Earlier this summer, Roderick McArthur shuffled into a courtroom at the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Building for his sentencing hearing. Hunched over his walker, the 77-year-old Ballwin man was trailed by his wife and two middle-aged women who came in support. McArthur's pale blue eyes welled with tears as he waited for Senior Judge Donald Stohr to take the bench.
On April 2, the judge had found McArthur guilty of possessing child pornography, and now, because of a prior offense, he faced a ten-year minimum prison term. On this Friday morning of July 25, the only question left unresolved was whether Stohr might mete out an even longer sentence.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Costantin argued that McArthur deserved a stiffer penalty because he'd shown a pattern of deviant behavior. In 1986, McArthur pleaded guilty to child sodomy, and Costantin read aloud the statement he gave police more than twenty years ago. One of McArthur's supporters buried her face in her hands before the prosecutor finally concluded, "He stated he touched a minor's vagina on two occasions."
Molesting the twelve-year-old girl wasn't the last of McArthur's offenses, Costantin said, reminding the judge that McArthur had come to the attention of investigators after he was caught exposing himself in a West County Center parking lot.
Costantin was referring to the Saturday afternoon of April 1, 2006, when a mall security guard spotted McArthur masturbating in his parked car. The guard tipped off Des Peres police officer Trent Koppel, who pulled over McArthur's Buick LeSabre after he'd begun to cruise through the lot.
A tall, square-shouldered brunette, Koppel stepped out of her patrol car and strode over to the maroon sedan. "Stop, police," she ordered. "Stop this car!" Then, Koppel recounts, she reached through the open window and pressed her palm against his chest.
McArthur had one hand on the steering wheel, the other wrapped around his penis. "He was fully engaged," Koppel says. "He was going at it."
While booking McArthur for public indecency, Koppel came across a photograph in his wallet. Behind the clear plastic window that's normally reserved for a driver's license, Koppel saw a nude toddler. The little boy had one finger in his mouth and was looking down at a superimposed adult penis. She recalls: "This penis was where [the toddler's] was, but it was ginormous!"
McArthur dismissed the photo as a joke. "He said, 'Keep it. It's funny,'" Koppel remembers. McArthur posted a $1,500 bond and was released that same night. But Koppel made sure St. Louis County detectives saw the tawdry photo. "There are certain alarms that go off."
Three days later, county police officers showed up at McArthur's Ballwin home with a search warrant and seized his computer. Although McArthur had reinstalled the computer's Windows operating system since his arrest, forensic specialists were able to retrieve the deleted contents of the hard drive.
Given one last chance to speak at the July sentencing, McArthur insisted on his innocence. He said he visited adult porn Web sites, but that he'd never looked at child pornography. In any case, he argued, he never saved smut of any sort to his hard drive. Bracing himself against his walker he asserted, "I was wrongfully convicted of this supposed crime."
Judge Stohr went on to sentence McArthur to twelve and a half years in federal prison for one count of possession of child pornography. He's now serving time at a penitentiary in Springfield, Missouri.
U.S. Attorney Catherine Hanaway has made prosecuting child pornography offenders a top priority since her appointment in July 2005. "We will not decline a case here because of a lack of resources," she told police chiefs and sheriffs from the Eastern District of Missouri's 49 counties.
Now, three years later, Hanaway is one of the top prosecutors of child-exploitation crimes in the nation, according to an annual Department of Justice tally of caseloads at each of the 93 U.S. attorneys' offices. (The bulk of offenses in the child-exploitation category involve production, distribution or possession of child pornography.)
For the fiscal year that will end on September 30, the justice department predicts that Eastern Missouri will have generated 76 child-exploitation cases, making it second only to central California. "We're pushing hard; there's no two ways about that," says Hanaway, a former Republican Speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives.
Finding child porn on computers has become the fastest and most efficient means of rooting out perverts. Because the obscene images are traded openly on the Internet and stored on hard drives like a winter's worth of acorns, investigators can reel in suspects by the dozen.
Child pornography cases are so commonplace that detective Ken Nix, who oversees a computer forensics unit in Clayton, says the outcome is expected. "The person's going to go to court," he says, "and be found guilty."
The hunt for child pornography has taken St. Charles County Sheriff's Lt. Chris Mateja to dozens of doorsteps over the past five years. Often, he won't bother to obtain a search warrant before he knocks. "A lot of people are pretty forthcoming about it," he notes. "I don't know why."
Mateja speculates that handing over the computer comes as a relief. "I've watched a lot of these [post-arrest] interviews," he says. "A lot of them say, 'I'm really attracted to these kids. It may have gone further. I'm glad you stopped me.'"
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."
Says Scott: "I had one of those isolated, overweight, pimply-faced 25-year-olds. He went to Memphis from St. Louis and got busted crossing the river. And he really thought he was meeting someone he fell in love with online."
Scott is not ready to label all child-pornography collectors as predators: "Pornography is not a mainline to contact offending." Scott says while it's true that people who touch kids are more likely to want pictures of them, "We can't say that viewing child pornography leads someone to later offend."
He liked feet, white ankle socks and Frankie Muniz, the child star of the late-1990s television show Malcolm in the Middle.
At first, Maryland Heights police officer Erica Stough knew Justin Dorvee of Queensbury, New York, only as "Puma8Malcolm," a screen name that paid homage to Muniz's favorite brand of sneaker and shoe size. "It was all about Malcolm in the Middle and Puma shoes, which I can't look at anymore," says Stough, who assumed the identity of a fourteen-year-old boy and began chatting online with Dorvee in April 2007.
The conversation lasted two months, but Stough says she had a feeling about Dorvee's intentions from day one. "He asked about what kind of shoes I wore, what kind of socks I wore, and his profile was very strange," she says. "There was an indication he was involved in a little bit more than young kids' socks and shoes."
The chat soon turned explicitly sexual. Dorvee said he wanted to meet, but he wasn't willing to travel to Missouri. Stough decided to pass the case to the sheriff's department in Warren County, New York, where Dorvee lived.
Sheriff's investigator Mo Aldrich picked up the thread. He created a MySpace profile for "Seth" and struck up a conversation with Dorvee. "At first it was once a week. It very quickly turned into him wanting to chat every night," Aldrich says. "I would tell him, 'I'm watching the Little League World Series.' He was very into the Little League World Series."
Aldrich says it didn't take much to get Dorvee going. "Without prompting by me, he would [say], 'Hey, do you have some time to talk dirty to me so I can masturbate?'" At Dorvee's request, Aldrich downloaded Yahoo! Messenger. Dorvee then sent over a half-hour's worth of child pornography. "He told me during chats that he had over 20,000 pics and videos."
If Dorvee had looked closer at Seth's profile he might have realized he wasn't chatting with a real kid. The only photo was a blurred image of a boy on a BMX bike. When Dorvee asked for more pictures, Aldrich would put him off by claiming technical difficulty.
Finally, in October 2007, Dorvee asked for a meeting. He and "Seth" were to go to the boy's house after Dorvee finished work at the Queensbury T.J. Maxx store. The boy's mother worked nights, so they would be alone.
Dorvee showed up that night, as promised, with supplies to feed his fetish, Aldrich says. "He was going to bring Frankie Muniz movies and the digital camera. He made sure to have his white ankle socks on."
While officers swarmed Dorvee, a rotund 26-year-old, in the parking lot of the T.J. Maxx store, another team served a search warrant on the house where he lived with his mother. They found a record stash of child pornography and three file cabinets full of printed chat transcripts.
What's more, Dorvee had been taking photos of his neighbor's kids while they were jumping on a trampoline or riding a bike, Aldrich says. "He would've had an actual, physical victim at some point."
Dorvee pleaded guilty in March 2008 to New York state charges and now faces a federal charge for the child pornography. The case, the first for Warren County, prompted Aldrich to start his own chat-room sting operation. Never having played a teenage girl, he asked Stough for feedback. The 31-year-old Stough has a knack for texting like a teenager might. "I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing," she says.
Stough observes her teenage niece, listens to Rihanna and says she's never stumped for lines when chatting with her suitors. "I've got an imagination like you wouldn't believe," she says. But her success can be disturbing. She practically gags on the name of one offender who wanted to meet her fourteen-year-old persona for a threesome — and include his nine-year-old daughter.
As promised, he arrived at the agreed-upon parking lot in Maryland Heights with the girl riding in the back seat of his beat-up green Cadillac. "My heart sank when I saw his daughter in the car," Stough says. "It made me sick to my stomach."
Chat-room stings have been widely publicized, especially while Dateline NBC was running its To Catch a Predator series, yet Maryland Heights Police Captain Scott Will says men continue to flock to his undercover officers. When Stough first went online, he says, "It was like swatting flies."
Detectives who patrol file-sharing networks, such as LimeWire and BearShare, find the suspects just as plentiful. Wildwood-based computer forensics expert Greg Chatten advises defense attorneys on child pornography cases. "In the last year," he says, "the file sharing has far outweighed the other methods of how stuff got on the computer."
Investigators with the St. Louis County Police and St. Charles County sheriff's departments routinely search file-sharing networks for computers that are downloading or offering up child pornography. People who collect the contraband can't disguise it, Chatten says, because each file has a unique identifier, a string of numbers called a "hash value." "It's the DNA of that file," he explains.
Once detectives find a cache of contraband in the virtual world, they subpoena the Internet service provider for a physical address. "They find out it's Johnny Jones in Lake Saint Louis," Chatten says. "They don't care about how the images got on the computer."
Chatten's job is to look for alternative explanations. A virus can redirect an Internet browser to illegal territory without the user's knowledge, he says. And people who keep child porn online often tag it with misleading file names. "Especially on the peer-to-peer file sharing," he says, "There's no guarantee what you're searching for is what you're going to get."
The stakes are high for child pornography defendants. If prosecutors can prove one knew what he or she was downloading, the minimum sentence is five years. "You can touch a kid and get less time; you can get probation," criminal defense attorney Paul D'Agrosa complains. "Nobody can explain to me why those penalties are so severe in comparison with the actual crimes."
Carrie Costantin prosecuted sex crimes at the state level for thirteen years before she became an assistant U.S. attorney. She hasn't forgotten the frustration of "little kid" molestation cases. "She's going to have to get on the stand and testify and not freeze up," Costantin says, recollecting a typical scenario. "There's no physical evidence. He'll have no priors, and he'll say, 'I don't know why she's saying these things.'"
Half the time, Costantin lost.
Costantin handles most of the child pornography cases at the U.S. attorney's office in St. Louis, and she says it's "a totally different ballgame." When she can present the court with a stack of photos, she asks, "What is there to disbelieve?"
Seated at the defendant's table, hands cuffed in his lap, John Charles Davis has a few moments to reflect on his future before the federal marshal comes to take him away.
Davis was indicted for possession of child pornography in 2007, after he engaged in an online chat with an undercover FBI agent in Detroit. Thinking he was talking to a mother of two young girls, he sent the agent a video of men performing sex acts with children.
With a tip from Detroit, local agents searched for more contraband in Davis' south St. Louis apartment. Among the digital photos stashed on his hard drive was a file named "very young girl done by dog."
Davis, 48, wears a red button-down shirt, open at the neck. His handlebar mustache matches his blond hair, combed back and parted down the middle. He worked in the City of St. Louis' information technology department before his arrest. After serving the five years and ten months that U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry just handed him, the former techie won't be allowed to touch a computer without a probation officer's written permission.
Gazing across the nearly empty, hushed courtroom, Davis concludes, "I pretty much don't have any life."
While packing her up files, federal public defender Diane Dragan says, "As you saw, I used every argument I could think of." She reminds Davis that under the plea agreement, there's no appealing the sentence for possession of child pornography. Dragan takes a swig of water from a Styrofoam cup, and leaves Davis with his two supporters. "Sorry," she says on her way out.
Davis is still stunned. "I would never hurt a child," he says. "The photo thing — I can see where that would hurt the child, but not physically."