On the day that Jennifer Wright visited Shane McClelland at his home and helped save two children, McClelland may not have been worried about the cop confronting him.
She’s petite enough that back when she drove a patrol car for the Wichita police, she used to joke that the baton they made her carry in her belt stuck up over the top of her head.
But Detective Wright helped put McClelland in prison. In 15 years she and her colleagues have put hundreds of sexual predators in prison.
As one of three investigators working in the Internet Crimes Against Children task force in Wichita, Wright is part of a growing segment of law enforcement: detectives who combine acting with street smarts and computer skills to save children from cyber-predators.
“He was very polite,” Wright remembers of McClelland when she went to his home two years ago. Last month, in part because of Wright’s work, U.S. District Judge Monti Belot sentenced him to prison for 27 years for producing child pornography. Wright and other detectives caught him preying on two teen girls from New York State, using his mobile phone in Wichita to threaten and coerce one girl into sending him sexual photographs of herself.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit created by Congress in 1984, says it has tracked a huge volume of crimes against children in recent years, much of it involving criminals turning a profit by making child pornography. Wright and her colleagues in the task force have investigated hundreds of cases between 2007 and the end of June, and made 194 arrests (and 363 referrals to other agencies) on everything from enticement to child prostitution to the manufacture, distribution and possession of child porn.
Wright says one of the more sobering facts about McClelland is that he was already a registered sex offender when he committed the crime involving those girls – and yet was so confident that he would not be caught that he used his real name in communicating with the girls.
Children at risk worldwide
Cyber-criminals are so numerous, and the cyber-tools they use are now so sophisticated, Wichita police Lt. Jeff Weible said, that children worldwide are at risk in ways that would not have been possible only a few years ago. But police locally and nationally are making strides to stop them, Weible said.
Weible runs the Sedgwick County’s Exploited and Missing Child Unit, a joint operation combining Wichita police, sheriff’s investigators and social workers from the Kansas Department of Children and Families. The task force within it, which at full strength has four investigators and three computer forensic examiners, is a group with varied talents, the supervisor, Sgt. Chet Pinkston said. Wright, Kim Kleinsorge and Shawn Bostick are the detectives; Mike Randolph, Shaun Price and Hans Asmussen are computer forensic examiners.
It isn’t unusual for team members to spend weeks, sometimes 80-hour weeks, dissecting bit by bit what is on a suspect’s computer, how he downloaded it, from where, and from whom. Because the Internet makes it possible for criminals to work across state lines or even across the continent as McClelland did, the task force detectives often work with investigators from other states or other countries.
The talent level on the task force is high, Weible said; and the strains are many. Wright and the other investigators must study disturbing images created by criminals, including explicit photos of small children.
“That’s the toughest part of the job,” Wright said. “Sometimes I want to go back to 1997 when I didn’t know such images existed.”
Because of the widespread use of technology by criminals, the task force can use software to literally see, on a computer screen, who is downloading child porn in Wichita or the entire state of Kansas. If anyone is doing it, they know it.
In February, the national center reported to the U.S. Sentencing Commission that its CyberTipline had received and processed more than 1.3 million reports of child abuse, of which 1.2 million involved child porn. Internet service providers, who are required by law to report cases to the CyberTipline, have reported 9.8 million images or videos of apparent child porn.
Law enforcement nationwide have rescued 4,103 child victims they saw in tens of millions of images of child porn they studied; law enforcement studied 14.2 million images in 2010 and 22 million in 2012, the center has reported. Seventy-six percent of the children in these images are pre-pubescent, the center reported.
The task force in Wichita, Weible said, identified and saved 39 child victims of Internet crime from 2007 to 2011, and another 10 by the end of June this year. Weible explained, however, that some did not involve anything as disturbing as what McClelland did; some involved one person “sexting” explicit images. It’s still a crime, but many such cases can be resolved with conversations in which people are told to stop doing it.
The national center says that what used to be a multibillion worldwide criminal industry has been reduced to a multimillion industry because they formed partnerships with Internet companies and financial institutions to disrupt credit card payments for child porn world-wide.
But as Michelle Collins, a center vice president, told the sentencing commission in February, “there are many more child victims of sexual abuse who have not yet been rescued and still suffer at the hands of their abusers.”
‘Fishing’ for predators
Wright is an example of the new kind of cop trained to deal with cyber-criminals, Weible said.
Wright said she did not want some details about herself reported (“I sometimes get love-hate mail from some of the people I’ve put away,” she said). But she said she grew up the daughter of teacher parents, in a small Kansas town. She took criminal justice classes in college, did some time as a street and community policing officer in Wichita and then in 1997 became a detective in the Exploited and Missing Child Unit. When Sedgwick County formed the task force in 2000, she joined, attracted by how she could protect children there.
“You have to be a special kind of police officer to work with these cases,” Weible said. “Nobody in the community really wants to know about this stuff.”
Wright learned things she could not have imagined as a small-town kid – computer skills, for example. “I had to learn computer skills quickly, because that’s a lot of how you catch these people,” she said. She also learned acting, in spite of “zero talent” for it. “I’m no good at acting in real life, and could never act well enough to pull off any practical jokes,” she said. “But at a computer screen, I can play a part.”
She and other detectives play roles to “go fishing” for Internet predators. On some days, she’s a 10-year-old boy, a 10-year-old girl, a 50-year-old woman interested in carrying on an incestuous relationship – “and then while doing all of those, the phone rings, and I answer the phone as myself. It’s hard sometimes to keep it all straight.”
The rewards are good.
“We protect children,” she said. “And we put really bad people in prison.”