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Outraged by the ease with which pornographic images and messages appear over the Internet, local citizens learn the facts about a kind of surfing that's anything but safe.

Cyber House Rules

It took only one case to change Sheriff Mike Brown's mind about the Internet.

A child-pornography producer in Florida had solicited a 13-year-old girl near Brown's home in Bedford, Va., over the Internet. Just how it happened baffled the teen's family, the small team of law enforcement officers and the town. A crusade was born.

Just 2 1/2 years later, Operation Blue Ridge Thunder has led to the arrest of more than 25 online predators. The program's aggressive strategy for finding offenders, educating the public and pushing for stricter penalties proves it doesn't take an army or a big budget to effectively fight pedophiles.

And there's no denying they're out there. Late last week two Henrico men were arrested for soliciting boys and producing child pornography. An online tip led federal authorities to the accused.

Today, more than 44 million Americans use the Internet at work, in schools, in public libraries and at home. Fifteen million of these online users are children. The number of kids that surf the Net is expected to grow to 50 million by 2002.

Meanwhile, experts say pornography is a $10 billion industry with more and more of that money flowing from salacious Internet use. Five thousand new Web sites are created daily, a third of those for the purpose of posting violent or sexually explicit material.

The Office of Juvenile Justice estimates that 20 percent of American children between 10 and 17 have been solicited via the Internet. Only 25 percent tell a parent. What's more, according to FBI reports, 20 percent of solved child-abduction cases are Internet related.

"This is becoming an epidemic - you ain't seen nothing yet," says Brown.

Richmonder Linda Trost cringes at the news because it's frightening and because it hits home. It's why she and her husband, Peter, recently invited Brown and others from Operation Blue Ridge Thunder as well as a group from the Cincinnati-based National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families to Richmond for help. They aim to start a widespread citizen-based coalition against pornography-related abuse here. Years ago, she never envisioned being in this place, of confronting such horrors and speaking of them publicly.

"We had an experience in the family that almost destroyed us, our children and grandchildren," says Trost to the company gathered in the side living room of her home on Cary Street Road. For Trost and others like her, pornography has invaded her home and assailed her family. Now she wants to fight back.

"I don't think you'll believe what I'm pulling up and being assaulted by," Brown warns Trost's group of friends, as his assistant Lt. Rick Wiita boots up the laptop for the presentation.

Those gathered here have been asked by Trost to attend. They are well-dressed and cordial - West End moms, neighbors, lawyers, insurance agents - and they clasp their hands and wriggle in anticipation of a discussion that does not come up in any polite conversation.

"It embarrasses me to have to show this to you. Decent people don't know what child pornography is." Two despicable and sick images of helpless infants engaged in sexual acts are shown for moments too long on the projector screen. "We need to talk about this," says Brown. A few gaze down at the floor when the images flash up. Most appear stunned, scared really - one man looks disgusted, as if he'd like to personally inflict his idea of punishment. Trost gently nods her head. We need to talk about this.

As a mom and grandmother, it turns her stomach and it rips her up inside. She says her Christian faith has helped her learn to confront her fears and speak the painful truth: It can happen to anybody. It's what her family has had to experience and deal with the hard way. The embarrassment and shame is nothing compared to how child pornography on the Internet can devastate families. We need to talk about this. Everyone is silent except Trost.

"Amen," she repeats quietly.

The horrific images and their growing prevalence are the motivation behind Blue Ridge Thunder. It means faceless, seemingly anonymous, predators are out there that won't stop at pictures. They enter homes on the Internet and target vulnerable kids in chat rooms as if they were friends.

It's why Bedford Lt. Rick Wiita goes undercover online every day. "They say, 'Hey, I want to meet you,' and it's like shooting a fish in a barrel." Wiita, a member of the Justice Department's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, and his team of investigators explore the darkest realm of the Internet - chat rooms, pornography sites - to find perpetrators who solicit, manufacture or distribute pornography. Despite some protest by defense attorneys, who, according to Wiita, have called such ploy entrapment, Wiita defends the tactic. "We'll pose as children, like-minded adults or any role necessary," says Wiita in order to catch criminals. "From a law enforcement technique, we get in and try to understand the mindset of pornographers. We teach why pedophiles do what they do and why cops have to respond. It's interesting and scary at the same time."

"We've seen cases where the bad guy's the predator and the purpose of the [Internet] contact was to abduct the child," says Lt. Robert Tavener, who oversees seven high-tech crime agents with the State Police's Computer Evidence Recovery Unit. Tavener's team uses various undisclosed methods and tools for tracking both online predators and child pornographers, but he cautions that they are typically different offenders. "The sad part is there are a relatively small number of cases," says Tavener. "It's not indicative of the number out there. We just can't work them all." Tavener's office is in the process of developing a program for parents to learn about possible online dangers. He suggests putting the computer in a common area at home. Still, he concedes, "there's nothing magic about protecting your kid on the Internet."

Through Internet chat rooms and e-mail, pedophiles pose as children or intriguing adults. According to Wiita, they meet kids online and lie in order to gain their trust. They may offer them money, fame, friendship, romance - whatever it takes to lure kids who may be vulnerable or na‹ve enough to agree to meet the pedophile in person. "There is a dangerous progression today from looking at [pornographic] materials, communicating online and acting out," says Wiita. Consequently, undercover investigators in Wiita's office have had to prioritize cases that they identify as likely to escalate from online talk to personal contact. In such situations. the predator hopes to meet the child and convince him to take part in either sexual acts or agree to be photographed or videotaped in illicit behavior. The images are then sold and traded over the Internet. "This is why we want to jump on this as hard and heavy as we can," tells Wiita.

In 1995 there were only a dozen high-profile cases in the nation in which kids were victims of online predators. That same year, the FBI started Operation Innocent Images to focus on Internet-related crimes against children. FBI reports conclude the number of Internet child exploitation cases jumped from 113 in 1996 to 1,497 in 1999. These cases have led to roughly 520 arrests and 440 convictions. Mary Johlie, spokeswoman for the Richmond FBI, says there have been a few local cases but the office here doesn't have current statistics. "It's not something that is as prominent you think."

But it's sparked the attention of Attorney General Mark Earley. Last year. Earley initiated the nation's first Computer Crimes Strike Force with funding allocated by the General Assembly for a joint effort with the state's High Tech Crime Unit to develop cases — including child pornography on the Internet — for prosecution. But specific information on arrests, prosecutions or convictions isn't yet available at this office either.

"It's such a new predatory activity," says David Botkins, director of communications for the Office of the Attorney General, "and pornography is on the increase." Earley has promoted October as "Children's Internet Safety Month," in hopes of raising awareness among teachers, parents and kids. A soft step perhaps, but one aimed at gaining the attention of lawmakers for the upcoming legislative year. Botkins says the attorney general's office is crafting a package for next year's assembly to combat child pornography online. So far, Earley has proposed tougher penalties such as mandatory minimums for Internet-related molestation offenses and changes to current laws so computer-altered pornographic images of children receive the same punishment as real images.

This week, Congress may vote to mandate a child-shielding plan that would require blocking and filtering technology in public schools and libraries. However, a congressional panel appointed to study filtering devices doesn't support them and maintains no single technology or law can keep kids from Internet sites they want to visit.

Likewise, Brown cautions that even if legislative measures are passed, they are not enough.

"A photo of a nude on the screen is not going to snatch your kids. E-mails and chat rooms steal your kids," says Brown. And filtering or blocking devices that restrict access to certain sites, he maintains, doesn't help either because they only prevent images from appearing on the computer screen. They do nothing to safeguard the luring messages of chat room talk from predators. "We wish people wouldn't have [filters] so they wouldn't be misled and think they're safe," explains Brown.

Rick Schatz, president of the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families disagrees. He believes filters should be applied in homes, schools and libraries - wherever kids access the Internet - throughout the country. "The images depict molestation, and it's no less damaging to view it. The distribution of obscenity and pornography is every bit as illegal over the Internet as it is in adult bookstores," says Schatz.

But while Operation Blue Ridge Thunder targets child pornography over the Internet and pedophiles that entice kids, NCPC focuses on reducing and preventing all forms of pornography. "A lot of law enforcement across the country are hiding their heads in the sand or not making this a priority," says Schatz."We're making the worst of the worst materials available to every 6-year-old, 8-year-old, 10-year-old and 12-year-old with a PC and a modem."

As long as kids are at risk from online predators, Brown and Schatz agree that their aims are ultimately the same. Unless more results-based tactics are taken, they say, in every community by police officers, lawmakers, teachers and parents to help safeguard the Internet, it will increasingly be an exploitative information highway for pedophiles in the future. It's why Trost is so committed to starting a citizen coalition here to fight it. It's why she and her husband and a handful of other influential Richmonders traveled to Cincinnati to learn more from the NCPC about what families like the Trosts can do to prevent Internet and other forms of pornography from invading the home. It requires more than the actions of the state police, the FBI and the attorney general's office, says Brown. It involves direct intervention from informed and concerned families.

"We have kept our heads in the sand with child pornography for a long, long time, and it's time we do something about it," warns Brown. "In the 2 1/2 years we've been in operation, we've downloaded 30,000 images," says Brown. "Talk about a pool of victims."

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