- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2001

From a log cabin nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Bedford County Sheriff Michael Brown extends the long arm of the law across cyberspace to stem the tide of pedophiles prowling the World Wide Web.
Its there that investigators troll the depths of deviancy to catch predators seeking to commit every imaginable act — and some that seem unthinkable — with minors who wander into chat rooms and onto message boards.
Operation Blue Ridge Thunder sweeps down on those who would prey on vulnerable children on the Internet, tricking them into a meeting.
The Bedford County Sheriffs Office is at the forefront of an emerging battle against a virtually infinite — yet largely unreported — amount of child pornography and molesters who seek victims online instead of at playgrounds or schoolyards.
"Every one of those … we get off the street is one less kid who will get victimized," Sheriff Brown says.
More than 10,000 Web sites are devoted to child pornography. Countless chat rooms and message boards — where pedophiles meet children or exchange illegal images — pop up daily.
"The field is just so, so ripe now for pedophiles using the Internet," Sheriff Brown says. "Now youre talking about millions of kids who are potential victims, and are victims on daily basis, of pedophiles. People dont realize how bad this is and how much worse its getting every day."
Sheriff Browns investigators have done their part to fight the problem.
All 36 local cases they have taken to local or federal prosecutors have led to convictions. On another 328 cases, they have gathered enough evidence for police in other jurisdictions to make arrests and successfully prosecute the suspects.
Thats with a unit of just four full-time investigators, which was cut to two last year as federal funding dried up.
"If that predator is looking for a victim, it tickles me to death when he picks us as a victim, because that means some kid out there isnt a victim," Sheriff Brown says. "Were going to make it as rough as we can on these guys, and do it gleefully."
Pedophiles run the gamut of ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds.
The Bedford County Sheriffs Office made headlines in 1999 when deputies arrested a top aide to former West Virginia Gov. Gaston Caperton. Tom Rice, then 59, drove to Bedford to meet a "boy," actually a deputy, he had met online. Rice used the moniker "EPMentor" in his communications because he was trying to coach young boys into homosexuality.
Another case still gives investigators the shudders. A North Carolina man known on the Web as "Dr_Evil" drove from Charlottesville to Bedford to meet a young girl, another deputy, for sex. When police arrested him, they found an ax handle, a paring knife and duct tape in his truck.
Both men pleaded guilty to federal charges and are serving prison sentences.
Other potential pedophiles have arrived to meet their victims bearing puppies, teddy bears, roses, marijuana, booze and various sexual paraphernalia. One suspects pants were down when police pulled him out of his vehicle after he arrived in Bedford to meet his victim.
The unit got its start in a local 1998 case. A 14-year-old girl in Forest, Va., discovered her ex-boyfriend had put her face on the body of a naked woman online. The Web page also included the girls phone number and address, which led to calls from a Florida child pornographer.
As deputies looked into the case, they discovered "some of the most horrible images that you can imagine on the Internet," Sheriff Brown says.
He authorized overtime, and within three months his office had gathered enough evidence to arrest several victimizers locally and across the country. Later that year, the office was one of 10 agencies nationwide to win a $200,000 grant from the Justice Departments Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Operation Blue Ridge Thunder operates on federal money, which has been lessening over the years, and some donations. Staffers have approached Virginia companies for sponsorship, but none has signed on as yet.
Sheriff Brown is no computer whiz. He measures his computer savvy at "a 2 or 3 out of 10."
As he discovered the horrors of child pornography on the Internet, however, he was stunned and furious and decided to do something about it.
He is a friendly man who has a folksy manner about him, but when he speaks of the crimes Operation Blue Ridge Thunder investigates, he gets serious.
"The ages of the children I was seeing — kids as young as 18 months being sexually abused. Itll tear your heart out," he says. "Police officers, when they see that, get very incensed. Children are raped in the most brutal ways.
"Its hard to believe. Its hard to imagine. Even after you see it, its hard to fathom that this is going on today."
The initiative got its name from the powerful storms that sweep through the mountains and over the county.
"Thats the way were going to hit these pedophiles, child pornographers and molesters, like a thunderstorm — a lot of energy, quick and hard," the sheriff says.
Few other local police agencies operate their own team devoted to catching sexual predators targeting children. Those that do usually are large city police or state police departments.
The FBIs Innocent Images task force targets child pornographers and teams with some local law enforcement agencies. The U.S. Customs Services CyberSmuggling Center goes after many criminals on the Internet, including perverts who victimize children.
Sheriff Brown and the officials running Operation Blue Ridge Thunder see themselves as the Rodney Dangerfields of anti-pedophile police: They dont get no respect.
"Its because of this stigma attached to this small department — Podunk, if you prefer — sheriffs office," Sheriff Brown says.
"I would put it up against any unit at any level," he says. "You dont have to be a big city department or federal agency to do this."
His investigators have traveled the globe to instruct other police agencies, and a constant rotation of law enforcement officials from around the country and world receive training in Bedford.
Investigator Rachel Crabtrees Internet profile is of a 13-year-old girl with blond hair and blue eyes. Within 10 seconds after she has posted that information for an instant-message room frequented by pedophiles, eight men are asking her questions.
Several ask her to send photos, preferably if she is naked in them. Others ask about physical characteristics or brag about what they have done to other young girls. One e-mails her a picture of his genitals.
Its the middle of the afternoon, when most people are at work. Unlike other criminals, who prefer to work under cover of darkness, pedophiles "are out all the time," Investigator Crabtree says.
Many of these persons are simply voyeurs who role-play under the anonymity of the Internet, but some become "travelers," those who arrange a meeting with a child with the specific intent to have sex.
That act carries local and federal charges, and most of those arrested plead guilty.
Investigator Crabtree joined the sheriffs office in 1997 and has had this assignment since August. The other investigator, Sgt. Michael J. Harmony, has been catching pedophiles since the program began.
Day in and day out, they must feign interest in perversion in order to stop it. The task can take a toll, but they say the very nature of what they investigate drives them on.
"Its gotta get to you to a certain extent," Sgt. Harmony says. "That helps motivate you. Sometimes you just go sit down outside and have a quiet time to yourself."
They have posted mottos on the walls to remind them. One is an excerpt from "The Art of War," written in China by the military strategist Sun Tzu more than 2,000 years ago.
Another is from Nietzsche: "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. For when you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you."
The last one is: "Remember, we work for God."


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