In downtown Jackson, in an office towering above High Street, a live chat room is open.
An alert, incessant and persistent, sounds every few seconds. With each ding, someone in Mississippi is actively searching for child pornography.
On a daily basis, agents with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force log into those chat rooms, tracking predators in Mississippi and across the globe.
Commander Jay Houston doesn’t sugarcoat it. Child pornography is everywhere, and the number of offenders is mind-boggling.
In the darkest corners of the internet, child predators log into live chat rooms. These rooms, with names such as “12 and up” or “third grader,” offer members live video of a child being sexually abused. Membership often requires viewers to show a live video of themselves molesting a child or “holding up a nude child” for the camera, Houston said.
“Usually, they’re in these live stream rooms masturbating to what’s going on,” he said.
Houston and his team have investigated countless cases involving child exploitation. Since the task force was first established in 2007, the number of cases in the state has grown exponentially. Houston and ICAC Assistant Commander Angela Williams attribute that to the internet.
According to the state attorney general’s office, in FY 2008, the year ICAC was created, the cyber crimes unit opened 93 investigations. It is unknown how many of those investigations were related to child exploitation.
In 2016, ICAC opened at least 158 cases and garnered 12 convictions.
“Everybody was working on computers, floppy disks, the older stuff,” Williams said. “Now, they’re migrating to thumb drives and cellphones because basically your phone is a computer in itself.”
Attorney General Jim Hood said that as part of the investigation process, the unit will “dump a phone” every day for evidence of child pornography. The suspects are indiscriminate.
“That happens every day,” he said. “It’s people in a position of authority that are sexting these kids. Teachers and cops and preachers.”
In fiscal year 2017 — July 2016 to June — the task force conducted 294 investigations and 457 forensic examinations, Hood said.
Often investigations will lead the task force across state lines and, in some instances, involve international scenarios.
In 2008, all of the cyber crime unit’s suspects were in Mississippi, Houston said. That’s no longer the case.
“What used to be regional, our targets were here, our victims were here, they were collecting material. It’s now become, we are literally investigating crimes that occur all over the U.S., all over the world,” he said.
“While we still have those jurisdictional boundaries of Mississippi, our suspect could be in another state, our victim could be in another state. The only nexus we have here is somebody saw it or reported it in Mississippi, so now we have to figure out, ‘What nexus did Mississippi have?’ Was our suspect here? Was our victim here? Was a witness here?”
The internet’s effect
The internet has not only created a flood of pornographic images but a complex issue of tracking down offenders, with electronic service providers often creating a roadblock.
As a result of the Electronic Communications Act, several internet companies don’t respond to Mississippi search warrants because the federal law extends government restrictions on wiretaps from telephone calls to include transmission of electronic data by computer. The act also prohibits access to stored electronic communication.
If a company is based in California, for example, it doesn’t have to respond to a Mississippi search warrant. It does, however, have to respond to a subpoena. The extra legwork and maneuvering can be time-consuming, taking up to three weeks, Houston said, and it also wastes valuable time.
“We’re not talking about private messages or direct messages or content … We’re talking about what was the email account,” he said. “These crimes that we’re investigating are not like a stolen cellphone ... These are child exploitation investigations, and it seems now that electronic services providers — not all, some — are doing things to make it harder for us to obtain the information.”
Houston offered the live chat as an example. If 50 people are in a live chat, investigators have to determine how to categorize the alleged offenders. That category then reflects the response.
If someone in the live chat is molesting or assaulting a child or that child is in imminent danger, the situation is classified as an emergency. Subpoenas are issued for the user’s IP address, and the person’s name and address are tracked and a search warrant is issued for the suspect’s address. Agents can be at the offender’s home “in no time,” Houston said.
“It’s just so much to think about it on the court side, on the prosecution side, about what you should do up front,” he said. “And that’s just one particular case. There are tons of websites out there that we could go to right now.”
Through undercover operations, agents can track a predator for months, establishing a pattern against a “high-value target” who has spent an extended period of time downloading multiple images of child pornography.
Agents tracked Grantham Mitchell across several states for 19 months. Mitchell, 20, of Hattiesburg, uploaded child sexual abuse material to his Dropbox account, according to AG spokeswoman Margaret Ann Morgan.
Mitchell was interviewed by agents in Hattiesburg in 2012 before he fled to Arizona. He was later arrested in Arizona and extradited to Mississippi.
According to the FBI, which also was involved in the investigation, Mitchell admitted producing a video of himself and a minor child engaging in sexually explicit conduct in Orange Beach, Alabama, in 2012. Mitchell also possessed numerous images and videos of minor children, as young as 12, engaging in sex with adults.
He pleaded guilty to production of child pornography and possession of child pornography and was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison.
Kenneth Cooper, 30, of Collins, was arrested in his home after a months-long investigation, Morgan said. Cooper had downloaded numerous images and videos of child pornography onto his computer.
He pleaded guilty to one count of child exploitation and was sentenced to 40 years in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, with five years in prison and 35 years on post-release supervision.
When investigators go to search a house or make an arrest, suspects may often claim the child pornography is the result of a computer virus. Agents then have to look for forensic evidence to prove that’s not the case, Houston said.
“They may have a computer virus on their computer, but those computer viruses do not go out and download child pornography and store it in a folder on the desktop called ‘child pornography.’ You can’t use a computer virus as a formidable defense,” he said.
While agents have seen instances where individuals accidentally downloaded an image of child pornography they thought was someone of legal age, that’s the rare exception. Often, suspects have thousands of images of child pornography they’ve been collecting over a series of months or even years.
“You can’t inadvertently download child pornography 1,000 times,” Houston said. “You can’t inadvertently do anything 1,000 times.”
While suspects eventually may be tracked and arrested because of their IP addresses, a countless number of victims may never be identified.
“We may identify another 200 or 300 images of kids that we’ll never figure out who they are,” Houston said. “What used to be one guy sitting behind one computer with a couple of thumb drives, CDs or floppys downloading child pornography has now become the guy that is sitting there with a phone using these apps, getting in these groups and, inside of these groups, he’s trading pictures back and forth.”
While sexual predators can lurk across the internet, cellphone apps create a different problem.
In the age of sexting, many teenagers take nude pictures and send them to someone they think is trustworthy, either through texting or an app for a messaging or social media service. Houston said those photos can easily end up in the hands of a predator.
“You have so many teenagers that are using some apps to take nude pictures and send them,” he said. “As they’re sending them, their friends are showing their buddies … Then, you have these whole groups of internet predators out there that are pretending to be 14-, 15-year-old boys and pretending to like this girl, and they’re convincing them to take nude pictures and they’re blackmailing them with those.”
Houston said predators are savvy and often can convince a teenager they’re someone else. The teenager, who is usually a girl, Houston said, will then send the imposter a photo without her shirt on. Once the predator has that photo, he will blackmail her into sending more graphic photos by threatening to share the photos he already has with her parents or school officials.
“Then, (the victims) get afraid and start sending those other pictures that they’re asking for,” Williams said.
“You’ll see series of pictures, hundreds of pictures, that a seemingly normal 14-year-old would never take unless they were being blackmailed,” Houston said.
Parents can unknowingly expose their children to predators by allowing them to be on apps where they don’t meet the age requirement.
Houston compared the problem to a 16-year-old being in a bar for 21-year-olds and older. If a 10-year-old child encounters a predator on an app where users are supposed to be 13 years old or older to have an account, the accused’s attorney can attempt to use that as cause to throw out the entire case.
“If while on that app, they come across an internet predator, which has happened in the past … when we identify a suspect, the very first hurdle that we have to jump through is the fact that the child is 10, which is against their terms of service to begin with,” Houston said.
Hood stressed that parents need to have conversations with their children about what they’re looking at online and internet safety.
State at forefront...
As part of the task force, agents travel around the state and the world, speaking in schools and to law enforcement agencies about child exploitation. They’ve been to Brazil, Ecuador and Australia teaching their skills and techniques to law enforcement agencies. In Mississippi alone, the task force works with 60 local, state and federal agencies that all receive grant funding from the state AG’s office to conduct their own forensic work.
Mississippi was one of the first states in the nation to establish a task force and, as a result, “we’ve been kind of at the forefront of technology since then,” Hood said.
“Believe it or not, Mississippi is on the forefront of child exploitation investigations,” Houston said.
“If we could have a revenge porn law, that would be great,” he said. “If we could beef up our cyberbullying law more, to where there were some teeth in it, then I think that would be fantastic, but as far as the child pornography statutes, we have some of the highest sentences for people that possess child pornography, the highest fines.”
Among those getting stiff sentences was Robert Hinger Jr., 48, of Pascagoula, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison with 12 years suspended after pleading guilty to four counts of possession of child pornography and one count of production of child pornography. Hinger emailed pornographic images and took “inappropriate” pictures of a 15-year-old girl, Morgan said.
Russell Haley, 67, of Gulfport, was sentenced to 40 years in prison with 30 suspended after pleading guilty to one count of child exploitation. Haley was also ordered to pay fines totaling $52,000. Haley was arrested in 2015 at the Diamond Jacks Casino in Vicksburg after a joint investigation with agencies from two states discovered he was using free Wi-Fi at casino hotels in Mississippi and Louisiana to download hundreds of images of child sexual abuse, Morgan said.
...but for how long?
The task force may soon be in financial jeopardy. During the 2016 legislative session, legislators voted to sweep monies from 16 state agencies into the state’s general fund.
Before the passage of Senate Bill 2362, state monetary assessments totaling approximately $1 million were deposited into a Special Cyber Crime Treasury Fund for the purpose of supporting the attorney general’s Cyber Crime Division.
“They (lawmakers) don’t have any money, and that’s true and I understand that … but there’s another question there,” Hood said. “The money we used to have, where did it go? They gave it away. I do blame them. They’re short-sighted and not looking down the road.”
As a result of the legislative move, the AG’s office has seen a 28 percent cut in funding and subsequently has had to cut back on training and equipment, Hood said.
The unit is getting by, he said, but it isn’t taking the steps needed to keep up with the latest trends in technology. Staffed with nine investigators, three attorneys and one legal secretary, the unit has a budget of approximately $1 million for FY 2018.
“We’re saving, we’re making do, but we’re not doing things that the future requires, and that’s just short-sightedness on the part of the Legislature,” Hood said. “Over a quarter of the funding has been cut when, in fact, we really need it to be growing to be dealing with the new challenges of cyber crimes. That’s where the criminals are going,”
While many suspects are identified quickly, several remain elusive, using the latest technology to cover their tracks. There is one suspect in particular who is downloading thousands of images of child pornography in Mississippi, but investigators don’t know who the person is or where he or she lives. For Houston and his team, frustration sets in. Then, determination takes over.
“We’ll catch them,” Houston said. “We’ll catch them.”
Williams added, “It will take a little time, but we’ll catch them.”