Netting the boogeyman
Originally Published on

Child pornography and molestation has made its devious way into home computers, prompting police detectives to go undercover online to pursue and catch the perpetrators.

by Art Levine

28cvr.jpg (14104 bytes)One Friday evening last month, in a seamy America Online chat room devoted largely to trading child pornography, Kelly Ray Jones of Fort Lauderdale seemed to be looking for young flesh. As the police report later told it, the 36-year-old office temp was joined in the busy Internet room by a man we’ll call Bill, also in his mid-30s, who reported having a 12-year-old son, Earl, and a 9-year-old daughter. Using the screen name FTLBAREBACK, Jones first contacted Bill through instant messaging, and FTLBAREBACK quickly got down to what he wanted:

"What kinda pics and videos u got?"

Great stuff, Bill responded. That was good news for Jones, who wrote back that he was "real turned on by young here." Bill, too, said he liked them young. But Bill sounded a worried note: Was Jones by any chance a law enforcement officer?

"Nope and don’t work for AOL. Just horny as fuck for kids," Jones responded. Bill said he lived in another town in Florida so Jones raised the prospect of turning his fantasies into reality. After all, he already had a few AVIS — computer video — files, and would "love" to have one of him having sex with kids.

To underscore his desires, he sent Bill several e-mails with photos of boys and girls as young as 12 or under having sex with older men. They didn’t leave anything to the imagination. These pictures were followed by a clothed shot of Jones himself.

Jones worked fast, giving out his cell phone number to Bill, and later that night, they spoke on the phone to see if they could meet — and bring the kids along for sex. Bill, however, drew the line at his 9-year-old daughter, but Jones said it would be fine if he could just have sex with the boy. Bill agreed, and they made preliminary plans to meet the next weekend, with Bill accepting Jones’ suggestion to bring along a video camera to film it all.

Jones, it seemed, was going to hit his sex jackpot. He was seeking to add to his collection, he told Bill, which already included mostly father-and-son photos on his computer. He was "hunting and hunting" for something like this, he told Bill shortly before they ended their nearly half-hour conversation, and now his dreams seemed ready to come true.

In truth, his nightmare was about to begin. Unfortunately for Jones, his conversation had been taped by "Bill" and all his e-mails and chats logged on a police computer. Bill turned out to be Detective Neil Spector of the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office and a member of the Broward-based Law Enforcement Against Child Harm (LEACH) task force, an interagency group dedicated to halting Internet-related sex crimes, including luring children for sex and trading child pornography. The local network has emerged as a national leader among the 30 such federally funded LEACH task forces around the country, and it has earned a near-perfect conviction rate since being founded in 1998 under the leadership of the Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO).

And for the LEACH detectives who are on the frontlines in the war against Web-based child pornography and sexual exploitation, the challenge of going undercover in this booming but repulsive underground is worth it. "It’s certainly not an easy thing to do," Spector says, "but the person I’m talking to is a sexual predator I’m trying to get off the streets. Our goal is to protect these children."

In the Kelly Ray Jones case, Spector moved quickly — and ultimately brought in other detectives affiliated with LEACH — to pull off a successful sting operation against Jones.

A few days after their first talk, he used subpoenas to AT&T wireless and AOL to get information that tied the phone and AOL screen name to Kelly Ray Jones.

Jones, meanwhile, kept prodding "Bill" about their planned orgy, unwittingly creating more evidence that led to his arrest. "I can’t stop thinking about doing this 3 way with you and Earl," he wrote.

Yet even as they exchanged e-mails solidifying their plans, Jones began to express hints of suspicion and frustration. On Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 20, a few days before their planned Saturday meeting, he complained, "I honestly have been dealing with nothing but liars lately and have had one guy after another turn out to be a BS artist. I don’t mind if someone likes the fantasy, but I don’t want anyone to waste my time, either."

He added, "I was concerned when talking to someone last night about police sting operations, which is why I would feel more comfortable if you sent me something like I sent you. Getting arrested is not how I want to spend my weekend."

"It’s rather amusing," Spector recalls now of that muted worry about being arrested. Even with their doubts and the clear criminal penalties that face them, alleged child molesters typically plunge ahead anyway, sending kiddie porn or meeting with total strangers to arrange sex with children.

(To understand Spector’s work with LEACH, you’ll need a brief legal lesson on sex: It’s illegal for anyone to have sex with kids under 16, but prosecutors generally don’t go after consenting teenagers who have sex among themselves. Adults 24 or older who have sex with teens aged 16 or 17 are also breaking the law. Adults who have sex with underage teens — or, of course, prepubescent children — are prosecuted if caught. Medically, a "pedophile" means someone who covets sex with children under 13, but officers often use the term loosely to describe any adult seeking underage sex. Pedophiles are overwhelmingly white and male, and their targets are usually female. It’s also illegal to use computer services to attempt to entice a child — or "any other person believed to be a child" — to commit illegal sexual acts.)

The mystery is why deviants pursue illegal sex at such risk to themselves, but Spector notes, "Once they get hooked on the temptation that they’re going to have sex with a 12-year-old child, they can’t stop themselves."

In any case, in a nighttime phone call Jones expressed some lingering doubts about their upcoming encounter, but also admitted to the detective posing as Bill that he’d been anticipating their big Saturday meeting.

They planned to meet at a hotel at 11 a.m., and on Wednesday near 7 p.m., Jones contacted Bill again by instant messaging. Jones didn’t know it, but he was about to be placed under direct surveillance by Fort Lauderdale Detective Rich Love, another LEACH investigator. The aim was, in part, to establish that Jones was actually the man online with Detective Spector, a critical finding in any future prosecution. In the live chat, Jones talked of his plans to bring along the injectable drug Caverject, which promotes erections. And he expressed hope for more young sex partners: "I wish you knew some other kids, too."

Do you mean for this Saturday? Bill asked.

"Well, I think poor Earl could only take so much," Jones answered. He added, "I have a feeling you’re holding out on me on knowing more kids, but hopefully after we meet, you’ll feel more comfortable."

Suddenly, he wrote, "Doorbell hold."

Outside, Detective Love, a trim, silver-haired veteran of undercover work, was knocking on his door. Jones went to answer the door, and Love, in an undercover role, made up an excuse about why he was there. He left soon afterward, but he was at the house long enough to identify Jones as the man on the computer, the same man who was in the photograph Jones sent to Spector.

Everything now was in place to bust Jones on Saturday.

At 9:30 a.m., Jones pulled out of his driveway in his new silver Nissan Xterra and went north on I-95, trailed by an unmarked car with an FBI agent and a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent assigned to the LEACH task force.

When he arrived at the hotel parking lot, Jones didn’t see until it was too late the St. Lucie County squad car that was hiding on the grounds and then pulled in right behind him. A deputy got out and put him in the green-and-white police car. Jones, a tall, thin, dark-haired man whose secret life was now exposed, faced the prospect of imprisonment and utter ruin. Detective Spector, emerging from an unmarked car, stepped forward to read him his Miranda rights.

"Why am I being arrested?" Jones asked, as Spector recounts it.

Spector told him he was being arrested as part of an Internet investigation and was being charged with soliciting a child of 12 or under for sexual battery.

"I don’t know what you’re talking about," Jones insisted, adopting a confident air and claiming he was there just to meet a friend.

His car was searched, and Spector found Caverject, several syringes, condoms, a personal lubricant, penis rings, Viagra, other sex paraphernalia, a new stuffed teddy bear that he’d been told the boy wanted — and, in his wallet, a small baggie with roughly a gram of crystal meth.

Back at the sheriff’s office, facing each other in the interrogation room, Spector finally told him, "The person you’ve been talking to is me."

Jones was stunned. He said, "I want you to know that I’m not a bad guy."

Spector told him about the evidence they had on him: the tape-recorded conversations and the documents logging his instant messages and e-mails. "The denials stopped," Spector recalls with evident satisfaction. With the tape recorder on, Jones finally conceded he had gone to the motel to have sex with the father and child, but insisted that he didn’t think he would actually go through with having sex with the boy. Still, a subsequent forensic examination of his computer hard drive showed 100 child pornography images including explicit sexual shots of children as young as 6, according to Detective Spector. (The same court-ordered search of his home also uncovered a few more grams of crystal meth.)

"I call it a victory for us. The good guys got one off the street. If it wasn’t for us [making the arrest], there could be a real child victim. I felt really good," Spector says.

Jones’ case is still pending, though, and he was recently released from St. Lucie County jail after his $750,000 bond was lowered. Jones faces drug, sexual battery and child pornography charges that could put him in prison for as long as 65 years on the original criminal accusations; new charges based on the kiddie porn stash on his hard drive haven’t been filed yet.

Spector charged at another bond hearing last Friday that Jones violated the terms of his release by warning users about Spector’s undercover operation in a sexually oriented chat room, using the screen name Copwarning. But since his roommate, Ken Wilk, asserted that he was the one who went online under that name — and the state couldn’t prove otherwise — a circuit court judge denied that motion to increase the bond. Jones was arrested again last Thursday for the original incidents because the state attorney issued revised charges, but he was out on bond again the next day.

The outrage at alleged child molesters also sometimes translates into vigilante justice. Wilk notes that Jones was beaten up while in jail and had urine thrown at him; their dogs, he claims, have been poisoned; and windows have been broken. Wilk asserts that Jones was only engaged in fantasy discussions on the Web, that parts of the police report are false and, he claims, "This is basically an entrapment case."

Jones’ attorney David Seif says, "We believe my client has strong defenses." At a bail hearing in mid-March, Jones argued that all his talk about sex with children was merely a fantasy discussion designed to play into Bill’s perceived interests, serving as a prelude to a hoped-for sexual encounter with him. He insisted that he didn’t have any genuine interest in having sex with kids. (That explanation, though, doesn’t seem to square with the shots of kiddie porn he sent Spector or his extensive home collection.) He also claimed that he’d only previously used the Internet to meet adult gay men.

Spector challenges Jones’ assertion that he didn’t have any interest in child sex. "He was totally predisposed," he says. "Why else would he be sending us child porn?"

Spector and other LEACH detectives say they avoid entrapment problems by making sure they’re only responding to initiatives to commit illegal sexual acts or trade pornography. "The people who are true sex offenders will continuously chat with you and entice you into meeting for sex," Spector says. Dennis Nicewander, a Broward Assistant State Attorney who handles Internet sex cases, says, "Mr. Spector is extremely adept at meeting people online and finding these folks. If you’re going online meeting the bad guys, you have to make sure you don’t engage in entrapment by inducing them or planting the idea." As Spector observes about the Jones case, "When he opens the door, I can walk through it. I didn’t contact him first, saying that I wanted to have sex with him. That would be entrapment."

Profile of a predator

Spector knows something about the balancing act in conducting stings after nearly seven years of narcotics work. He bought and sold drugs to snare dealers, but he wasn’t prepared for what he found when he began working in 1997 to uncover child abuse cases. "It was a real difference from working narcotics, which was a victimless crime. Here, I felt I was truly helping a victim — a child," he says. His first case involved two girls, 10 and 11, who had been molested by a relative, and he’s continued to pursue such cases, both on and off the Internet. "I was absolutely amazed this kind of stuff went on. I was sheltered in narcotics." He also discovered how difficult it was to get child sexual victims to talk about their abusers.

Yet his determination to track down sexual offenders led him on a lengthy cross-country investigation that made national headlines. It resulted in one of his suspects, fugitive David Schott Sheldon, being arrested after taking six hostages in a five-hour standoff in a gas station in Olympia, Wash.

The standoff in November 1998 ended when Spector brokered a phone call between Sheldon and his adult lover, Richard Bryan, who was in jail back in St. Lucie County awaiting trial on charges of sexual misconduct with boys. Eventually, after talking with Spector and local police, Sheldon gave himself up. He pleaded guilty to more than 50 unlawful sex acts with teens in Florida, then faced prison time in Washington state for the hostage-taking.

"Everybody ought to feel relieved that this guy is off the streets," Spector said at the time of the arrest.

He’s brought the same determination to this new high-tech arena of sex crimes. "I got interested in it because I knew there was this need. People are going to use computers [to prey on children]," he says. Starting in late 1999, he began taking training courses affiliated with the LEACH task force, and became a member, working for the task force part-time from his home agency. For his work, his department has nominated him "Officer of the Year" in a law enforcement awards program sponsored by The Palm Beach Post.

Spector has discovered that the Internet-based predator often differs from the stereotypical pedophile, a low-income loner. "They don’t have long criminal records or any at all," he says of the Web molester. "They have jobs, wives, children. They are a type of closet ones, who might normally go to parks to lure kids but wouldn’t attack them."

But entranced by the vivid pornography on the Web and the easy access to children through chat rooms and Web sites, they’ve indulged their fantasies in new and dangerous ways. "They end up in a parking lot looking to have sex with a 12-year-old and an adult," he observes, making a not-so- veiled reference to the Jones allegations.

"The Internet has become the electronic playground," says Lt. Paul O’Connell, the director of the LEACH task force and the commander of BSO’s Organized Criminal Activities section.

The task force is at the forefront of national efforts to stem the flood of child porn and would-be pedophiles cruising the Net. Child pornography — virtually eradicated in the 1980s — has exploded on the Internet, and pedophiles and molesters also ease their isolation by finding like-minded people and fresh victims in chat rooms with titles like "Dad2Dad," "Dad&Daughter" and "12yearoldsex."

The proliferation of porn traded on the Web is truly astounding. As Newsweek recently reported, when police in 13 countries broke up the Wonderland Internet ring in 1998, they found computer files with 750,000 child porn images in Britain alone. And a few key words — like "children," "sex" and "pictures" — typed into a search engine bring up 340,000 links in a flash, including such Usenet porn sites as or Web sites boasting "older men, preteen sex." These aren’t mere pictures, of course, but visual records of crimes: Children being abused and exploited, including infants as young as a few months old being sexually penetrated, all of them, whatever their age, at risk of being damaged for life. (As Detective Love notes, "I’ve heard people say that drugs should be legal, but I haven’t heard anyone say that child pornography should be legalized.")

"The Internet has created a new world of pedophiles," adds Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Bardfield in Miami, who has prosecuted numerous LEACH-based cases.

In fact, all too often pedophiles and other predators go beyond the illegal kiddie porn that feeds their sick fantasies. In a disturbing study released last year, Andres Hernandez, a director of sex offender treatment for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, found that a sample of 90 inmates arrested in Internet stings for trading porn or "traveling" to meet a victim had a long history of unreported sexual crimes. They averaged about 30 underage sexual victims each before being caught.

Unleashed by the Internet, this once-private sexual craving — for which neither scientists nor cops have a good explanation — has combined with an upsurge in online usage by kids to create potentially dangerous results. The fastest growing population on the Internet, for instance, are girls aged 12 to 17. Moreover, a survey last year of 1,500 U.S. kids aged 10 to 17 found that a fifth of them had received a sexual solicitation, while one in 33 had received aggressive solicitations, ranging from phone calls to gifts to requests to meet in person. Few of these come-ons were reported to authorities or a hotline.

Undercover operations like those run by LEACH can halt only a relatively small portion of this wave of child pornography and exploitation. "There’s not much we can do about it," Detective Rich Love says, "but we’re doing it."

The LEACH track record highlights an upswing in investigations, arrests and successful prosecutions. Last year, there were 276 cases opened in the Florida region covered by the task force, ranging from Indian River County through Monroe County, and 45 felony arrests, a roughly 50 percent increase over the previous year. Most of these nearly 300 criminal investigations are either still under way or have been referred to other jurisdictions where the suspect lives. The task force doesn’t keep precise statistics on cases that are prosecuted out of state and didn’t start tracking all of the arrests by affiliated local agencies until last year. Even so, O’Connell says that all but one of the arrests in this region since LEACH’s founding in 1998 have led to a conviction, mostly through guilty pleas. (That exception involved the allegations of a wife against a husband in the midst of a divorce.) In fact, attorney Bardfield notes, "Very few cases go to trial. The agents do such a great job in the LEACH task force that the lawyers ask themselves, do they want to embarrass themselves and their clients when they don’t have a shot? It pays for them to plead."

This conviction rate comes despite the difficulties in putting together successful Internet sex crime cases. Rich Love, pointing to a large file drawer in his undercover office in a Broward office building, says, almost with dismay, "These are my cyberchat files, where they only want to have cybersex. Ninety-nine percent of the people talk to you to fulfill a fantasy, but 1 percent are true pedophiles who want to take it further." He doesn’t pursue the cyberchat cases, but keeps the records in case he discovers later that they want to act on their desires for kids.

In addition to such dead ends, the detectives also have to master a variety of technical issues in order to make the cases stick. "You have to find the person behind the computer," says Broward prosecutor Dennis Nicewander. "They’ll claim that it wasn’t me, that my buddy used it, that somebody hacked into my system." The detectives have to have enough Internet savvy to trace the people behind screen names or prove that the suspect was using that screen name and computer at the time the illegal acts occurred. On top of that, the task force conducts "forensic" examinations of computer hard drives to discover child pornography and other electronic evidence. That high-tech detective work is led by a no- nonsense Broward detective, Bob DeYoung, who developed in 1994 Broward’s program of Internet pursuit of sexual predators.

(DeYoung declined to be interviewed, but last year told The Miami Herald, "We’re arresting firemen, lawyers, judges, teachers, coaches, cops — you name it, we’ve done it." One of their earliest cases involved the arrest of a prominent New England lawyer and judge who planned to travel to Florida in order to have a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old boy — played by DeYoung.)

As a result of such effective police work and foresight, the local LEACH task force has won national recognition. "Broward has been one of the pioneering agencies in this effort, and it’s paved the way for other agencies across the country to investigate these crimes," says Michael Medaris, a senior program manager with the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

On the frontline

That enforcement success is being advanced by detectives such as Rich Love, who are bringing the street smarts they gathered in undercover work to the brave new world of Internet sex crimes. Love, a 19-year veteran of the Broward police force, began his first case as a lead Web detective last year and helped win a prison term of 37 months for John Palmer, a 68-year-old man who arranged a meeting with a 14-year-old boy he knew as Richie.

"It’s like a chess game," says Love of undercover work. "I like to outwit and outsmart the bad guys."

With some of the same instincts he brought to his hobby as a deep-sea fisherman, Love went fishing in January 2000 for another kind of catch when he went online in an AOL chat room as a 14-year-old boy. All he had to do was ask, "Anyone from Fort Lauderdale here?" and he received an instant message from GOODDADDY9999, who wrote him, "Hello, Richie, I’m John in Fort Lauderdale looking to spoil younger guy." In their online chat, GOODDADDY (who was actually Palmer) offered him money, a scanner, a digital camera and a leather jacket for sexual favors.

Early on, Palmer turned the conversation explicit. He promised to "teach" Richie how he could be "the stud of high school." He also noted, though, that it was illegal to have sex with anyone under 18 and Richie should keep it a secret.

Palmer then followed up by sending a picture of himself — "a playful gent that loves to please and play" — and arranged to have a phone conversation with Richie. Somehow — Love won’t say exactly how — he managed to sound like a 14-year-old, and Palmer made plans to go with him to the Fairfield Inn. Until the plans were made Love recalls, he wondered, "Is this guy for real, an actual pedophile?" Once Palmer crossed the line from fantasy chat into taking action, he sealed his fate and played into the trap set by Love. The would-be molester has plenty of opportunities to back down from a meeting, and if all he does is talk dirty online and doesn’t send (or receive) any porn or try to meet a kid, he won’t be prosecuted.

Yet as Love points out, a detective’s undercover role-playing is essential to catching sexual predators in a way that sets it apart from other undercover work. A decoy cop, for instance, can look like he’s a potential robbery victim to draw muggers, but, Love says, "We cannot create a sexual battery victim." They can’t use an actual 14-year-old as bait for child molesters, and that’s where detectives such as Love step in, luring people who already have a disposition to commit such crimes. Why else would they be loitering in chat rooms with titles like "12yearoldsex" and sending kiddie porn to strangers?

In Palmer’s case, he clearly wanted more than fantasy sex. On the day of the proposed meeting in a Broward park prior to their going to the hotel, Palmer stopped by the adult sex shop Romantix Emporium in Fort Lauderdale and drove to the hotel to set things up for their rendezvous. He brought along a cornucopia of sexual and S&M playthings, including dildos, handcuffs, rope, a whip, adult videotapes (including some homemade ones), a VCR, a laptop computer and an alarm clock with a hidden pinhole camera with audio capabilities. ("That camera’s better than the equipment we have," Love observes ruefully.)

From there, Palmer went over to the park for his dream date. Across the way, he saw what looked like a 14-year-old boy with his back to him, actually an undercover policewoman dressed up to look like Richie. Palmer got out of the car, stood next to the fence, and began waving his hands and shouting with excitement, "Richie!"

Love was watching from a distance when the cops swooped in on Palmer and put him in the back of a police car. Love walked over, stuck his head in the back and said to Palmer with a deadpan expression, "I am Richie — the boy you have been talking to." Palmer, defeated, said, "I know, I’m a bad man." Love said they knew about his visit to the hotel and got permission to inspect the room.

Even the hardened detective was appalled by the sex toy array in the room that was going to be used with a 14-year-old. "This was really the boogeyman," Love says. "This was a dangerous man."

Palmer’s attorney, Adam Swickle, won’t comment on the case but notes that Palmer, who was sentenced in February, hasn’t yet entered prison. A peek into Palmer’s mind, though, comes in the letter he wrote in January to the judge in an effort to reduce his sentence and explain his behavior. While expressing "profound apologies," he also said that prior to his arrest, "I had a long battle with alcoholism that I believed I had overcome. In addition, I was molested as a child and never received the proper treatment in order to overcome the damage caused by such molestation."

In addition, he faced new stresses that drove him to the Internet. "My business began to slow and I began to drink heavily, believing that I was unable to provide for my wife and daughter as a 68-year-old father and husband should. As a result, I found myself spending countless hours in front of my computer. ... I became mesmerized by the many conversations that took place in those [chat] rooms," he said. "During this time, I felt extremely depressed and began conversing with anyone I could on the Internet, including children. As a result, I engaged in conduct that has led me to this low point of my life." He then admitted to the judge all the sex and porn charges lodged against him based on Love’s detective work.

"I am not only embarrassed and ashamed, however. I am also pained at the hurt I have caused my family," he said.

Love doesn’t have much tolerance for such explanations from predators. "There’s never any excuse for any adult to physically or sexually abuse a child," he says flatly. "Everyone always has an explanation of why they did it: I was on drugs or alcohol. I had a bad life as a child." He adds with a quiet anger, "They only admit it when they get caught — instead of trying to get help prior to it."

And to Love, it’s the opportunity to nail predators such as Palmer that makes his work so fulfilling. "It’s very exciting and rewarding," he says. "I’m able to take the true boogeyman off the street — the individuals you were very afraid of as a kid and that your parents warned you about."

A dangerous compulsion

Sometimes, Love and the LEACH team not only get the chance to prevent a predator’s sexual abuse, but also catch up with a molester who’s already begun preying on children or young teens. Theodore Wells, a 44-year-old Fort Lauderdale computer programmer now behind bars at a prison in Fort Dix, N.J., learned firsthand just how determined LEACH — and allied police agencies around the country — were to stop him.

Amazingly enough, he persisted in pursuing a sexual "affair" with a 15-year-old girl he met through the Internet after he’d already been questioned by police and the girl returned home to her family in rural Illinois. His case underscores two key points about these sex criminals: their heedless pursuit of illegal sex in the face of clear penalties and the growing national — and even international — cooperation of local police departments, a sign of the increasing attention such crimes are receiving.

In the Wells case, Fort Lauderdale police received a tip from the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, based on the mother’s complaint, that a 15-year-old runaway from Illinois was headed to Fort Lauderdale to have sex with a man she met on the Internet. Following preliminary leads, they managed to learn that the suspect was Wells. So, the police sex crimes unit went to Wells’ apartment, where they found him with the girl. But since she said they hadn’t had any sex, and there was no physical evidence of sexual contact, they didn’t have enough evidence to charge him with sexual battery of a minor. The mother flew down to retrieve her daughter.

The case should have ended there. But the exploited children center got yet another tip in December 1999 that Wells had gone to see the girl in Illinois and was on his way back to Fort Lauderdale with her. This time, the LEACH task force was called in, and Love and other LEACH officers set up a stakeout of the Fort Lauderdale bus terminal, while notifying police agencies and bus dispatchers along the bus route. Soon, they learned that the pair was headed to Memphis, where they were picked up. She was put in protective custody until her mother arrived, while he was arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Wells offered assorted explanations for his behavior before being sentenced by a federal judge to a year and a day in prison. In his excuse-laden letter written last September, he conceded that he did a "wrong and stupid thing," but pointed to the factors that caused him to go awry. "I had an unhappy and abusive childhood but managed to make a good life regardless. ... However, I have not managed to deal with the psychological damage from that childhood," he said. Still, he joined support groups for what he believed were depression and multiple personality disorder (although he’d never been diagnosed with either). But when he moved to Fort Lauderdale, he left both his wife and support groups behind in New Jersey, and was vulnerable to that oft-cited culprit, "stress." If he could just return to his wife and support groups, he pleaded to the judge, that would "keep me out of trouble and help me to deal with my psychological problem" and "nothing like this will ever happen again."

Love laughs and shakes his head while reading the letter for the first time. "This is a typical letter," he says. "The jail is full of innocent people. They always find God after they’re caught."

But Love isn’t necessarily heartless in his approach to sex offenders. Take one recent case involving 19-year-old Zachary Blyweiss, who pursued a 14-year-old girl played online by Love, then sent two images of underage porn and went to meet "her" at a park where he was arrested in September. Detective Love is recommending that Blyweiss, if convicted, get psychiatric treatment rather than a prison term. Even David Bogenschutz, the lawyer defending Blyweiss (who has pleaded not guilty), praises Love for his fairness, and says, "He’s one of the best officers I know."

Love earned his reputation from years of catching the "bad guys" since joining the Fort Lauderdale police department in 1982. Even as a uniformed officer, he enjoyed the excitement of going undercover in plainclothes to catch burglaries in progress or serving as a decoy "john" to arrest prostitutes. When he became an undercover detective two years later, in the heyday of the 1980s cocaine cowboys, he prided himself on his ability to assume the role of a narcotics dealer. He’s spent as long as six months undercover as a narcotics trafficker living on a yacht, but this Internet undercover work can be just as demanding.

"I can always grow my hair and beard long," he says, "but try to be a 14-year-old girl or 15-year-old boy."

He points out, "I get into the mindset, but when you’re online for an hour and a half, it’s so mentally draining. You have to stay in the mode, you don’t want to entrap them yet you don’t want to say the wrong thing that will scare them away." With a live undercover drug bust, in contrast, the deal can be done in 10 minutes, he says, and the suspect makes a quick decision about whether he’s being set up.

For these tough cops, turning themselves into naive teenagers for their undercover work hasn’t been easy, either. Love’s predecessor at LEACH, Sgt. Thomas Harrington, says, "The only advice I gave him was watch a lot of MTV." Harrington adds, "He’s really taken off and put a lot of guys in jail." All told, Love has chalked up 15 LEACH-related arrests as a lead agent so far.

Love, who knew doo-wop music but nothing about today’s teen scene, had to go on a unique crash course. He absorbed teen culture in part by closely watching the talk and dress of two nieces, aged 11 and 13, and casually studying the world of youth trends. "A few years ago, I only knew who the Platters were [a 1950s group], but now I can tell you about Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys." Although he’ll be 46 in April, when he sits down at his "pedophile computer," he says, "you put yourself in an undercover state of mind." So, the next time a child molester logs on to seduce a youngster, he could find himself chatting with Detective Love.

His machine sits quietly on a separate desk in his office, an older Packard Bell computer with only a 56K dial-up modem, but it’s been powerful enough to put the boogeymen behind bars.

Protecting the children

Since more pedophiles victimize girls than boys, when male detectives from the LEACH task force go online as girls, they often recruit female detectives to help in the chase. The streetwise women play young girls on the phone and, sometimes, even in person. That sort of teamwork led to the arrest in April 2000 of a 66-year-old Pompano Beach resident, John Cumberpatch, who traveled to a Miami fast-food restaurant to meet someone he allegedly expected would be a 15-year-old girl. (Cumberpatch has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.) The girl he met there, vice detective Mercedes Sabina, a youthful-looking 32-year-old, had already spent some time speaking with him on the phone. She was dressed to look the part in a ponytail and jeans.

But Douglas Mew, who chatted with Cumberpatch online, doesn’t look anything like a teenage girl. He’s a detective with Miami-Dade’s special investigations division, a 60-year-old great-grandfather with a ready smile who has personally handled 60 cases in the six years he’s been hunting pedophiles part-time. He’s so adept at snaring predators undercover, he says, "If I can’t make a case in a half-hour, I log off." He and other LEACH officers say they’re deluged by sexual offers once they’re online, and some come from predators eager to set up meetings.

When Mew was online scouting for molesters on an Internet chat room last April, he got a message asking for a private chat session. In that very first private chat, Cumberpatch allegedly asked Mew, playing a girl we’ll call Mary, to meet with him and have sex, according to the arrest report. A few days later, Mary was hit on again by Cumberpatch using another screen name, and a few days later, Cumberpatch was at it again with yet another screen name. But this time, he gave out his home phone number. "Mary" said she’d call him the next day after school. Sitting at a nearby desk, in fact, was Detective Sabina, who usually does undercover prostitution work but had grown curious about Mew’s Internet sleuthing and wanted to try it herself.

The next day, Sabina called Cumberpatch, playing the young girl her male partner had created online. Her basic approach: "Just giggle and pretend you don’t know what they’re talking about." Cumberpatch soon began speaking in an explicit sexual manner, the arrest report states. Sabina kept her revulsion in check by keeping focused on her undercover goal: "They’re sick and you’ve got to get them." Whatever sexual proposition he made, she responded with such vague comments as, "Oh, that’s nice." Meanwhile, she told herself, "He needs to get caught so he won’t hurt anyone." Later, he allegedly sent to the girl being played by Sabina 18 pornographic images, most of which featured underage children.

Ultimately, they arranged to meet at a fast-food restaurant. Cumberpatch was followed by a detective from his home in Pompano Beach to Miami-Dade, where there were several officers inside and outside the restaurant — including Detective Sabina. Even then, he still thought she was his teen queen as they walked out of the restaurant to go to a motel — until he was arrested on the sidewalk. "I don’t believe this!" Cumberpatch exclaimed, "I came down here to have sex with a young lady." Then he turned to her and said, "What did you do to me?"

"What you did you did to yourself," she answered firmly, no longer the sweet young thing of his fevered imagination, but Detective Sabina making another bust.

(In May, Cumberpatch faces trial on seven counts of sending child pornography and two counts of using computer services to solicit illegal sex. If convicted, he faces up to 125 years in prison. His public defender, Brian McDonald, declines to comment on the charges but says, "We’re preparing it for trial and expect to be ready in May.")

To Mew, with his extensive family from his current and former marriage, descending into this grimy netherworld has been particularly distasteful. "It turns my stomach," he says. But he’s proud of the arrests he’s helped make. Most of his cases, in fact, are turned over to out-of-state prosecutors and cops because culprits proposition his online character from around the country. In his cramped office, there are several mementos from his investigations, including a 10-year-old computer with a 28K modem that he uses to catch pedophiles, confiscated from his first undercover porn arrest of a Miami-Dade corrections officer.

He especially cherishes, though, a glass memento from the U.S. Attorney in San Francisco, who asked him to go online with his quarry at the same time customs agents were executing a scheduled search warrant. So, Mew contacted the 78-year-old pedophile, and as the chat log reported, the suspect’s final online comment was, "Someone at the door." Then, customs agents swept in and grabbed the computer with all the kiddie porn.

The last moments of that chat log, topped by a toy police car, are encased in the glass gift that sits proudly above his cubicle. "It’s my pride and joy," he says.

There’s one undercover role, though, that Mew won’t play: gay teenage boys. "I don’t know their lines and I can’t get into it," he says. "There are some sick, sick people out there."

A younger generation of detectives, such as Love and Spector, are willing to play that role to snare predators, but it’s challenging for them. Even so, it can lead to some significant arrests. One of those, of Daniel Sandler of Parkland, led police to discover more than 1,400 child porn images on his drive and nearly 30 alleged incidents of unlawful sexual activity with two minors. He was originally held on $14 million bail at the county jail, and could face life in prison if convicted on all counts. "This is the biggest case like this we’ve had," said LEACH’s Paul O’Connell at the time of the arrest last May. The arrest followed a forensic exam of Sandler’s hard drive and computer discs that found numerous pictures of prepubescent boys and girls in explicit sexual acts. "They ranged from grotesque to something that would break your heart. I can’t fathom to think where he got them," O’Connell told the Sun-Sentinel.

Prior to the massive pornography haul, Sandler had been arrested in March 2000 when he and a 16-year-old boy went to Port St. Lucie for a tryst with a friendly 15-year-old boy — who turned out to be Detective Neil Spector. A few weeks earlier, according to Spector’s police report, Sandler, a 35-year-old aircraft mechanic using the screen name Sneaky12, started chatting up Spector’s character — let’s call him Jim — and eventually suggested a "3 some."

Jim said he’d never done that before, but Sandler reassured him, "It’s fun as long as nobody gets left out. ... I’m sure it’s worth a try." Spector passed himself off as a 15-year-old in phone conversations, too, and arranged an afternoon meeting at a fast-food restaurant in Port St. Lucie. When Sandler drove in his 1986 Dodge convertible with the 16-year-old boy, he was followed by LEACH officers in an unmarked car. When he pulled into the parking lot, he was arrested. Both he and the boy were taken into custody. A search of Sandler’s vehicle found a digital camera, photos of children and a tube of KY jelly.

"He was very shocked and confessed to us," Spector recalls of his lengthy interview with Sandler. In the course of it, according to Spector’s police report, Sandler admitted having sexual relations with the boy since the child was 13, a former neighbor who flew back to see him during vacations. He also conceded having child pornography, including nude photos of the boy. He denied wanting to have sex with Jim, Spector’s character, and said he only brought along the KY jelly in case his 16-year-old companion wanted to have sex with Jim. (Sandler’s attorney has sought to quash the confession because the defendant was supposedly not fully informed of his rights to obtain an attorney during the interrogation, a notion disputed by the state that will be resolved by a hearing in May.)

Afterward, Spector eventually learned from the first boy about another alleged teen victim of Sandler’s, and that led to additional charges of sexual battery against him. All told, he’s been charged with 29 counts of various unlawful sexual activities with minors and one count of computer solicitation of a child, while the number of child pornography charges has been reduced to 300. His attorney, Melvin Black, won’t comment on the case, but Sandler has entered a not-guilty plea and awaits trial.

Yet for every suspect who is arrested or sentenced to prison following a LEACH investigation, there are countless other potential predators lurking on the Internet waiting to take their place. Unfortunately, the lack of a clear understanding of how to prevent and treat pedophilia, plus the easy access to illegal porn and children through the Internet, make it difficult even for the most effective officers to halt much Web-related crime. "The criminals have a huge head start over law enforcement, and I don’t think law enforcement has had a major impact on it yet," says Broward prosecutor Nicewander. Case in point: For hardcore kiddie porn collectors, he notes, "They’re going to find a way to get it one way or another." He adds gloomily, "The law is a deterrent to those who are least likely to commit the crimes."

Still, the LEACH task forces here and across the country — with their combination of local, state and federal agents — are having as much of an impact on the issue as virtually any institution in law enforcement. As the Justice Department’s Michael Medaris observes, in the two years or so that the task forces have been running, they’ve made 550 arrests — about 25 percent have been people who traveled to have sex with a child, while the rest have traded or possessed child pornography.

All the enforcement, though, hasn’t solved the puzzle of pedophilia itself. While it’s true, for instance, that pedophiles have been apparently molested as children more than average citizens, it hasn’t been at levels high enough to explain their sickness, observes psychiatrist Dr. Martin Kafka of McClean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., a leading expert in treating sexual offenders. "It’s not a rational behavior," he notes, and it’s compounded by their false belief that they’re not really harming their victims. Some treatments can have an impact, such as targeted cognitive and empathy-for-victims training, along with anti-androgen drugs designed to lower sex drive. But predators generally don’t seek treatment until they’re caught, if then. In the meantime, parents should keep a close watch on their kids’ Internet use and call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyperTipline if they suspect wrongdoing (1-800/843-5678) or check the group’s Web site,, for Internet safety pointers. Yet sadly enough, the most common form of sexual molestation comes from a trusted family member, not some evil stranger who has logged on to a chat room.

As for Detective Rich Love, he hasn’t figured out the culprits he pursues, either. "I have a degree in psychology and philosophy, and I don’t have the answer. I can’t tell you if it’s something in the DNA or it’s a learned desire," he says. But he knows he’ll be logging on soon to hunt them down: "It’s our job to protect the children."