Online child porn network 'most sophisticated ever'

March 4, 2008 6:04:43 PM PST
After James Freeman was vetted and approved for membership in what police describe as a highly sophisticated child porn network, he expressed his appreciation by posting two folders online: one labeled "mild," the other "wild."

"All I can say is that they are worth the download," wrote Freeman, 47, known in the global porn ring as "Mystikal," according to court documents. "My thanks to you and all the others that together make this the greatest group of pedos ever to gather in one place."

Freeman, of Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., was one of 12 Americans indicted last week in a worldwide investigation that ultimately charged 22 people with participating in the porn ring - and intentionally blocking police from investigating it.

In all, more than 400,000 pictures, video files and other images showing children engaged in sexual behavior were produced, advertised, traded and distributed globally in the online pornography ring, according to U.S. and international authorities. The sting, which started in Australia, also netted accused pornographers in England, Canada and Germany.

Some victims were as young as five years old. Others were preyed upon for innocent characteristics such as wearing their hair in pigtails.

Authorities won't say how they eventually broke through several layers of encryption, background checks and other security measures the pornographers used to protect their online user group from being accessed. The porn ring was run like a business, FBI executive assistant director J. Stephen Tidwell said Tuesday, with the lewd images used as currency instead of cash.

"This is beyond a quantum exponential leap for us to see folks that have gone to this much trouble to produce this kind of volume of horrific exploitation of children," Tidwell said in an interview.

So far, authorities have identified and rescued 20 of the children who were exploited, he said, adding: "But with 400,000 (images) we're going to be at this for years, trying to find the victims."

Australian investigators first discovered the ring and infiltrated it undercover in January 2006, said Ross Barnett, detective chief superintendent with the Queensland Police Service. Those who gained access to the online forum could only after passing a series of what Tidwell called "various benchmarks and bars to get over to get into their group."

"From our perspective, it's definitely the largest and most sophisticated and disciplined group that we have ever seen operating in this environment," Barnett said.

A 35-count indictment unsealed Friday in U.S. District Court in Pensacola, Fla., details conversations among the 12 men accused of trading and advertising the pornography. Two other Americans were also arrested in connection with the ring but not included in the indictment.

The men were charged in 11 states: California, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Washington. They all used aliases, such as "Box of Rocks," "Crazy Horse," "Lizzard" and "Pickleman."

In one example cited in the indictment, 54-year-old Raymond Roy of San Juan Capistrano, Calif., posted videos of Thai children "to give everyone something to do for an afternoon."

"This one may offend here, so a word of caution, these girls are heavily drugged," Roy, known as "Nimo," wrote on July 10, 2007, according to the court documents. "Not much action to speak of, the girls are (sic) to (expletive deleted) up to move, or resist. Three girls, the first one being the youngest, around 8 or 9 yo."

"Yo" stands for "years old."

The 12 men were charged with engaging in a child exploitation enterprise; illegally posting notices seeking to receive, exchange and distribute child porn across state lines; and obstructing of justice. Several also were charged with producing the pornography - meaning they had contact with the children who were exploited, Tidwell said.

The investigation, which is continuing, is the latest product of the FBI's "Innocent Images" task force that stemmed from a 1993 child pornography case. The task force has arrested more than 9,400 suspects since 2004 and is made up of international investigators working in the United States from an FBI command center in suburban Maryland.

Noting the sophisticated process the porn ring used to bar police, Tidwell compared the growing number of child pornography crimes to that of cocaine dealers, terrorists and the Mafia.

"If they had good operational security, that's a bad thing for us," Tidwell said. "When you've got that, you've got a real challenge for law enforcement."