Mo. police begin patrolling cyberspace for sexual predators

Training is increasing, cooperation is growing among agencies

By Tim O'Neil    
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Alton, MO -- It was so easy.

Alton police Lt. Jody O'Guinn entered an Internet chat room posing as a young girl. Within a few minutes, he had several "hits" from e-mail addresses claiming to be interested adult males.

"Some like to make small talk for a bit, others get right to the point," O'Guinn said. "It can get pretty graphic. Some want to know if you have nude pictures and if you've had sex.

"It all happens very quickly."

In its first two weeks of going undercover on the Internet, the Alton Police Department arrested three men who they say offered money to have sex with the department's fictitious 14-year-old girl, who was played by more than one officer.

Among those arrested was Kevin Coan, 39, a top administrator of the St. Louis Election Board.

O'Guinn said the department knew nothing of Coan's prominence and had been hoping to make more cases before making sensational news. But the case shed light on a murky underworld in cyberspace and the growing, fledgling, efforts by police to fight it.

Those efforts vary widely across the nation. Some departments work on their own, some join regional groups and some don't log on at all. In the St. Louis area, there's a new police alliance in the Metro East area that includes Alton, and there are efforts to build one among some departments on the Missouri side.

In 1993, FBI agents and police in suburban Washington arrested two men and accused them of using computers to find young people to molest sexually. Two years later, the FBI began its "Innocent Images" program nationwide to battle child pornographers and pedophiles who use the Internet. Agents regularly troll "chat rooms," where computer users can meet anonymously and write messages to each other.

The electronic dragnet made 113 computer-sex cases in 1996 and 1,541 last year, according to the bureau's Washington headquarters.

Meanwhile, states and local police departments made cases of their own. Most of them were one-time things, inspired by complaint from a parent, a tip from a shocked relative or the independent curiosity of a computer-savvy police officer.

As the cases piled up haphazardly, talk of cooperation began. Now there are about 30 regional police task forces.

Those groups also train officers how to search the hard drives of computers that have been seized during criminal investigations and to chase down people who distribute child pornography on the Internet.

Among police departments in the two-state area, the extent of Internet sleuthing varies widely. The St. Louis County Police Department doesn't do it at all; the St. Louis Police Department won't say whether it does.

There is no equivalent to the Metro East group on the St. Louis side of the Mississippi River, although Clayton police Detective Ken Nix is close to setting one up. Nix said his group includes about 30 officers from departments throughout the area and plans to begin training in early April.

But Nix said his group does not plan to copy Alton, preferring to concentrate first on helping officers properly search computers for information. If officers received allegations of solicitation by Internet, they would investigate or take the case to another agency.

The Glendale Police Department is seeking a federal grant for similar computer training but does not plan to set up chat-room stings, said a spokesman, who declined further comment.

The Metro East group is one of five in Illinois that are known as Regional Computer Crimes Enforcement Groups. Training got under way about one year ago, with cyber patrols starting six months ago.

Alton police Officer Michael Bazzell, who entered the chat rooms as "Amber" to make the three cases, is part of the Metro East group. He also is his department's in-house computer wizard.

Bazzell and his allies got their training through the Illinois attorney general's office, which obtained a federal grant to establish training.

Sgt. Steve Johnson of the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department, who is leader of the Metro East group, said it has made 17 cases on a variety of computer-related offenses including Alton's.

Coan, the St. Louis election official, stands accused of indecent solicitation of a child, a felony in Illinois. The charges allege that he met "Amber" in a chat room, proposed sex acts and offered to pay her $ 75. Alton police arrested him at a supermarket at which "Amber" had agreed to meet him.

Through a friend, Coan said he was set up by a caller who claimed that Coan's wife had collapsed at the store. He is free on bond.

O'Guinn, the Alton lieutenant, said Bazzell proposed entering the chat rooms after he finished the computer training.

"We told him to give it a shot," O'Guinn said. "We're trying to rid our community of sexual predators who are out there and who can take advantage of our young people on the Net."

O'Guinn, the father of two children, pleaded for parental supervision in helping to fight sexual predators.

In Missouri, the attorney general's office has a unit that specializes in computer-related crimes, with emphasis on consumer fraud. But that group also has worked to shut down a pornographic Web site and conducts regular training sessions for local police officers that cover computer policing, including work such as Bazzell's in Alton.

"This is so new for state and local authorities that we're trying to get our arms around it," said Chuck Hatfield, staff counsel to Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon. "We consult with local departments on issues like these."

Donald Wilkerson, an assistant U.S. attorney in downtown St. Louis, said his office has worked with FBI agents and other federal officers in filing cases such as Alton's. Wilkerson said the nature of the Internet allows agents working elsewhere to work cases here.

He said special training for police officers is good for many reasons. Be they on the street corner or in a chat room, police officers cannot entice someone to do something they otherwise would not do.

"The simple rule on entrapment is that you can't plant the idea in someone's head," Wilkerson said. "You don't have to tell someone the truth of who you really are, but the criminal act has to be his idea."

Wilkerson said there is plenty of room in the world of cyber crime for local police departments and metropolitan alliances.

"We're just touching the tip of the iceberg," he said. "Chat rooms make it so easy. There is a ton of this stuff out there, and it's only getting bigger."

Copyright 2001 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.

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