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    Agents: Internet a boon for child porn

    Customs Service officials use complex means to trace online pornography. One trail led to a Palm Harbor resident, agents say.

    By ROBERT FARLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 22, 2001


    PALM HARBOR -- On the Internet, he identified himself as thor@valhala.

    That's Thor, as in the strongest of the Norse gods. And Valhalla, the gold-walled hall that received the souls of heroes slain in battle.

    But unlike the Viking god of thunder, known for his hammer and his courage, this Thor posted 112 pornographic images of children and preteens to an Internet newsgroup touting preteen erotica.

    In a mesage, Thor also said he wanted to get the "hel" and "daddo" series again. Investigators believe that meant he wanted more child pornography.

    An informer in Panama City, Fla., came across Thor's postings and handed them over to the U.S. Customs Service in September.

    In the ensuing investigation, agents criss-crossed the country with summonses faxed to Internet and telecommunications companies. After several months, and with state police help, the electronic trail led them to their suspect.

    Thor@valhala, agents charged, was Thomas Patrick Reusch at Blue Jay Estates, a mobile home park where Reusch lived in a messy bedroom in his parents' double-wide.

    At 10 a.m. March 14, agents with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement descended on the mobile home and arrested Reusch, 33, who was asleep in his room.

    Around his cluttered bedroom, investigators began to collect evidence: His computer, floppy discs, compact discs and several computer printouts showing photographs of pre-pubescent girls engaged in sexual activity, according to a search warrant affidavit.

    Reusch was charged with possession and promotion of child pornography. He was freed from jail the day after his arrest after posting $30,000 bail. Reusch, who works at a gasoline station mini-mart, would not talk to a reporter. His attorney did not return several telephone messages.

    State and federal agents also declined to discuss Reusch's case in detail, but they say the Internet has proved a boon to traders in child pornography. No longer needing to post fliers in seedy areas, users can now contact like-minded child pornographers around the world, all from the comfort of their own home. They can trade pictures in transactions that take just seconds. And for users, at home in front of their computer, there is an added feeling of anonymity.

    But investigators warn the anonymity can cut both ways. Those posting the messages can't be sure that on the other end of their transmission there isn't a law enforcement official intent on stripping them of their anonymity.

    Since 1992, the Customs Service has arrested more than 1,000 people for child pornography violations. That's only a tiny fraction of the offenders, said U.S. Customs Service spokesman Kevin Bell. Increasingly sophisticated computer users and the challenge of dealing with foreign countries -- where laws and cooperation often vary -- complicate matters.

    In the early 1990s, Bell said, Customs made about 50 arrests a year. Last year, the agency made 320.

    "Unfortunately, those numbers will likely grow," Bell said. "The Internet is an amazing marketing tool."

    The U.S. Customs Service, the same people who check the luggage of international travelers at the airport, is the lead federal agency investigating child pornography.

    "We consider every computer a port of entry into the country," Bell said. ". . . We are the nation's protectors of the borders."

    Law enforcement officials believed they had effectively stamped out most of the printed pornography in the 1980s and early 1990s, Bell said. Then the emergence of the Internet changed the parameters of the trade.

    Now, Bell said, there are international Internet clubs with committees and membership requirements, such as contributing 10,000 pictures for fellow club members.

    "It's amazing how many people are involved in this and how sophisticated some of these guys are," he said. "It's almost like an underground community."

    A Customs agent recently went on to a pedophile Web site at 10 a.m. and there were 64,000 other people there, Bell said.

    The Customs Service created something called the Cyber Smuggling Center in Washington, D.C., to field tips and determine if they are legitimate. Most of the tips to the Customs Service come from the Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Washington, D.C., a public-private partnership that serves as a clearinghouse for information on missing children and the prevention of child victimization.

    The Customs Service also relies on informers for leads, Bell said. That was the genesis of the "Thor" case. A search warrant affidavit states that the informer has been providing reliable tips to the Panama City Customs office for four years.

    Once turned over to investigators, the unmasking of Reusch was begun using header information from three of the pictures that Thor posted on the Internet.

    First Customs investigators issued a summons via fax to KJE Digital Productions Inc. in Victorville, Calif. The company provided, among other things, a billing number and an e-mail address used to claim the personal identification number. The account was opened on Sept. 17, 2000, and closed a month later. Investigators noted in the affidavit that the temporary nature of the account was consistent with attempts to conceal the identity of those accessing or trading in child pornography.

    Investigators then issued a summons via fax to Internet Billing Co. Ltd. in Delray Beach, Fla., requesting information on the billing number provided by KJE. The company provided an account number and a telephone number to which a company representative said all charges were made.

    The next day, Customs agents issued another summons via fax to EarthLink Network Inc. in Pasadena, Calif., asking for information from an Internet protocol address on the day the images were downloaded. Nothing. So they issued another summons in October, this time asking for information from a subscriber with the e-mail address provided by KJE.

    That got investigators to Reusch and his address on Curlew Road in Palm Harbor.

    Along the way, the Customs Service enlisted the help of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which executed the search warrant of Reusch's home.

    Before they went in, investigators knew two things. First, child pornographers usually never throw away their pornography.

    "They keep their collections," said Debbie Cook of FDLE. "They don't want to get rid of their collection. And they will go to great lengths to keep it."

    The second thing they knew was that in a posting, Thor said he did not keep all his files on his computer's hard drive. Instead, he said he had a re-writable CD-drive that allowed him to store more in less space.

    In addition to seizing Reusch's computer, investigators took more than 100 floppy discs and a number of compact discs.

    Those items are now in FDLE's Computer Evidence Recovery lab in Tampa.

    John Barbara, who oversees the lab, said images left on a person's hard drive are easiest for investigators to track.

    Even if a person has deleted pictures from a hard drive before prosecutors get the computer, investigators make use of sophisticated software that can restore those files.

    "Bottom line," Barbara said, "there is no way of protecting yourself." Not unless a person physically destroys the hard drive. Investigators even have software to bypass passwords. The drawback is that searching computers and discs can be time-consuming, Barbara said. And the workload is growing all the time.

    The Customs Service estimates there are 100,000 Web sites that in some way involve child pornography. Those sites contain literally millions of pictures. "It's staggering," Bell said. "If you're looking for child pornography, you're going to get it, and quick."

    While transactions on the Internet may take place globally, investigators worried that Reusch's case might also have a troubling local angle.

    Their concerns were heightened when they found several disturbing items in Reusch's home. A camera in the living room. Handcuffs and a "Fugitive Recovery Agent" certificate and patch in the top drawer of a chest. Small stuffed animals in his bedroom. A law enforcement supply catalog in the living room. And in his pickup truck: another set of handcuffs, a "Fugitive Recovery Agent" badge and a police scanner.

    "There's no logical explanation why anybody would have that stuff," said Larry Sams, a special agent supervisor with FDLE.

    After he was arrested, FDLE circulated Reusch's mug shot and a picture of his truck.

    "Our concern was that he was prowling around and had victims," Sams said. So far, he said, they have gotten no such reports.

    "If we were lucky," Sams said, "maybe there are no victims."

    - Staff writer Chris Tisch contributed to this report. Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185.

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