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.
Infant sexual abuse is growing nationwide, according to John Sheehan, a spokesman for the Washington-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "We've seen trends toward pre-verbal children so they can't say who their attackers are. We are seeing the ages going younger and seeing more and more egregious abuses," Sheehan said.
In many cases, however, victims of child pornography and other child sexual abuse have provided police with important details that have helped to snare pedophiles. But even after perpetrators are caught, the images of the children take on a life of their own, cycling through countless chat rooms, law enforcement officials say.
"You see a lot of shocking things. You get a lot of individuals with sick fetishes out there," said Police Chief Daniel Haueter of New Waterford, Ohio. "It's like a baseball card, but some cards are more well-known than others."
The photo of the girl in the Sara series was taken by her father, according to police in Ohio. The father, who shares her last name and is not being named to protect her identity, pleaded guilty in 2002 to child pornography charges and to repeatedly sexually assaulting his daughter, said Thomas Connor, the investigator in Parma, Ohio, who tracked the case.
Although the man is serving a seven-year prison sentence and the girl is 16, Connor said he has been called on routinely over the years to testify in trials across the country about the picture when it has surfaced in the cases of other people accused of collecting child pornography.
Haueter first encountered the Sara series image this year when he posed as a 14-year-old girl and struck up an e-mail correspondence with a California collector in an AOL chat room called "Gave It Up Early," according to a search warrant filed at the Loudoun County Courthouse in June.
Haueter verified the girl's identity and the authenticity of the photo with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which maintains a database of more than 820 such images. The center stores the images on the basis of information from detectives about cases that are being investigated or have been prosecuted, Sheehan said.
Haueter sent a half-dozen other photos to the center, but the identities of the girls in those images could not be verified, he said.
"Child-porn images are like gold to these guys. They are sometimes hard to come by, and these guys rarely get rid of them," Haueter said.
Haueter said he has since forwarded information gathered from AOL about the Sara series and other images to investigators in California for prosecution. That case was one of 63 online cases investigated by New Waterford police so far this year. Several were AOL-related and could not have been prosecuted without Fant's help, Haueter said.
"It's a pretty important piece of the puzzle," he said. "Without it, you could not catch these guys."