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Prosecution of child pornography cases up over past decade
As a video camera rolls, a young girl is sitting on a man's lap. But this scene is not being saved as a sentimental keepsake. The man is not kind. The girl is not smiling.
The man is sexually assaulting her as she screams.
The file was just one of 600 that was found on the computer of a New Madrid, Mo., man sentenced to 60 months in prison in U.S. District Court last month.
"A lot of people are under the mistaken belief that child porn isn't much worse than Playboy, but nearly every case involves prepubescent minors, usually girls, but sometimes boys, who have horrific stuff being done to them," said U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Limbaugh, who serves the Eastern District of Missouri.
The number of child pornography cases has increased over the past decade as more resources have been dedicated to Internet crimes against children, said Abbie Crites-Leoni, assistant federal prosecutor.
In 2000, Missouri's Eastern District court prosecuted 10 child pornography cases. By 2009, that number jumped to 85, according to Crites-Leoni. Figures weren't yet available for 2010, she said.
Prosecutions have doubled since 2006, when Project Safe Childhood, a Department of Justice initiative, was launched.
In the past five months, the Southeast Missourian has reported the arrests of four people in Scott and Cape Girardeau counties on charges of viewing child pornography. Those cases are often prosecuted in federal court, although they are considered both state and federal offenses, Crites-Leoni said.
"They seem to go in bunches," she said. "We have the greatest majority of transportation, possession cases, but we also have production cases where an individual actually produces child pornography whether it's with a cellphone, a camera or video camera."
In the case of Jonathan G. Weeks, 28, of New Madrid, and most others, the images were downloaded using a peer-to-peer file-sharing network, according to court records.
While technology has made it easier to view and share child pornography, it's also become an invaluable tool for law enforcement to track pedophiles down.
There are thousands of victims. As of July last year, 3,022 victims of child pornography crimes were identified by the Department of Justice, according to its National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction report to Congress.
When Crites-Leoni started prosecuting child pornography cases seven years ago, online groups where people with similar interests would get together, do their chatting and exchange images were the primary places where child pornography was found online.
Today, peer-to-peer file-sharing software programs, like BearShare, allow pedophiles to amass hundreds, even thousands, of images. More recently, Crites-Leoni has had cases where the defendant's entire collection of images has been stored on a cellphone.
Viewing child porn is more anonymous now, Crites-Leoni said. People used to actually develop relationships in those online groups, but with the advent of peer-to-peer file-sharing programs, people can share files in secret.
"It's a very easy way, unfortunately, to develop a collection," Crites-Leoni said. "The crimes change as the way people share change. There are much more sophisticated ways that people share information online."
Undercover officers with the Missouri Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and the Southeast Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force are monitoring the online sharing programs where the pornographic images are exchanged.
For those who actually produce the pornographic images, most of the time the victims know their perpetrators and have a relationship with them, Crites-Leoni said. In most cases, offenders have no criminal history, she said.
"The great majority are adults who have a relationship with a child and have groomed them to be happy participants," Crites-Leoni said. "The children are innocent, but they have been groomed and, or given gifts to make them behave in the way they do."
She has many examples. A few years ago, Crites-Leoni assisted with a case involving a task-force officer who worked in Ohio monitoring online chat groups to watch for pedophiles. The officer met a man online who lived in Dexter, Mo.
"She had developed a relationship with him online and one day he just said, 'Hey, I molest my little son and I'll show you.' He broadcast on a webcam the child, which was a 3-year-old, performing a sexual act on him," Crites-Leoni said.
The officer tried to dissuade him from doing it, but when it happened, she immediately contacted the Missouri Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which contacted Crites-Leoni.
"We had a search warrant within a matter of a few hours and within six hours of the time she saw it, the FBI and local officers were knocking on the door and he was arrested," Crites-Leoni said.
Another Missouri case where the perpetrator knew his victims involved James P. Edwards, 61, of Kansas City. Edwards was found guilty earlier this year of drugging 13 children and videotaping their molestations.
Edwards admitted to law enforcement that he drugged the children, ages 6 to 13, with sleeping pills hidden in ice cream and soft drinks he served them. He pleaded no contest to 12 counts of producing child pornography, which each carry a minimum 15-year prison sentence without possibility of parole.
In some cases, child prostitution also accompanies child pornography cases. Crites-Leoni remembers her first one well.
She had just attended training at a national advocacy center, an event that had a segment on child prostitution. She remembers thinking, "I'm from Southeast Missouri. I'm never going to have one of those cases."
Six weeks later, she did.
No. 2 in arrests
Missouri ranks second in the nation in the number of arrests for child pornography-related cases, according to a 2010 Department of Justice report. During 2008 and the first six months of 2009, Missouri had 337 arrests.
Ohio was ranked No. 1 with 406 and New York state No. 3 with 275 arrests during the same time period.
Last month, the Southeast Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force, based in Poplar Bluff, received a $105,206 grant from the Missouri Department of Public Safety to continue its efforts to fight online criminals who seek to entice children and deal in child pornography.
Scott Phelps, a detective with the task force, said his organization is educating children about potential predators. Last year, the task force made presentations to 4,000 students in its 16-county coverage area.
"We have our problems with computers, but now it seems like mobile phones are a huge problem," Phelps said. "Mobile phones are the tool for predators to contact these children. We're covered up with cellphone problems."
Phelps is also dealing with a growing number of cases involving pornographic photos taken by students and sent to other students.
"We have a huge problem now with girls and boys both taking pictures themselves, sending it to children, those children sending to other children, the next thing you know, 40 people have the picture," he said. "When the parents find out, they are very upset."
Schools or groups interested in a presentation by the Southeast Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force may schedule one by calling 573-686-8034.
599 Independence St, Cape Girardeau, MO