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Missoula police Detectives Chris Shermer and Guy Baker and Missoula County sheriff’s Detective T.J. McDermott, from right, are the linchpins of the Missoula Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Shermer works full time busting Internet predators, while Baker and McDermott are part time on the task force. Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

The 14-year-old "girl" gets all the glory.

You know the one. She chats online and seemingly has no problem talking dirty with men twice, three times her age. She even wants to meet them for something more than talk.

Except that when the guy in question shows up, he finds out the teenager with whom he intends to have sex is actually a Missoula cop.

It makes for good reading, not to mention a near-guaranteed conviction in court.

But such cases comprise only part of the work - arguably the easier part - done by Montana's Internet Crimes Against Children task force.

Another part of the task force's job involves tracking down the people who are viewing and soliciting child pornography, and enticing children to make it.

People like Robert Rowe, a 36-year-old Missoula man sentenced earlier this month to more than 15 years in federal prison for photographing and videotaping an underage girl while she was nude or nearly so.

Police got a break when it came to Rowe, who was accused of making more than 100 videos of the girl. Someone tipped them off to his activities, and they found the images on his computer.

Likewise with William Vernon Williams, 36, of Missoula, who came to the attention of police in 2008 when a rent-to-own business alerted law enforcement that it had found child porn on a computer he'd leased. He pleaded guilty to receipt of child pornography and was sentenced in March 2010 to 15 years in federal prison.

It's rarely that easy.

Missoula ICAC task force member Chris Shermer, a Missoula police detective, estimated only 10 percent to 15 percent of such cases stem from a report to law enforcement. The others involve interminable hours in front of a computer screen, checking known file-sharing and other websites used by child pornographers, and tracking back addresses whose owners have taken considerable pains to conceal their identities.

"There's no fanfare," said Shermer.

As fast as law enforcement becomes familiar with the sites and methods used by child pornographers, the people they're after come up with new ways to get what they want.

"A lot of our online perpetrators are getting smarter, more savvy, harder to catch," said Tim West of Billings, the Montana ICAC task force program coordinator.

But even when they use the simplest methods - David Colter Wiles, 27, of Missoula, told authorities he got his child porn by using the free Internet access provided by local businesses - it can be tough to trace, and then legally document, their tracks. Authorities interviewed Wiles in 2007, but he wasn't sentenced until last year, when he received 40 years in federal prison.

"These are very complex cases involving a lot of paperwork," said Missoula County Sheriff's Sgt. T.J. McDermott, who soon will cede his position on the task force to Deputy Chris King.

Hence the task force, a federally funded combination of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. Task force members decide on a case-by-case basis whether to pursue charges in county or federal courts.

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There's an ICAC task force in every state. In Montana, 17 agencies across the state participate. Missoula's task force got a special three-year grant that expires at the end of this year, but McDermott said he expects it will be renewed.

"They're the most important cases ... in our community," McDermott said. The task force "proactively identifies pedophiles and child predators who are removed from our community."

That proactive part is the silver lining to the dark world of child pornography: Even as the Internet makes it easier for child pornographers to obtain and share images, it also makes it easier for law enforcement to catch them.

Statistics suggest that "whatever novelty and complexity the Internet adds to these cases may be offset by other Internet features that aid in prosecution, such as transcripts of conversations between the offenders and victims, or images of children stored and sent online," according to a report titled "Internet Crimes Against Minors."

That report by the national Center for Missing & Exploited Children, the Crimes against Children Research Center, and the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention examined arrests made in 2000 and 2001.

Nationally, the number of arrests made by ICAC task forces and their affiliates more than tripled between then and 2006, according to a study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

The center attributed that increase to a "growing, robust and strategic response" by law enforcement to the issue.

In its report, the center also cautioned that the 859 child pornography arrests in 2006 were a very small part of the 49,345 arrests in the United States for sexual offenses against minors.

Still, said Shermer, "I don't see anything more important. Protecting our children is probably one of the most important things we do."

Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio@missoulian.com or on CopsAndCourts.com.

 

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