The clock was ticking in early December 2011.
A 16-year-old, probably in the United States, had posted pornographic pictures of an 11-year-old girl on an Internet message board, announced that he had plans to rape her and asked for advice on how to do it.
Other posters chimed in with suggestions that grew more violent as days passed. And responses from the 16-year-old became more sexually aggressive.
Danish police spotted the posts and sent a note to U.S. authorities, who gave the case to Jim Cole, a Homeland Security Investigations agent. Cole had moved from Oregon to Virginia the previous month to start a program to identify victims of child pornography for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
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“We were very concerned for her welfare,” Cole recalled recently. “Every day that went by we were more concerned about what could happen to her.”
Cole noticed that one photo of the victim had been taken in a car. In the background, the photo showed a highway sign in the distinctive shape of a sunflower, the sort found in Kansas. The highway number was unclear.
Jim Gibbons, the Homeland Security supervisor for Kansas, ordered agents from Kansas City and Wichita to find the sign.
“It was all hands on deck,” Gibbons said recently.
A wide swath of federal law enforcement is attacking the issue of identifying and rescuing victims of child pornography with fresh urgency.
Propelled by the rise of digital photography, improved technical analysis and more manpower, investigators are moving aggressively to identify victims when new images appear. And federal agencies are asking more frequently for the public’s help in identifying people and locations found in child porn images. After ICE officials recently released the images of two anonymous child porn suspects taken from newly discovered images, both suspects were identified and arrested within hours.
But an ocean of work remains, officials said.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which serves as the child pornography clearinghouse for law enforcement in the United States, established its National Child Victim Identification Program in 2002. Since then, a dozen analysts there have reviewed about 80 million child porn images submitted by local, state and federal agencies.
The program has recorded the identification of only about 5,000 victims, said Michelle Collins, vice president of the center’s Exploited Children Division.
“It’s the needle in the haystack,” Collins said.
But if you find a victim, investigators said, you usually find the suspect.
“Arresting people is great, but we think it’s important to find the people who are being victimized first and make that the focus of our investigation,” said Brian Korzak, a special agent in ICE’s Child Exploitation Investigations Unit.
Technology has played a large role in helping identify victims in recent years, experts said.
The changeover from film to digital photography and videography has been particularly helpful, said FBI supervisory agent Brooke Donahue, who runs two national programs that deal with child identification.
Digital cameras often embed geographic data, time and date stamps and camera identification information directly into the images, giving investigators vital clues for locating children and suspects. Analysis technology can allow investigators to narrow down regions for investigation or public appeals, he said.
An enhanced photo of a child porn suspect, released by the FBI in Kansas City and several other cities in November, also showed a beverage cup from a convenience store that served only 13 metropolitan areas in 2005, when the picture was taken.
That suspect, an older man with a beard, since has been identified, though Donahue declined to say more because the case still was under investigation.
The growth of social media also has proved a boon to investigators, who’ve learned they can put a lot of eyeballs on a suspect’s picture very quickly, Collins said.
“It’s just a matter of time until the picture gets in front of the right person,” Collins said. “These just go viral.”
More than anyone, Jim Cole knew in December 2011 that technology could take an investigation only so far. Shoe leather would have to do the rest.
He knew that a 16-year-old boy had bragged that he planned to rape an 11-year-old girl. And from a highway sign, Cole suspected it probably would happen in Kansas.
Squinting at the blurry, sunflower highway sign in the photo, agents thought they could make out “203” as the highway number. So investigators from Homeland Security’s Wichita office scurried toward the town of Elsmore in Allen County, southeast of Iola.
Cole and Korzak got the results in a phone call just after their plane touched down in Kansas City.
“We just drove Highway 203, and it’s not 203,” the agent said.
From a relatively unobscured part of the sign, Cole knew the highway ran east to west. His next decision was easy, Cole said.
“Let’s just drive every highway in Kansas that runs east and west that begins with a “2” until we find it,” he announced.
Agents split into teams and, beginning Dec. 16, 2011, they drove Kansas highways. The next afternoon, Cole found his sign, a sunflower emblazoned with the number “20” in Brown County in northeast Kansas. Cole was certain of the match because a utility pole behind the sign matched perfectly with one in the photo.
Four days later, after working with local law enforcement, deputies from neighboring Nemaha County arrested the 16-year-old and charged him in juvenile court with taking aggravated indecent liberties with a child and two counts of sexual exploitation of a child.
State child welfare authorities found the 11-year-old and to everyone’s relief, she had not been assaulted, though she had been photographed.
Elapsed time from the receipt of the lead from Danish police to the girl’s rescue? Thirteen days.
The outcome elated Cole.“When we have the opportunity to intervene in a vulnerable victim’s life, there are no words to express it,” Cole said. “I love what we do.”
Brad Lippert, the Nemaha County prosecutor, said the 16-year-old pleaded no contest to taking aggravated indecent liberties with a child on March 20. He’ll be in a detention facility or under close court supervision until his 21st birthday. After that, he’ll have to report as a sex offender for the rest of his life, Lippert said.