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HPD combats Web predators

Source: The Herald-Dispatch
By Lee Arnold
Date: September 15, 2003

Cyber-crime HUNTINGTON -- The Internet has become a virtual playground for child predators.

A predator can anonymously slip into a children’s chat room, extract personal information from the children in the room and potentially use the information for a meeting or abduction that could lead to sexual abuse. While Internet usage has steadily grown over the past 10 years, many local law enforcement agencies are ill-prepared to deal with cases that have high-tech implications.

The Huntington Police Department, while struggling to adequately staff its personnel-strapped department, is taking steps to be ready to work cyber-stalker cases in the future. Local law enforcement taking steps to battle Internet predators is a vital step toward protecting children it the future, said Capt. Rick Wiita of the Bedford County (Virginia) Sheriff’s Department.

The Bedford County Sheriff’s Department operates Operation Blue Ridge Thunder, a highly heralded task force dedicated to pursuing child predators online. The department serves as a coordinator for more than 130 police agencies training to combat Internet crimes in the Untied States. Three West Virginia Police Departments -- including Hurricane, Beckley and Huntington -- work with the operation, Wiita said.

The need for the department to be prepared for cyber-crime investigations is currently limited, due to West Virginia not having laws declaring it a crime to arrange a meeting with a child with the intent to have sex. At present, such crimes fall solely into the jurisdiction of federal law enforcement, but that, like the Internet, could quickly change.

Delegate Greg Howard (R-Cabell) is preparing legislation to present during the upcoming legislative session. The law would mimic such laws that are currently on the books in Virginia, home of the Bedford County Sheriff’s Department.

Blue Ridge Thunder distributes more than $1.6 million to its partners for purposes of education and equipment, Wiita said. The money is granted by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

"If a law enforcement agency has not dealt with an Internet crimes case yet, they will," Wiita said. "It is important to be ready."

Detective Kendra Beckett of the Huntington Police Department has been working with Blue Ridge Thunder since 1999, and entered a cooperative service agreement with the agency in January. The agreement affords the Huntington Police Department assistance from the group with any investigation that involves Internet child predators. It also places Beckett in a position to offer assistance on cases initiated by Blue Ridge Thunder that come into West Virginia, Beckett said.

With the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reporting that one in five children aged 10 to 17 reported being solicited sexually online, the agreement could prove vital. More than 77 million children under the age of 16 are expected to use the Internet regularly by 2005, according to the NCMEC.

Beckett has been training to investigate computer crimes since 1999. Last year, she was named as a team member of the national Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and met with President George Bush.

Her goal is to have the Huntington Police Department ready to respond to such cases when the law changes and more local cases are being reported.

She recently returned from a training session in Dallas.

While the Huntington Police Department has not been involved in cases involving traveling child predators, there have been cases involving child pornography possession.

"It is happening here," she said. "We might not see it, but it is happening here."

Ideally, Beckett would like to be able to dedicate a number of hours per week to cruise Internet chat rooms, search for predators undercover, arrange meetings and make arrests. However, with the personnel issues within the department, such activity is nearly impossible, she said.

Despite the dim possibilities for the future, she wants to make sure the department has the laid the foundation to quickly be able to pick up such activities if the personnel becomes available.

Part of that groundwork is establishing laws in West Virginia making Internet stalking a crime, she said.

The law Howard plans to present in January will make it illegal to use the Internet to promote the use of a minor in sexual activity. It would also make intent to commit the crime a crime.

The current laws in West Virginia do not allow this type of prosecution^; all cases of this nature are taken to federal court.

"It is important for law enforcement to recognize the changing nature for criminal activity in today’s world," Howard said. "There are sick and deviant people who use the Internet to solicit children to meet them in our community to engage in sexual acts and other criminal activity."

Blue Ridge Thunder is planning an informational meeting for West Virginia law enforcement agencies and business leaders to take place sometime in the next few months, Wiita said.

The meeting is expected to be the beginning of the effort to emphasize the dangers of being unprepared, he said.

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