FBI Online Sex Stings Winning First Convictions
NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) -- Eric Hopkins thought he had found his fantasy girl online.
"I remember there were girls I wanted in 8th grade that were hot," the 31-year-old Florida man wrote. "Now I'll have one all to myself."
Stacy was an obedient Connecticut 13-year-old who was good at keeping secrets and willing to run away. She promised to become his sex slave and call him Daddy. In exchange, Hopkins promised to take her to Disney World.
But Stacy was actually a Glastonbury police officer named Scott Driscoll who was assigned to an FBI task force. When Hopkins crossed into Georgia on his way to pick her up, federal agents swarmed.
FBI agents have been trolling Internet chat rooms since 1995. Since then, the Innocent Images program has become the bureau's second-largest operation, behind only the Sept. 11 terrorism case.
In July Connecticut became the first New England state to launch the program and investigators say it is already paying dividends. Working out of an office the size of a utility closet, Innocent Images agents in New Haven have opened 22 cases against pornographers and pedophiles.
The FBI is building a new, 4,000-square-foot office for Innocent Images in New Haven, and Special Agent Joseph Dooley said he expects more local police officers, like Driscoll, to receive FBI training this year.
"It's a growth business, which is scary," said Dooley, who heads Connecticut's cybercrime unit.
This month Hopkins became Connecticut's first conviction stemming from an online sting. He pleaded guilty in Bridgeport to using the Internet to entice a minor into sex. A week later Basil E. Doucette III of Dracut, Mass., pleaded guilty in Hartford to the same charge.
"I knew she was 13 years old," Doucette, a father of 5-year-old girl, told the judge. "But we hit it off."
In reality, he had hit it off with New Britain Police Officer Rodney Williams, who let Doucette court him for eight weeks. Their conversations progressed from friendly chatter about photography to personal details to sex.
Doucette arrived in Connecticut with bondage gear and camera equipment.
"It's sick stuff," Dooley said. "But it's out there."
Attracting attention in a chat room is surprisingly simple. Investigators target chat rooms with suggestive names about intergenerational relationships and incest, or rooms they know are used for illegal purposes.
Once an agent identifies himself as a child (usually a young girl) he instantly becomes the most popular person in the room.
"I knew there were predators and pedophiles online," Driscoll said. "But I didn't realize how many, and how easily they are available to children."
The messages come quickly -- sometimes so quickly the agents cannot keep up.
"You 12 or in 12th grade?" one chatter asked an FBI agent recently, responding to the number 12 in his profile.
"I'm 12. Is that OK?" the agent asked.
"It's more than OK," the chatter responded.
A minute later, he unknowingly told an FBI agent that he'd had a "boyfriend-girlfriend" relationship with a young child.
Most of those eager chatters just want computer sex. Agents are most interested in the ones who want to physically meet children, or those who send pornography. Many will send children pictures of their genitals.
Agents are trained in the basics of undercover work, including how not to entrap a suspect. But they are also trained in kid culture. They speak Web jargon and know the hottest bands and trendiest stores.
Pedophiles are savvy, Dooley said, and can tell if something seems out of place.
While agents are online, the FBI logs every key stroke. With 26 field offices operating Innocent Images units, it's not unusual for agents in two states to target the same person. Using a federal database, investigators can share information between field offices.
When the program grew in popularity in the late 1990s, some civil liberties groups worried that it would cross the line into entrapment.
But Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said patrolling cyberspace is no different from an undercover officer posing as a prostitute -- as long as agents are not encouraging or requesting meetings.
That's off limits for FBI agents, Dooley said. In fact, the bureau has made it a point to describe exactly how the program works, unlike many FBI operations which require more secrecy.
"We hope to deter this kind of conduct," Dooley said. "We'd rather not have any cases. Will people be pushed farther into the shadows? Perhaps, but that will require us to become more technical."
The FBI expects the program to keep expanding. A record 641 Innocent Images convictions were recorded nationally in fiscal year 2002. The data for 2003 is still being compiled, but midway through the year the FBI reported it was on track to eclipse the 2002 mark.
"Whether they're just hanging out at a park or hanging out on the Internet, we're going to be there," Connecticut U.S. Attorney Kevin O'Connor said. "We want them to know that if they're out looking for children, they're playing a dangerous game."