To catch an online predator
Ramping up efforts to prevent crimes against children
By Lori Adler, reporter
A review of recent Oneida County court records reveals a clear increase in the arrest and prosecution of online sexual predators over the past year. This is not simply coincidence but rather a concerted effort among law enforcement officials, beginning with the Oneida County Sheriff’s Department. The sheriff’s department has named the prevention of crimes against children one is its top two priorities and has been increasing efforts to capture these criminals.
For those who think this isn’t a problem in Oneida County, Detective Sergeant Bob Hebein, replied, “It happens. It happens here, and it’s real.”
Hebein along with Detective Sergeant Chad Wanta, and several other members of the Oneida County Sheriff’s Department, are part of a state-wide Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force. The task force works in conjunction with many other county, state and federal law enforcement agencies to catch and prosecute child predators, including those engaged in child enticement and sex crimes, child pornography and trafficking.
Sexual predators have been online almost as long as there have been home computers and the internet. The first well-known case of this type of crime happened in 2002 when Alicia Kozakiewicz, then age 13, was abducted by a man she had corresponded with online. After a year-long online relationship, the 38-year-old man, whom Alicia thought was a 13-year-old boy, convinced her to meet him. He kidnapped her, took her to a house more than 200 miles away and raped and tortured her for several days before authorities rescued her.
Alicia survived her attacker and went on to help pass Alicia’s Law which provides a dedicated stream of funding to ICAC task forces across the country. Alicia’s Law has been passed in 11 states thus far, including Wisconsin, and is a source of funding for Oneida County’s program, helping to alleviate the overtime costs required for this type of work.
To begin the process of capturing a predator, Hebein and other officers have to develop a persona, essentially becoming a 14- or 15-year-old girl, create a story and then remember every detail, or they won’t be believed.
“There’s a lot of stuff we have to learn because there’s a different subculture, a different language,” Hebein explained, “A lot of my job is researching what they’re doing, how they’re talking, so I can recognize things.”
When Hebein first started working with this project, he was not overly familiar with the many social media sites and apps normally involved in these crimes. He didn’t even have a Facebook page so he had a lot to learn. While many might think these activities take place on the Dark Web, these criminals are utilizing sites people commonly use daily. Even seemingly innocent sites like Pinterest have a hidden element to them.
Hebein said, “A lot of times you need to know where to look within these things, and that’s a lot of our research and just gaining experience. Craigslist, Facebook, Instagram…all these things that the average person thinks are just for communicating with your friends, showing them pictures of your dog, buying a lawn mower, whatever, there’s always a twist to them.”
Initially, the officers dedicated a time to go online, chatted as their persona and had success in capturing someone who traveled to the area with the intent of committing a sex crime with a child. However, the criminals are getting more savvy, and now it has become a long-term effort, often taking weeks or even months to build up enough trust for the criminal to decide to travel to meet who they think is an under-aged child.
So while there was initial success, the program is an ever developing one with always something new to learn. In addition, there are certain elements that have to be met for each crime. Simply talking online with a 15-year-old and making a plan to meet is not a crime. The criminal must complete the task of actually traveling to a meeting location in order for an arrest to occur and getting to this point takes time. At no point during this process, however, is there ever really a child involved, just an officer impersonating one.
Bringing in the criminals takes more than just one person. This entire process often involves help from ICAC state headquarters in Madison and other county and city law enforcement. In addition, Oneida County has an onsite Department of Criminal Investigation (DCI) officer. The DCI officer can often help speed up subpoena and warrant requests and has access to a whole other set of resources as well as statewide jurisdiction.
Other help in the process comes in the form of the many people who work at Oneida County Sheriff’s Department, and while other officers provide assistance of course, they aren’t the only ones. Hebein explained that he has worked with some of the younger women on staff for advice on things such as talking like a teenage girl.
“We use practically everybody in this building at one point or another to accomplish our goal,” Hebein remarked, “Everybody here takes some kind of ownership in what we’re doing, and it wouldn’t get done without everybody.”
While Hebein works primarily on capturing the criminals the department refers to as “travelers” (those who travel to have sex with a child), Wanta spends time working on child pornography cases. He receives leads from the National Center for Missing and Endangered Children (NCMEC) and works with many local agencies to try to track down the perpetrators. Though Wanta does not receive a large number of these leads, finding the perpetrators is important as he feels that those looking at images can very easily decide they want to act and will begin looking for children.
In addition to child pornography, Wanta and Hebein are also looking for ways to attack the growing human trafficking problem.
Wanta stated, “We don’t have any specific intel that there’s trafficking going on, but we’re sure there is.”
It’s all about being proactive and trying to stay ahead of the criminals. Often just by being online, Hebein and others discover other crimes including drugs and stolen items. In addition, sometimes officers come across a child who is engaging in dangerous activities on the internet.
Hebein said, “We try to identify these kids, and usually it’s fairly easy, and we’ll have a talk with them and their parents depending on their situation. Just being out there, we find a lot of stuff that isn’t necessarily a person traveling to have sex with a 15-year-old kid. It’s just the more you’re out there, the more you’ll find.”
One of the main problems they see, especially when talking with children and their parents, is a lack of awareness.
“Everybody has a picture in their head of this pedophile,” Hebein stated, “He’s the guy hiding in the bushes. He looks dirty. He’s jumping out of the bushes and grabbing a kid at the park. The people that I’ve been a part of arresting in the last year have ranged from the age of 20 to 55, all levels of education. We had a teacher, people with good jobs, people that are married, that have their own children. So if you walk past any one of these in Walmart, you wouldn’t go ‘that’s the guy.’”
“You never know,” Wanta added, “It could be your neighbor.”
Both officers feel it’s important for the public to be aware of what is happening in their communities.
“Most people don’t care,” Wanta said. “As long as it doesn’t affect them, they don’t care. But I think anybody in this community who has children or knows children should know what the heck is going on.”
Explaining that it’s the efforts of everyone working together that really can make a difference, Wanta added, “It’s a battle.”
Both Wanta and Hebein continue to fight the battle every day. While they are available to handle other cases in the department if needed, leadership has made it a priority to keep these officers working on crimes against children and capturing online predators.