TARGET 8: Child pornography investigators face uncertain future

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BOONE COUNTY - From a small office at the Boone County Sheriff's Department, investigators search, sometimes file by file, for sexually graphic images of children. Investigators say this work is an integral part of Boone County Cyber Crimes Task Force investigations.

Detective Tracy Perkins heads the group of three full-time investigators and is a part-time forensic examiner. The unit completes a variety of tasks regarding crimes on the Internet; however, the main goal is to protect children and identify the possession and distribution of child pornography.

"Every time that a person looks at those images on their phone or their computer, they are re-abusing that child," Perkins said.

Despite a rise in arrests across the state, the $1.5 million grant that has historically funded the Boone County group, and the 15 other statewide cyber crimes task forces, was not made available for the 2015 fiscal year. Without it, investigators said the future of their work is unclear.

"We're on the chopping block, I really don't know our fate," Perkins said.

She said Boone County Sheriff Dwayne Carey has redistributed other funds to hold them over during the interim, but additional solutions will need to be found in order for the task force to continue its work. 

"I know the sheriff believes in what we do. And so does a lot of the community and the public," she said. "But money is money and I don't know, It's kind of a huge question mark."

From June 2013 until June 2014, reports show the Boone County Task Force alone arrested 30 individuals for cyber crimes. The data shows possession of child pornography was the most common offense.

One arrest Perkins said impacted her greatly was the investigation into Columbia resident, Charles DeCarr. In Dec. 2014, DeCarr pleaded guilty to statutory sodomy, possession and promotion of child pornography and sexual exploitation of a minor.

The case dates back to 2012, when an agent with the FBI notified Perkins he believed an email account in Boone County contained child pornography. Within several hours, the Cyber Crimes Task Force executed a search warrant of the home, seizing computers and other media.

During the investigation, Perkins estimated she saw at least 80 sexually graphic photographs of his children. The investigation revealed the photos had not only circulated throughout the United States, but had traveled as far as Sweden.

The two children, ages 2 and 5 at the time, were adopted, and Perkins said they are now "happy" and in a "safe home."

Regional task forces, like Boone County's, often work in tandem with with national organizations like the FBI, as well as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The Boone County Task Force also works with in conjunction with state agency, the Missouri Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) to track and investigate Internet crimes aganist children. 

At the St. Charles County Police Department, Lieutenant Chris Mateja heads the MO ICAC. Mateja said MO ICAC provides supplementary funding to help purchase equipment, finance training and update software for the affiliated agencies around Missouri.

"Our main goal is to rescue that child from that environment, pull them out of that situation so they're not abused any further."

To ensure this happens, Mateja explained that investigators must undergo extensive and continuous training to keep up with changing technology.

"We can learn a certain technique or obtain a piece of software and in months it's outdated and something else has come along," he said.

Routine training also keep cyber investigators aware of new applications attracting predators, new equipment capabilities, and trends in the field. 

"In the last year and half, we've been seeing a lot of people who have been caught once before and they've done time in prison or been on probation and now we're catching them again," Mateja said. "Sometimes we're even catching them before we submit their case to a prosecutor."

He said the computer forensic software required monthly and annual maintenance fees as well, making the niche industry a costly one to fund. Financial strain led to the laying off of two MO ICAC investigators earlier this year. 

Mateja said his team is already backlogged with work and understaffed. He said the disintegration of regional task forces will back up detectives even further, as well as provide a less efficient point of contact for state and federal investigators.

KOMU 8 News reached out to the Governor's office about the decision to restrict the funding for cyber crimes task forces around the state. Spokesperson Scott Holste said:

"The budget passed by the General Assembly for the 2015 fiscal year was very much out of balance and there is simply not enough money coming into the state treasury to pay for all of the things in the legislature's budget. The Governor has a responsibility to keep the budget in balance, and that often requires tough choices and spending restrictions to prevent the growth of government beyond its means. As he has done since the beginning of his first term, the Governor will continue to carry out his fiscal duties to ensure that Missouri's budget is balanced and fiscally responsible."

The Cyber Crimes Task Forces is just one of 218 other entities that Governor Jay Nixon either vetoed or restricted funding for earlier this year.

"We're going to have less people doing child exploitation work, less computer forensic examiners to pull data, which is going to create a backlog," Mateja said.

He estimated without the help of regional task forces it will take MO ICAC detectives months, or even more than a year, to pull data for investigations. Mateja said this will put a strain on other types of investigations, like burglaries and homicides, that have evidence on digital devices.

Mateja said he is also concerned about financing public presentations throughout the state. Statewide, investigators gave nearly 40,000 presentations last year covering new trends in cyber crime and teaching parents about red flags for inappropriate content and contact online.

At a presentation in January, Perkins suggested parents establish rules with their children about their device usage and said they should be sure not only know what types of applications are on the device, but also how they are being used. For more information about Perkins' tips for parents, view the video below.

"Kids younger and younger are getting cell phones and technology into their possession and they're constantly being exposed 24/7 to electronic communication," Perkins said. "If they're unsupervised, have no guidance or rules on what we should and shouldn't do, then it's going to continue on."

Perkins said under the Child Privacy Protection Act, websites and mobile phone applications cannot collect personal information for children under 13 years old. Some mobile applications, like social networking messaging application Kik, require users to be 17-years-old to download and use it. Its website said this is because of "Frequent/Intense Mature/Suggestive Themes and unrestricted Web Access."

Perkins said, however, there is nothing restricting minors from simply entering a fake birth year and moving forward with using the application. This leads to problems in profile legitimacy both for the user and the people he or she may be interacting with. 

Perkins said the Cyber Crimes Task Force will continue work as planned through May, but that she is unsure what will happen after that point. Despite the emotionally taxing nature of the job, Perkins, a mother of two, said she can't imagine doing anything else.

At the Missouri ICAC office, Mateja said he wants a more concrete answer from state leaders.

"Really, we'd just like to hear from the governor. We've contacted his office, written letters and everything else, but we don't hear anything," Mateja said.

He said he'd like the opportunity to sit down with Nixon to talk about strategies for obtaining funding. 

It is still possible that Nixon could still release the funds, but the task forces said finding other solutions is vital.

The timeline below shows nine investigations conducted by the Boone County Sheriff's Department Cyber Crimes Task Force in the past year.