year old man.

Hertz also followed up clues from the envelopes the money had been sent in. The return address was a dead end but it had been taped over a pre-printed address for a travel agency. “It turned out they recognized a man that fit the 72-year-old’s profile,” Hertz said. “He had taken a trip to the Philippines.”

The mother of the Blaine girl also handed over the records of the girl’s chats with her online friend, which left no doubt what he was after. “Within eight minutes of their first contact he was talking about sex with her,” Hertz said. As their relationship progressed, they exchanged pictures. He sent the girl pictures of a young boy, but Hertz said they appeared to be from many years ago. However, they were enough to convince the girl to reveal information that could have led him straight to her door: where she went to school, who her friends were, how many people lived in her home, and finally her address. His demands on her grew. “He wanted her to take pictures of herself and send them to him.
He was explicit,” Hertz said. “He had sent her the money for film.” He had also suggested they should meet someday. “It was only a matter of time before he asked her to come to him,” she said.

Hertz gave the Santa Barbara police enough information to question the 72-year-old man, who told them he was researching a book, but was not a pedophile. What they found in a search of his home told another story: hidden files stuffed with sexually explicit pictures of young girls and the online chat sessions that coerced girls to send them to him. Santa Barbara authorities are now preparing charges against the man.

Most internet predators aren’t so easy to catch, Hertz said. “Two profiles, similar screen names, usually they aren’t that stupid,” she said. “He left a real trail of hints.”

To better prepare Blaine police for internet stalkers targeting local kids, police chief Bill Elfo is sending Hertz to a formal training program on online child molestation this spring. “We’ll learn more avenues to backtrack and hunt these guys down,” she said.

Besides catching internet predators, Hertz will also learn how to develop a program in Blaine to teach parents and kids that they aren’t “someone else’s problem.” In1999 the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children surveyed 1,500 regular internet users aged 10-17. One in five reported being approached for sex over the internet in the past year and a quarter of respondents said they had unwanted exposure to sexually explicit material. Only 25 percent told a parent. Only a tiny fraction of incidents were reported to law enforcement authorities.

“A lot of parents are in the dark about this kind of stuff,” Hertz said. “They just don’t realize how much of this is happening. If you walk into the room and all of a sudden they clear the screen, you need to have a talk.”

Hertz said parents need to be as careful of their kids online as they would be in a public place, like the mall or the beach. “We need to teach kids that it’s not O.K for someone to talk sexually to them no matter where they are. Kids think because there’s just a screen there, they’re safe. They don’t realize that behind that screen it might not be a boy but a 72-year-old predator who makes this his whole life.”

Hertz plans to prepare an educational program for parents and educators to help them teach kids responsible internet use and learn to recognize and respond to threats. “They can have fun on the internet safely,” she said, “but before they start you need to have rules.”

At safekids.com parents can find family contracts for internet use that set out responsibilities and rights for parents and children. Parents agree to monitor online activities, especially how long they spend online, and get to know services their child uses.

Kids agree never to give out personal information or send pictures over the internet, and to tell parents of anything that made them uncomfortable or embarrassed. Sometimes a child can really meet a good friend online, so parents agree to get to know online friends like at home friends, while kids promise not to arrange to meet an online friend without talking to parents first..


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