- The Washington Times - Monday, July 15, 2002

BEDFORD, Va. Sheriff's Lt. Mike Harmony is often mistaken for a 13-year-old girl. It's an unlikely description for the veteran law enforcement officer and former military policeman, but then, he works on it.
And the hundreds of suspected pedophiles nationwide who have sought to "date" him after a chat on the Internet could tell you that he's very good at his job.
Lt. Harmony is a key member of what Bedford County Sheriff Michael Brown calls "Operation Blue Ridge Thunder," a unique law enforcement cyber-program aimed at catching and prosecuting sexual predators who troll the Internet for young boys and girls.
He and other Blue Ridge Thunder task force members diligently work through the 100,000 Web sites as well as countless chatrooms and message boards devoted to child pornography. The team searches for predators by focusing on what the experts refer to as a "traveler" someone willing to cross state lines to have sexual relations with a child.
"I've seen just about everything there is to see regarding man's inhumanity to man, but that pales in comparison to what they're doing to the kids," said Sheriff Brown, a retired Treasury Department senior special agent who was elected Bedford County's top law enforcement officer in 1996.
"The exploitation of children on the Internet is a huge and growing problem. The public just doesn't realize how bad it is," he said. "I discovered that our people had the ability to do something about it, and we went after it."
Operating out of a donated log cabin in this rural Virginia community, Blue Ridge Thunder is one of the nation's more successful law enforcement programs in what has become a newly-declared war against cyber-predators.
Since 1998, when the program began, the task force has arrested 38 sexual predators in Virginia, with a 100 percent conviction rate. Even more amazingly, the task force has made 600 criminal referrals to other jurisdictions nationwide all with enough evidence for police in those jurisdictions to make arrests and prosecute the suspects.
"The Internet has a dark side, and it's getting darker," said Lt. Harmony. "How many children have we saved, I don't know, but we think we have saved some."
Blue Ridge Thunder's reason for being is a 1998 investigation by the Sheriff's Department involving a 13-year-old Forest, Va., girl who discovered that her former boyfriend had put her face on the body of a naked woman and posted it online.
The site included the girl's telephone number and home address, which attracted calls from a Florida child pornographer who wanted the girl to come to that state to make a movie. He reminded the girl he knew where she lived and told her he would hurt her and her family if she refused. The girl's mother called for help after reading in her daughter's diary about the threats and fearing for her safety.
"The Internet was very new to me at that time, and I just didn't believe what I was seeing. I was stunned," said Sheriff Brown. "We discovered some of the most horrible images you can imagine: kids as young as 18 months being sexually abused. It'll tear your heart out.
"Even after you see it, it's hard to fathom that this is going on today," he said. "But I knew we had to do something about it."
Sheriff Brown immediately assigned deputies to investigate the case and other incidents of child pornography he had disovered on the Internet. Some Bedford County deputies even worked on the cases during their off- time.
Although no charges were filed in the Florida case, within three months Sheriff Brown's office had gathered enough evidence to arrest several pornographers locally and across the country. The investigation had so stirred the sheriff that he immediately sought help in funding a full-time effort at targeting Internet sexual predators.
It was at that point he turned to the Justice Department in Washington, and with the help of a grant proposal painstakingly put together by the sheriff and several deputies including Sgt. Sergio Kopelev, who has since left the department for law school in California Bedford County was one of just 10 law enforcement agencies nationwide to win a $200,000 grant from the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
The grant was part of the $2.4 million "Internet Crimes Against Children" program. Bedford County, with 68 employees at the time, was the smallest agency to receive grant funds the next in line having 1,500 employees.
"I knew we had the quality of people who could do this, and they had the desire to get it done," Sheriff Brown said.
The Blue Ridge Thunder task force got its name from the powerful storms that sweep through the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains and across Bedford County. It was a metaphor for what Sheriff Brown said was going to be an effort to "hit these pedophiles, child pornographers and molesters as hard as we could."
The task force made headlines in 1999 when it arrested a top aide to former West Virginia Gov. Gaston Caperton. The aide, Tom Rice, then 59, had driven to Bedford to meet a "boy," actually a deputy, with whom he had chatted online.
Also in 1999, a North Carolina man known on the Web as "DrEvil" drove from Charlottesville to Bedford to meet a young girl actually another deputy for sex. When police arrested the man, identified as Ray Cannup, they found an ax handle, paring knife and duct tape in his truck. Both men have been sentenced to prison.
With an ongoing string of convictions and referrals, Sheriff Brown has pledged to continue the task force locally despite pending cuts in federal funding.
"Mike Brown will find a way to keep this program going," said Lt. Harmony. "He believes it's everyone's job to protect these children. And I assure you, he'll be knocking on whatever doors it takes to see that the program continues."
Like Lt. Harmony, the Bedford County deputies who play roles in the effort to catch perverts have heard what Sheriff Brown called a long list of "sick rhetoric." Many of the cyber-criminals ask the young "boys and girls" to whom they think they are talking for photos preferably nudes and boast of other sexual conquests.
One man sent a picture of his genitals.
"Surprised at what I have seen? Never. Everyday I see something vile and disgusting, and while I thought I was well-versed in the ways of the world, I am overwhelmed," said Lt. Harmony. "But these are our children and they need to be protected."


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