Local Officer Is Key in Hunt For Pedophiles

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 1, 2006

She is sweet-looking and no more than 11 years old. She does not seem to realize there is a camera snapping her photo as she reaches inside the bottom of her bathing suit. And she surely doesn't know that her picture will be traded like a baseball card over the Internet by hundreds, if not thousands, of child-pornography collectors for years to come.

Her image is part of what is now known to law enforcement officials across the nation as the "Sara series." The photo made its way via e-mail from a Cleveland suburb to the computer of a California man who began sending it to other collectors, authorities say. Now the image is stored in a bank of computer servers that is routinely the subject of searches requested by the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office.

As the nationwide clamor over Internet sex predators and child pornography has increased with the popularity of TV shows such as "To Catch a Predator" on "Dateline NBC," so has the workload of Loudoun's sheriff's office. The department is the first stop for hundreds of investigators nationwide who are seeking access to suspects' accounts at America Online Inc., the country's largest Internet service provider.

The sheriff's office has been processing requests for information about AOL users since the company moved its headquarters to Dulles in 1996. But what began as a trickle has become a flood. In 1996, the sheriff's office received 33 requests to search the accounts of AOL users believed to be involved in criminal activities. Last year, the department processed 520 search warrants involving AOL.

Almost all of those cases were handled by Loudoun sheriff's investigator Edward Fant, whose full-time job is to help detectives seeking such records. The workload is big enough for two people, said Loudoun Sheriff Stephen O. Simpson, but the department doesn't have enough money to pay a second investigator.

"It's probably the busiest job within police work that I've ever had," said Fant, a 26-year member of the department. "There's just so much work; it's nonstop."

Fant spends hours every day taking calls from sex-crime investigators across the country. He typically asks detectives to send affidavits outlining the alleged crimes and why they need access to a suspect's AOL e-mails and account information. He then seeks a search warrant from a Loudoun magistrate and, if the magistrate signs off, serves AOL with the warrant.

Fant said he usually delivers a stack of search warrants to AOL headquarters once or twice a week. When the information -- usually a compact disc containing data files -- is ready, he forwards it to the investigators, with any resulting prosecutions taking place in those investigators' jurisdictions.

Fant, who plans to retire soon, has shepherded requests for information on cases including murder and stalking. Most of the cases he handles, however, are related to child pornography, and they are increasing in number, he said.

"It's definitely disturbing," Fant said.

The reams of requests he processes provide a chilling view into the world of Internet child pornography and also reflect changing trends:

Many of the children depicted are prepubescent, like the girl in the Sara series. But an increasing number of images show sexual abuse of infants.

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