Hunting down online sexual predators has required law enforcement to adapt and to adopt new tools and tactics, according to Dr. J. Michael Wood, Sex Offender Screening and Risk Assessment program psychologist for the Arkansas Department of Corrections.
Third in a series. Hunting down online sexual predators has required law enforcement to adapt and to adopt new tools and tactics, according to Dr. J. Michael Wood, Sex Offender Screening and Risk Assessment program psychologist for the Arkansas Department of Corrections. Wood, who has conducted law enforcement training in sex offender-related crime investigation, explained that the internet has changed everything where the sexual predator is concerned. “When I first started, it was 13 or 14 years ago,” he said in an extended interview with the Hope Star. “That was back in 1999 or 2000. I don't even know if I was on the internet at that time; so, the only time I saw child pornography sex offenders were the kind that were doing mail order. Those were U. S. Postal Service cases; they were ordering videotapes or magazines in Postal Service kinds of things, going to bookstores with back rooms. You didn't see the casual person on the internet, like we do now.” Wood said the internet has changed the child pornographer-stalker's tactics from using mail order generated pornography that was primarily anonymous to becoming the pornographer and potential abuser oneself. “The internet has made it so easy because people feel anonymous,” he said. “People are sitting in their homes and it's very accessible because it's affordable. You can get a computer for a couple hundred dollars, pay your internet fee or go to Wi-Fi at a fast food place.” But, law enforcement can track computer usage by linking a computer's Internet Provider address with the website browsers that it has frequented, as was the case with Loyton Scott Francis, 31, of Malvern, Ark., who was sentenced June 20 to 10 years in federal prison for possession of child pornography. According to U. S. Attorney Conner Eldridge's office, Francis was tracked by Fayetteville Police who investigated computer usage in the distribution of child pornography via a software program known as Limewire. Francis had 38 photographs and 20 videos depicting child pornography on his computer when he was arrested. “They feel anonymous and that gives them the impetus to cross those boundaries,” Wood said. That boundary is the one between the world of moral and legal propriety and illicit desire, he explained. “A lot of times the defense you will hear the sex offender make is: 'I thought it was an adult pretending to be a kid,'” Wood said. “But, in the chat, we always get the chat log. And, so we say, 'In the chat, she says she's 13; she says she's stressed about cheerleading; you're asking her about all the popular movies and songs.' “It's clear that he doesn't think that is an adult,” Wood said. “I wish I had a nickel for every time they tell me, when we ask 'What were you going to do with her, if you met her?' and, this wasn't a police officer, and they say, 'I was going to go tell her parents what she was doing on the internet.' “That's just a bald-faced lie,” Wood added. But, more and more, law enforcement is using the tactics of the online predator against him. Wood said most investigations follow a particular script which templates the case for prosecution. “It seems like they follow the same script; that when it's a police officer chatting, very often they got caught in a sting,” he said. Those kinds of investigations often take time to develop, allowing a police officer to take over the persona of a child who has been contacted online; or taking on a fictitious child's persona online to respond to known predator habits. “Most of the time when the police are involved, pretending to be a kid, they are kind of scripted,” Wood said. “They immediately remind the person how old they are, so the offender can't say, 'Well, I didn't know.'” Another aspect of the investigation involves relying upon predator habits, Wood said. “When you see the explicit language of all the fantasies of the things they want to do; it's very graphic,” he said. “And, they are always sending pictures of themselves naked.” Next: Local perspective