Federal prosecutors target production of child pornography

A screen capture of a conversation happening involving ICAC (WBNS-10TV)

CrimeTracker 10 sat down with the Franklin County Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, or ICAC, and quickly discovered the underground market for sharing and swapping child pornography can run rampant online.

Lt. Dan Johnson is essentially the founding father of ICAC, and said, sadly, there is no shortage of work.

"And if they could, they could be as busy as they want to be. They could do three-to-four search warrants every single day if they had the resources and the manpower to do so," said Lt. Johnson.

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Fifteen years ago, ICAC was targeting suspects investigators referred to as "travelers." Investigators said the suspects were typically men who traveled to central Ohio to meet an undercover officer posing online as a young girl or boy.

Investigators said currently, the dark web and encrypted apps make it easier for pedophiles to produce and share photos and videos depicting the sexual abuse of children.

Prosecutors said the good news is more defendants are getting caught.

In August of 2018, federal prosecutors filed child pornography charges against six Central Ohio men. Prosecutors accused William Weekely of raping a 10-year-old girl while video recording the abuse and sharing it with others.

Prosecutors said Weekely physically "shared" the child with another defendant. At a press conference, the U-S Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, Ben Glassman, called the case sickening.

"He sexually abused her in horrible ways including oral sex, anal sex, and bestiality," said Glassman. Two months later, prosecutors announced federal charges against three Licking County men accused of sexually abusing toddlers, and making and sharing videos of the abuse.

ICAC investigators said cases like these are far from rare.

"We've seen cases where these predators are molesting children on live webcam," said Lt. Johnson.

Now, the number of production of child pornography cases are on the rise in Central Ohio. Glassman said since 2013, the number of cases of the production of child pornography, videos and photos of abuse created in Central Ohio, has doubled. During that same period of time, the number of defendants facing federal charges for the production of child pornography increased by more than 200 percent.

Glassman told Crime Tracker 10 investigators have become experts at following the digital trail of evidence.

"A decade ago, we may have had one case against one person, now we have one case against that person and every person that person was communicating with and distributing child pornography to," explained Glassman.

ICAC investigators said it's common for defendants to offer to share children, even their own children, for sex, and say family members rarely have a clue.

"More times than not, the families are completely shocked. They have no idea this was going on. They're completely blindsided," said Lt. Johnson.

Glassman said it's everyone's job to be vigilant and report suspicions to law enforcement. Glassman had a message for people who prey on children.

"You will be caught. If you are caught, this office will prosecute you, and you will go to prison for a long time," said Glassman.

In the case targeting Weekly, five defendants could face life in prison if convicted of the federal charges.

The National Center For Victims Of Crime shared these tips to help parents identify signs of a pedophile grooming a child:

  • Identifying and targeting the victim. Any child or teen may be a potential victim. Some predators may be attracted to children and youth with certain characteristics or may target youth with certain co-existing factors—such as vulnerable parents—to facilitate the crime.
  • Gaining trust and access. The perpetrator may observe the child and assesses his/her vulnerabilities to learn how best to approach and interact with the child. Perpetrators may offer the victims special attention, understanding and a sympathetic ear, and then engage the child in ways that eventually gain their friendship and trust (they may play games with victims or give them rides, provide them with gifts and/or special treats).
  • Playing a role in the child’s life. The perpetrator may manipulate the relationship so that it appears he or she is the only one who fully understands the child or meets the child’s needs in a particular way. A perpetrator may also exploit a youth’s empathy and convince the young person that s/he is the only one who understands the perpetrator and reinforce that the perpetrator “needs” the child or youth.
  • Isolating the child. Offering the child rides and/or taking the child out of his or her surroundings is one way that the perpetrator may separate the child from others and gain access to the child alone so that others cannot witness the abuse. (Note that in other instances, perpetrators have been successful in molesting victims without detection while other adults were in the room.)
  • Creating secrecy around the relationship. The perpetrator may reinforce the special connection with the victim when they are alone or through private communication with the victim (such as letters, emails or text messages), and strengthen it with admonitions against telling anyone, lest others be unhappy about it. The perpetrator may threaten the victim with disclosure, suicide, physical harm to the child or loved ones, or other traumas if he or she tells.
  • Initiating sexual contact. With the power over the child victim established through emotional connection coercion or one of the other tactics, the perpetrator may eventually initiate physical contact with the victim. It may begin with touching that is not overtly sexual (though a predator may find it sexually gratifying) and that may appear to be casual (arm around the shoulder, pat on the knee, etc.). Gradually, the perpetrator may introduce more sexualized touching. By breaking down inhibitions and desensitizing the child, the perpetrator can begin overtly touching the child.
  • Controlling the relationship. Perpetrators rely on the secrecy of the relationship to keep it going, and to ensure that the child will not reveal the abuse. Children are often afraid of disclosing the abuse. They may have been told that they will not be believed, or that something about the child “makes” the abuser do this to them. The child may also feel shame or fear that they will be blamed. Often, the perpetrator threatens the child to ensure that s/he won’t disclose the abuse.