By Erik Barnett
The sexually abusive images produced horror among even veteran law enforcement officers. A girl, about age 3, stood on a bed wearing only red, fairy-like wings on her shoulders, as if participating in a dress-up game with a very sick twist. These images, discovered during the search of a pedophile’s computer by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations (ICE HSI) after an arrest in Boston, set off an international effort to save a little girl whose whereabouts were completely unknown.
Finding victims such as these is a tremendous challenge. Child sexual abuse images are transmitted thousands of miles instantly across national borders, while police often remain isolated within legal jurisdictions, unable to make arrests or easily further investigations outside of their own geographic boundaries. But not this time.
The illegal images themselves provided clues the ICE HSI agents could follow: common every-day items such as furniture, clothing, food, and even children’s toys. To make sense of them, however, an international team of criminal investigators would be required, with a sophisticated networking tool to quickly share information.
This tool was the Interpol Child Sexual Enforcement (ICSE) database – funded in part by the EU – which allows dedicated police officers from over 40 countries to pool their collective judgment, experience, and cultural backgrounds to identify, locate, and rescue online child sexual abuse victims. As the first step in the international effort to rescue her, the girl was referenced as “Demetria.”
An investigator from Eastern Europe determined that one image of Demetria standing on a bed, revealed a mattress label, possibly from a Russian furniture company. Also visible was an electrical outlet consistent with wiring in former Eastern Bloc countries. Perhaps Demetria lived in Russia or Eastern Europe, at least when the photos were taken.
Police investigators found other images of Demetria on various pedophile websites, including one in a car posed only in a t-shirt, with a crucifix and medallion around her neck. Here she appeared older, indicating that she had likely been sexually exploited for several years. Around this time, investigators from Denmark learned Demetria was possibly from Romania or Moldova. But a Moldovan investigator on ICSE swiftly reported that the way she wore her crucifix and medallion was not typical in Moldova, saving potentially hundreds of police hours wasted searching there.
Meanwhile, French investigators determined the car had been exclusively manufactured for sale on the Russian market. But a Canadian investigator thought a plastic drink bottle in the car might be Spanish. Law enforcement officers in Spain immediately contacted the parent company of the brand in the photo. A long shot, clearly, but investigators hoped that this multinational corporation, which sold over $66 billion worth of food and beverage products in 2013, could help them find a young victim through a mere photo of one bottle.
It paid off. Within 24 hours, the company provided significant and detailed information that the bottle in the photo was produced in Hungary, but also sold in Romania. With the incredible help of this multinational corporation, the focus returned to Eastern Europe.
As investigators continued their collaborative efforts, Demetria’s abuser uploaded new images on pedophile “chat rooms.” Among law enforcement, newly discovered images of child sexual abuse lead to two very different conclusions. One is the dismal truth that the sexual abuse may be ongoing. But, it also means there is a genuine opportunity for police to locate and rescue the victim from further abuse. Such knowledge caused the investigators to work even more intensely.
In one photo, Russian women’s magazines are on a bookshelf and other background items are definitively Russian. But where, in a country with 6.5 million square miles, should the investigators look?
Fortunately, in one image, there was a shop window with a sign. A store in a suburb outside Moscow. To narrow the search, Russian investigators pored over photos of the car. Find the car owner, find Demetria.
And they did. Russian investigators arrested the abuser – the little girl’s uncle – within eight months of the photos being found on a computer in the United States.
“Demetria” may never realize how efforts of law enforcement from at least eight countries rescued her from sexual abuse or that a multinational soft drink company helped find her. And she need not know that an international law enforcement information-sharing database broke down borders, allowing investigators to transfer intelligence and evidence in real time so she could be found. She need only know that she is safe.
Erik Barnett is Attaché to the European Union for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations, the largest investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.