Authorities have the technology - and the drive - to find out who is looking for and sharing child porn
Unlikely as it sounds, Urbana police Detective Tim McNaught said he sometimes has a hard time shutting down the computer when he’s investigating a person viewing child pornography.
That's because he's afraid the person looking at it might also be actively engaging in the same sick behavior he's watching.
"I feel like I have a vested interest. Obviously, I want to protect the community, but I have three young daughters," said the 13-year member of the Urbana Police Department.
McNaught is one of a handful of area police officers who have received advanced computer training to find who's downloading and sharing child pornography. The officers say there are so many people doing it that they could investigate child porn full time if they didn't have other crimes to work on.
"Magazines and bookstores are quickly going out of vogue. A lot of it being online these days has gotten more people involved, makes it simpler to find, and easier to conceal," said sex offender therapist Mike Kleppin, who has offices in Champaign, Urbana and Danville and counsels men convicted of sex-related crimes.
"I carry it around on a flash drive if I'm saving, and I usually am. I can hide a flash drive and it's inconspicuous as opposed to my wife coming across a magazine with kiddies in provocative poses," Kleppin said.
Finding who's downloading child porn is relatively easy. Deciding whom to prosecute and where is more problematic.
State versus federal
Those charged in state court with possession of child pornography can get probation if convicted. That's usually not so if the case is filed across the street in federal court.
"The question always is which jurisdiction can best handle the case. Who has the best resources? Who's going to get the most significant sentence?" Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Elly Peirson does all the child porn prosecutions in Urbana's federal courthouse. She was hired as part of a Department of Justice initiative called Project Safe Childhood, launched in 2006. She started in Urbana in 2008.
"Sometimes the cases I get are a little bit more technology complicated. It requires search warrants to be done on servers located in Seattle or California. Federal law gives me the additional tool and ability to reach out and compel companies to provide us that data," she said. "The training I've been given allows me to sort through and make sense of data to build stronger cases against a less-obvious predator."
There have been 153 child porn cases filed in the 46-county Central District since 2008. All have resulted in convictions. Peirson has prosecuted 56 of those since 2009 from her Urbana office, which covers 11 East Central Illinois counties.
By comparison, 14 child porn cases have been filed in Champaign County Circuit Court since 2009.
"It's rare that we have defendants sentenced to less than 60 months (in prison). Part of it is because in evaluating a case we are going to charge, we look for offenses that meet a mandatory minimum of five years. Receipt and distribution are the threshold. We don't normally charge possession only, unless there are other circumstances like being a hands-on offender and the state couldn't prove it," she said.
Additionally, the federal authorities have a more refined charging scale based on the content of the pornography than the state of Illinois does, which gives them more options for punishment.
Catching fish in a barrel
Urbana police Sgt. Dan Morgan and Champaign police Detective Pat Kelly, a member of his department's high-tech crimes unit, said police have software that allows them to see who is downloading pornography.
"We're trolling for these guys all the time," Kelly said. "We have tools we can use that are online constantly looking for people actively trading child porn."
Morgan estimated that at any one time, there are as many as 100 people in Champaign County "actively downloading" child pornography. Once police suspect the pictures are of children — graphic titles with common names on files are usually the tip-off — they check the IP — Internet Protocol — address of the downloader to determine his identity.
"We'll check to see if someone is a known sex offender. That will bump them up on the list. We check and if there are little kids and Big Wheels in the backyard, that's going to mean more than strictly volume," he said, referring to another factor police consider when pursuing an investigation.
Morgan and Peirson said studies based on interviews of convicted child pornographers show that anywhere from 50 to 85 percent have also sexually molested children.
"Some people believe (molesters) start with child porn and move on but research tells us the opposite. The porn allows them to relive a prior fantasy or incident," Peirson said. "In about 75 percent of the cases we've prosecuted here, we have uncovered evidence that the perpetrator committed a hands-on offense some time."
Kleppin said almost all the sex molesters he counsels have viewed pornography.
Police say the men they refer for prosecution are not merely looking once in a while.
"We're finding hundreds and hundreds of searches, hundreds to thousands of downloaded files," Morgan said.
"I don't get somebody who has one or two pictures that they've deleted," Peirson added. "These are people who have several thousand movies and pictures. They are committed collectors. Those are my customers."
Morgan said of the people his department has arrested, the common thread is that they have "gone way over the top with accessing porn in general," reminding that adult pornography is legal.
And pornography, he said, generally produces an endorphin release in the brain that brings pleasure to the viewer.
"The guys will tell you the problem is that to maintain the high, it's got to get weirder and weirder so they will cross boundaries," he said, referring to the violent images of children depicted.
Any fix for porn addiction?
Kleppin said most normal people engage in sex to enhance an already good mood, while sex offenders and porn viewers turn to sexual activity when they're feeling bad.
"My life is out of control. I feel terrible, guilty, lousy and I have no other skill to make me feel better. So when I get online and look at porn, my brain gets triggered because of the endorphic release. And that's if I just look. Heaven forbid if I look and masturbate. Then I just increase the dosage," he said.
Like alcoholics or drug addicts, Kleppin said, there is no cure for porn addicts.
"When it comes to sexual disorder or porn addiction, the brain gets conditioned for this. The brain either came hard-wired that way or during the course of life it got rewired. Once there, you're not going to turn off the desire. You're going to have to remove certain factors that put me in a position to have the urge and also be able to develop the tactics to deal with the urge when it's there," he said.
Kleppin said it's difficult to break through the denial and rationalization often present in child pornographers.
Once admitting they looked, Kleppin said, they move on to: "'I wanted to do it, but it didn't hurt anybody.' Then you have to break through that. 'I didn't take the pictures.'"
Kleppin asks convicted sex offenders how they feel about their pictures being posted on Internet registries that can be accessed worldwide.
"Nobody feels good about being on the registry. They talk about feeling guilty, ashamed. Then I say, 'Think about the child who wonders, with every room he walks in, who has seen my picture?' Then the guy starts to understand, 'I've hurt people.'"
U.S. District Court Judge Michael McCuskey said he's presided over about eight child porn trials in Urbana in the last three years and sentenced many more men who have pleaded guilty.
Potential jurors assume they'll see teen-age girls in provocative poses. More often they're seeing infants and toddlers being raped by adults, objects or animals, he said.
"I never had a clue. I'm probably a judge 20 years before I realized what's going on," McCuskey said of the violent images.
"I thought these were people taken from Russia or Eastern Europe. There was a case in Peoria where Mom and Dad were streaming to people on the Internet who paid monthly fees to watch it live. Mom ran the camera and Dad did the sexual act with a 4- or 5-year-old girl while people paid to see it live," he said.
Peirson said she's seen court reporters leave the courtroom "and never come back."
"We've had jurors getting physically ill," she said. "The jury needs to see about two seconds of this stuff and they're done."
The prosecutor rejects any notion that child pornography is a victimless crime just because the viewer may not know the subject he's viewing or is viewing it in the privacy of his own home.
She said there is a young woman from the "Vicky series" who is seeking restitution for future therapy.
"Her images are so popular that every single day there are hundreds of hits on her name. She walks down the street and every time she sees somebody look at her weird or do a double take, she wonders if they are looking at her that way because they've seen her images on the Internet. How horrible as a 19-year-old to think: 'Do they recognize me from when I was 10 and doing this with my dad?'
"Now those images are old classics in child porn and (child porn addicts) need more and more material. Because of that more and more kids are being abused," Peirson said.
Urbana attorney Steve Beckett has been a criminal defense lawyer more than 30 years and has defended several adult bookstores, child molesters and possessors of child pornography in headline-grabbing cases.
He said no one would disagree that child pornography is awful but said the Department of Justice should invest in a campaign to warn the curious.
"What we ought to be doing is stopping people from looking at it. We ought to be sending the message: 'Don't be stupid. Don't get your pornography on the Internet,'" he said.
"People get on the computer and it becomes a fantasy world to them, especially if they're in any way introverted. It's a way to other nations, other ways of life. But if you make stupid choices, you can end up in serious trouble."
"There are no warning labels on any computer I've ever bought," he said.
"I'm not being critical of law enforcement whatsoever. Get this stuff off the Internet and encourage the American population to not look at it. Not only is it morally bad, the legal risks are just not worth it."