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Patrolling the online world

Clearwater detective Chuck Esposito's beat includes chat rooms, where he keeps a sharp eye out for people preying on children.

By DAVE GUSSOW Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 25, 1999


CLEARWATER -- Sometimes, Chuck Esposito can be a teenage girl online. Sometimes, he is a teenage boy. Either way, the barrage of sexual propositions and pornography arrives quickly.

The Clearwater police detective has been patrolling the world online since he created the beat in 1995, looking for people who prey on children. That year, he also made the first arrest in Pinellas County in an online sex case.

"The only thing that's changed," he said, "is the quantity."

Now, there are more children online, which means more potential victims. And more adults online, some looking to lure children into sexual encounters.

Some of Esposito's undercover investigations can take months of online chat before a face-to-face meeting is arranged. Some can be fast: Esposito recalls going from "contact to cuffs" in one case in 21/2 hours, delayed only because he had to set up his backup with other officers.

If Esposito had really been the 14-year-old he was pretending to be online, it could have meant trouble a lot faster.

***

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates there are 10,000 Web sites maintained by pedophiles. But chat rooms are where Esposito hangs out

Chat rooms are offered by online services to bring together people with similar interests. Topics can range from cars to jobs to religion to sex. The rooms are particularly popular with preteens and teenagers, and some services offer special chat rooms specifically for children in hopes of sheltering them from online predators.

In "live" chat, what a user types appears on-screen within seconds, like a back-and-forth conversation conducted by e-mail but much faster. When a lot of people are participating in a busy chat room, conversations are chaotic and hard to follow.

But pedophiles can use software to scan the screen names of those in chat rooms and look up the user profiles they fill out for online services such as America Online. When they find a child, they can try to arrange a private chat that others can't see or take part in.

Even with a steady stream of warnings from parents, school officials, law enforcement and others telling children not to give out personal information online, it doesn't take much to find out a child's identity, home address and other information, Esposito said. A first name and date of birth can be enough to identify someone through available data bases.

Curiosity drew Esposito to a preteen chat room in 1995. The conversation stopped cold the first time he entered one. He had forgotten to change his user profile -- which identified him as a police officer.

Esposito, who works in the crimes against children unit, left the chat room, made up a false profile and returned posing as a teenage girl. "Bam," he said, "I had never seen that much child pornography."

The Clearwater detective received e-mails that included propositions and pictures of children engaged in sexual acts.

Often, he doesn't have to participate in the chat to be solicited. And "sex" doesn't have to be part of the chat room name to attract attention. One room he visited was called simply "Tampa," for example.

"These guys will go where the kids are," Esposito said. "Virtually any chat room (discussion) will deteriorate to sex at some point."

***

Last year, Florida Department of Law Enforcement Special Agent Jeff Herig, a veteran investigator of computer-related crimes, called child exploitation and pornography cases "out of control.

While police agencies are spending more time on such investigations, few have the resources to devote investigators full time to the task. Esposito, for example, goes online only when his regular caseload allows.

Esposito co-founded and chairs the Central Florida Child Exploitation Task Force, which investigates computer-related crimes against children and allows law enforcement agencies to share information. If he comes across a suspect who lives outside Clearwater but where an agency has a task force member, he will work the case with that agency. In other instances with out-of-area cases, he will check to see whether departments have expertise in online investigations.

But Esposito and his department have said that protecting children, not jurisdictional issues, is their priority.

Esposito, who will be 36 Tuesday, doesn't have any children. But he is committed to his work of protecting children, calling them "the most innocent of victims."

He learned how to act and talk like a teenager online during investigations and interviews with sexually active youths.

"If anything, I tend to be tame" in online chat, Esposito said.

Some of the people peddling pornographic photos have become more cautious as awareness of police activity online increases. Esposito didn't want to talk about specific techniques or names he uses online to protect the effectiveness of his work.

He has arrested about two dozen people, including a Sarasota priest and a Minnesota man who flew down for a rendezvous with what he thought was a teenager. Only one went to trial (a fast guilty verdict); the others entered pleas, he says.

Most of his arrests have been on solicitation-related charges, with pornography charges added later if photos are found on a suspect's computer. Some agencies, Esposito said, focus more on child pornography (it is a felony to have photos of children engaged in sex acts, and conviction could mean up to five years in prison).

Esposito smiles quickly when the word "entrapment" comes up, calling it one of the most misunderstood terms about police work. In online cases, the adults make the contact, make the solicitation, set up the meetings. These people are "driven by desire and throw caution to the wind."

In the case of the Sarasota priest, his lawyer argued unsuccessfully that no crime had been committed because there was no victim, and that the arrest violated his free-speech rights because the online exchange would have been legal with an adult.

The prosecutor argued that there indeed was a real person on the other end of the conversation, just not the one the suspect expected. The judge agreed with the prosecutor.

Mark Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says the group has some concerns about entrapment and adds that crackdowns on Internet porn involve a lot of hype.

"It's become part of a Net joke," Rotenberg said, that "nine out of 10 porn transactions involve two undercover cops."

While people who make threatening or illegal contact toward children should be prosecuted, Rotenberg said, "the police will take (only) the best cases. They don't want to be shot down (in court) on a bad case."

When he makes an arrest, Esposito says, many of the suspects react as if they have been defeated in a dangerous game. "They all know in the back of their minds that this can happen."

The pedophiles come from all walks of life. But the only case that surprised Esposito was the priest because then "I knew anybody can do it."

***

Adults aren't the only ones looking for sex online, said Esposito. Sometimes, sexually active teenagers go online seeking trysts.

When he tells parents their children are sex-crime victims or are involved in sexual activity, Esposito says they react in two ways.

"Some of them have an idea" that it has been occurring, he said, while "others are in denial."

"It's not about intelligence," said Esposito. "It's about needs. This can happen to any kid -- good kids, smart kids -- they can be seduced."

Investigations are made more difficult when victims wait months before reporting a crime because of fear or embarrassment, Esposito said.

Parents should be aware of their kids' online habits. They should spend time with their children learning about the Internet. In many instances the children show the parents what is out there, he said. He also suggests parents put the computer somewhere visible in the house, not in a child's bedroom where it can't be monitored.

Esposito had one last message for parents.

"I never tell parents to get rid of the Internet," Esposito said. "I think that's a disservice" because of its importance for a child's future and because there is "a lot of cool stuff out there."

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