Haunted by their work

Posted: June 20, 2014

SOMETIMES THEY turn on the television in the office, to scramble the sound of babies screaming.

They'll jump up from their computers and suggest a coffee break, hoping sunlight and some conversation will fade the images they've just seen.

Some go running, letting rage push their pace, tears and sweat mixing over the miles.

No matter what they do to decompress, the investigators, lawyers and forensic analysts who handle child-pornography cases say they can't outrun the first image they saw on the job, let alone the thousands of other horrors their eyes and ears have witnessed.

"When you choose to do this job, you are going into that world and it is permanently traumatic to your psyche in a way that can't be reversed," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Morgan, who has handled hundreds of cases involving child pornography, recently said at her Center City office.

"It's the darkest underside of humanity, and that's what we have to deal with every day. Once you do it, there's no turning back. There's no taking it away."

Morgan, 46, was one of several law-enforcement officials on the front lines of child-porn investigation who spoke candidly with the Daily News about their jobs - about how the countless hours spent watching heinous crimes against children has warped their worldview and left them haunted.

They're wary of technology in the public's hands, the damage a cellphone and a trendy new app can cause. They keep their circles small and their kids close, rarely talking work with buddies at the gym or even with their spouses.

It's a burden they've chosen, they said, because few people could bear to hear about it.

"It's a conversation-ender," said Special Agent Jim Zajac of the FBI's Crimes Against Children squad in Philadelphia. "People don't want to know this stuff."

Up on the 16th floor

In a downtown Harrisburg building, the Child Predator Unit of the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office sits in a small, windowless office on the 16th floor. At any given moment, the unit is handling a dozen cases. Agents often spend time in online chat rooms where adults look for sexual encounters with children.

"We just got a plea in a federal case," said Gordon Goodrow, 53, a supervisory special agent with the unit. "A woman had a relationship with an individual and he was asking her to open a day care so he could have sex with the children. His preference was 5- to 7-year-olds. He agreed to pay $150 to have sex with kids."

Attorney General Kathleen Kane made the unit a priority, Goodrow said, and prosecutions increased from 12, before she took over in 2012, to 114 last year. If Goodrow wants another case, references come in daily from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va.

He also can just hit a button on his computer.

Goodrow demonstrated a program the unit uses to find individual computers downloading and sharing child pornography, setting it to scan the last two hours, across the country.

One by one, little markers rained down on a map of the United States, dozens and then hundreds piling up atop one another in the Northeast and in Southern California. Goodrow stopped the program before it was finished running, with thousands of hits already on the map.

"At any one time, there are 2,800 people online downloading child porn in Pennsylvania," he said. "It's like shooting fish in a barrel."

Tips come in to Media

Pennsylvania's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, based in the Delaware County District Attorney's Office in Media, has analysts like Rosanna Powers and Nat Evans, who help filter cyber tips from the center in Virginia to law-enforcement agencies across Pennsylvania.

Powers and Evans said that the tips never stop coming in, and that since January, Delaware County has investigated 960 cyber tips, generally handling between 2,000 and 4,000 tips a year.

Evidence, including hard drives and cellphones, is held in an air-conditioned forensics lab in Media, where Detective Ed Pisani digs for images and videos.

"You can never prepare yourself for it," Pisani said. "You just have to hope something good comes out of it."

Powers, 31, said the degree of shock varies when she opens a file for the first time. Some images float around for years, and when analysts know that a child has been found or the suspect has been caught, it's not so traumatic.

It's the new, unfamiliar faces that bother them.

"When you look at an image and you don't know who the victim or the suspect is, it's a different perspective," Powers said. "There's a sense of urgency to it - because you're looking at kids who might be victimized as you're watching it."

'Videos are the worst'

Evans, who also worked for the Virginia center, said he tries to focus on the suspect, not the child, and his eyes scour the background for clues - a receipt on a table or a jacket hanging on a doorknob, anything to help identify the suspect's whereabouts.

"For me, I go with the idea that you're saving this child," said Evans, 37. "Videos are the worst, though, because you can hear. You hear kids crying, stuff like that."

Duane Bowers, a counselor who works with staff members of the Virginia center's exploited-child division, said women and men often handle the material differently.

"Men look at the job, and women look at the content. Men are much better at compartmentalizing, and women are much more likely to have a nurture instinct," Bowers said. "They're both working toward the same goal, though."

The center's Child Victim Identification Program has reviewed and analyzed more than 113 million child-pornography images since it was created in 2002, a spokeswoman said.

Bowers said that as many as 50 analysts look at images of child porn daily at the Virginia center. Many are fresh out of college and are introduced to child porn in varying degrees during the interview process. Some choose not to take the job. For those who are hired, Bowers said, problems can arise when they look for love or learn they're having a baby.

"The men might go out to a bar and someone asks what they do for a living, what do they say? 'I watch child porn all day,' " Bowers said. "When they tell people what they do, people think, 'Oh, there's something wrong with this guy.' "

Goodrow orders his unit to detach from the work from time to time, to get outside, or take a long lunch, when their "glass begins to overflow." Most agencies, including the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia, don't force employees to work on cases involving child pornography and violence against children.

If a day has become too overwhelming, the images too disturbing, Powers and Evans will take on the extra load for one another.

"Every now and then," said Powers, who was nine months pregnant when she spoke to the People Paper, "you will come across a case and you see an image, and I'm like, 'Nat, you have to take this one.' "

A 120-year sentence

One of the worst child-pornography cases in the United States originated in Delaware County in 2006, when investigators found a man named John Jackey Worman in possession of 1.1 million images. Worman was the sort of suspect every investigator dreams of busting, a pedophile who shared nightmares and made them, too.

Authorities said that Worman made 11,000 videos of himself sexually abusing young children, many of whom were offered up willingly by their mothers, one as young as six weeks. Worman was sentenced to 120 years in prison.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Rotella spent a lot of time in Worman's world, and it turned her into a "ball of anger," she said. She spoke to all of Worman's victims and watched jurors cry when they had to view the images.

One of them vomited, she said.

"I've been doing these cases a long time, about 16 years, and that was the worst one I ever had," said Rotella, 47. "He was just a horrible monster of a person. He kept one kid in a cage in the basement. The judge actually had a psychiatrist come in at the end of the trial to speak to us, to all of us."

The kinds of images that Worman and others like him share are almost never completely removed from circulation because they're traded and treasured, like baseball cards, all over the world.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark, N.J., announced that a Ukrainian man had been sentenced to 30 years in prison for operating a "hard-core child-sexual-abuse website." That case is connected to 600 other criminal convictions for child pornography across 47 states, the office said.

One infamous collection of child porn, the "Vicky" series, has been identified in about 8,000 cases, according to the Virginia center, and every investigator who spoke to the Daily News brought it up. The victim's father videotaped himself raping the girl for many years.

Morgan said she's seen Vicky videos dubbed with Britney Spears' "Baby One More Time." Gary McBride, an investigator with the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, said one song on the compilation is even more twisted.

"I can tell you that at 14 minutes and 31 seconds into one video, Maurice Chevalier's 'Thank Heaven for Little Girls' comes on," he said.

From all demographics

The people downloading, sharing and making child pornography come from all demographics, investigators said. They include doctors, teachers, teenagers.

Some are married and some have children, and the private space where they view their images is often hidden in a filthy basement corner, expensive computer equipment surrounded by bottles of urine, cat feces and candy wrappers.

"I'm not kidding, I've found that many of them have an affinity for Star Wars, for collecting things," Goodrow said.

One of the aftershocks of an arrest, Goodrow said, is discovering that a suspect has captured images of neighborhood kids or family members, or possibly done worse.

Goodrow has seen fathers fall to the floor after he utters a few painful sentences about their victimized children.

"I've given death notices, and I'm telling you, it's the same feeling," he said. "You're telling a parent that their worst nightmare has come true. It's like telling someone their daughter's dead."

Once the suspects are in custody, investigators have to build a rapport with the suspect, pretend they're sympathetic to get a confession and prevent any potential victims from having to testify.

"If you act like they're disgusting and they've done something wrong, they won't talk to you," Morgan said. "One agent I worked with said that sort of takes away a piece of your soul every time you do that."

'Get a stiff drink'

Although Internet providers have clamped down, suspects have found new ways to hide their images and activities, some reverting to mailing hard drives to one another. With kids owning cellphones and posting pictures of themselves on the latest apps at increasingly younger ages, predators try to slip in, posing as peers.

There are sure to be more analysts with fresh diplomas, or hardened police officers who think they've seen it all, seeing something they never could have imagined for the first time.

Someone on the right side of the law has to look at it, to help stop it.

"The first thing you're going to want to do is go out and get a stiff drink and clear your head and try to forget about it," said Thomas DiNunzio, an investigator with the Camden County Prosecutor's Office.

"The only way you can really deal with it, though, is to go out and start doing your job and catch the bad guys."


On Twitter: @JasonNark

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