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Saving kids from online predators

The Sheriff's Office wants to teach parents how to protect their children on the Internet.

By CARRIE JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 19, 2002


INVERNESS -- Authorities said that when Bryce J. Martin wanted to set up a sexual encounter with two adolescent girls, he didn't have to lurk outside a schoolyard or prowl the mall.

Instead, with a couple of keystrokes and the click of a mouse, Martin arranged a rendezvous by e-mail, according to his arrest report, which the Citrus County Sheriff's Office prepared.

The girls, ages 12 and 13, would use the computer at the library to retrieve his messages. Then they would meet at his Beverly Hills house, where Martin, 59, had them perform oral sex on him, the report alleged.

In the days before e-mail or chat rooms, parents believed they could keep children safe by warning them not to talk to strangers. But on the Internet, everyone is a stranger, and someone who appears to be a friend could be a predator in disguise.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one out of every four children is sent pornography or encounters it online. One out of 33 is aggressively solicited for sex.

And the numbers are only going to grow as more people gain access to computers and the Internet, said Citrus County sheriff's Detective Michael Baute.

So how do parents protect children from an invisible enemy? The first step is education, Baute said.

"Parents wouldn't allow their child to wander a neighborhood without knowing where they were going or who they were going to meet," he said. "The same should be true for the Internet."

The Sheriff's Office is offering classes on the potential dangers of the Internet for both parents and children.

Also, the office plans to create a full-time position devoted to tracking down and arresting people who use their computers to solicit or exploit young children, said Sgt. David Wyllie, head of the sex crimes unit.

The Sheriff's Office made two prominent arrests of men accused of using their computers to seduce underage girls this month.

Martin, the man accused of forcing the 12- and 13-year-old girls to perform oral sex, was arrested May 2 and held at the Citrus County Jail on a charge of lewd and lascivious battery on a child between the ages of 12 and 16. He was later released on $30,000 bail.

The Sheriff's Office learned of his involvement with the girls after they spent the night at Martin's house and were reported missing by their parents. When they returned to their homes, the 13-year-old told her parents about the relationship with Martin, according to authorities.

Also arrested was Stephen Rudd, a 52-year-old Manatee County resident, who is charged with attempting to strike up a cybersex relationship with a 13-year-old Citrus County girl.

According to Baute, Rudd met the girl in a Yahoo chat room, where he was posing as a 19-year-old.

Eventually, Rudd told the girl he was 40, and she became alarmed and alerted her parents. But by that time, Rudd had already sent her several calling cards so the girl could telephone him, and asked her to send local newspapers so he could find a job and a place to live in Citrus County.

Rudd is being held in the Manatee County Jail in lieu of $10,000 bail.

So far, Baute has lectured to children at a private school in Ocala and to two parents' groups.

For adults, the most important step to keeping a child safe is learning more about the Internet and how it works.

"A lot of parents don't know as much about computers as their kids do," Baute said. "How do they police something they don't understand?"

Baute also recommends that computers be kept in communal areas, such as the living room or study instead of in a child's bedroom. They will be less likely to visit forbidden sites if parents are in the area.

Tell children not to give out personal information over the Internet, including their name, age or a picture.

Baute said blocking or filtering devices that restrict the sites a child can visit on the Internet can be effective, but don't expect them to keep out all of the bad stuff. "If the pedophiles want to get to children badly enough, they'll find a way around it," he said.

Children should also be encouraged to report any strange activity.

If they are too embarrassed to tell a parent, report it to a teacher, the police or e-mail the Cyber Tipline organized by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: www.cybertipline.com. The Sheriff's Office plans to schedule lectures at the county's public schools next year, Baute said. Any adults interested in arranging a seminar can call the Sheriff's Office at 726-4488.

-- Crime reporter Carrie Johnson can be reached at 860-7309 or cjohnson@sptimes.com.

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