By Sam Levin
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By Sam Levin
By Sam Levin
By Sam Levin
Michael Kincade, for example, was a janitor working nights at various department stores in St. Charles County. "He was going in the girls' department and looking at underwear," recounts Mateja.
Mateja says the 57-year-old Kincade was not surprised to see officers show up at his St. Peters apartment in November 2005. "He was actually downloading when we walked in. He told us he knew this was eventually going to happen."
Brian Buehrle, a 22-year-old school bus driver, was caught in August 2006. In his possession were 500 photos and 157 videos, all of it child pornography. Now serving a twelve-year sentence, Buehrle sent a thank-you letter to the arresting officer, Mateja remembers, "for stopping his addiction before it went any further."
Then there was Michael Gulley, youth pastor at Grace Baptist Church in St. Charles. He'd shoot pictures of twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls and paste their heads onto adult bodies so it looked like they were having sex with him. A fellow pastor off tipped police to Gulley's lurid photos in 2005.
Gulley, who was in his 40s, even prompted the girls to make faces for the camera, Mateja says. "They'd be sitting there watching a basketball game. He'd say, 'Turn around and stick out your tongue.' He'd paste that onto an adult sex act."
Mateja oversees a St. Charles County forensics lab, part of a collective called the Regional Computer Crimes Education and Enforcement Group. It opened in 2001 and today employs twelve trained officers.
The group's founder, Ken Nix, says he originally thought the forensics work mainly involved theft, fraud and hacking cases. Instead, child-sex crimes accounted for 80 percent of the caseload. "I was naïve," Nix says. "I had no idea child pornography was so prevalent back then."
A slim man with tinted wire-rimmed glasses, Nix spent weeks in 2006 manually decompressing files that contained thousands of pornographic images, some of them showing children and infants being raped. In the end, Nix found that Jason Bilgere, a computer technician in his twenties, had amassed a collection of 100,000 photos and 5,000 videos.
Bilgere, later diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, was living in his parents' south St. Louis home. The family insisted an outsider must have sabotaged the computer in Bilgere's bedroom. "They didn't want him to plead," Nix says.
Eventually Bilgere admitted guilt and was sentenced in May 2007 to more than four years in federal prison. Most cases come to a similar conclusion, Nix says, because the evidence can be so overwhelming. "It's either there or it isn't," he says. "If it is there, it's kind of hard to explain it away."
One of the forensics group's main jobs is to confirm that hardware seized by police does in fact contain child pornography. That means Nix and his crew spend hours viewing the contents of files, with names such as "awesome VERY young little nude pussy," "Babysiter [sic] abuse," "Cute 12 Year Old Being Taught By Daddy" and "hot spermed little girls mix."
Nix knows that many child porn consumers have physically abused kids themselves. What drives him, he says, is the possibility that he'll find evidence and shut them down. He won't forget his first abuse case. It came four years ago from a national tip line. Someone was uploading photos, one of them of an erect penis pressed against a baby's vagina.
Nix traced the computer to a Wayne County truck driver. He and a team of officers converged on the man's home in southeast Missouri. They seized his computer. Later, Nix found that the man had been photographing his own young children, posed in sexual positions. He got 60 years in federal prison.
"It gives us a little satisfaction," Nix says. "We found the stuff. We saved the kids."
On the late afternoon of July 20, 2006, Cathy Bickford, a detective in Tuscarawas County, Ohio, was watching David Dale Powers masturbate in front of his Web camera. For a couple of months she'd been chatting online with Powers. All the while, the Dexter, Missouri, "webjacker" thought she was a fourteen-year-old.
Suddenly, she saw Powers pull a little boy over to finish the job. "I'd been doing these cases for several years and thought I'd seen it all," says Bickford. "It seriously threw me back. I couldn't reach the keyboard fast enough to tell him not to do that. The disbelief and the rage. I wanted to reach through the computer and grab this guy, but I didn't know who he was."
All Bickford knew of Powers that jarring afternoon was that he lived in Missouri. She managed to get in touch with the Clayton forensics group. Detective Brian Mize remembers her distress. She told Mize that the boy wasn't the only child in the Dexter household. "She said, 'I won't go to bed until I know these kids are safe,'" he recalls.
Mize used the images Bickford had captured from the Web camera as evidence to track down Powers in Dexter, a four-hour drive south of St. Louis. An all-out police effort ensued. "By 11:30, we served the warrant," Mize says. "We had real, live kids that day."
Examining sex offenders for pre-sentencing reports, St. Louis forensic psychologist Rick Scott has seen his share of pedophiles. "One guy drove [here] from Atlanta with two computers full of pornography to meet an eleven-year-old girl," he recalls. The Atlanta man was what cops call a "traveler."