This is the first part of an ongoing series on the Long Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and its Internet Child Abuse Unit. In the coming weeks the Herald will report on sexual predators on the Internet and how they hunt for children, as well as how kids bypass Internet restrictions and what parents can do to prevent this form of crime.
Chief Jeff Mackston of the
SPCC Child Abuse Unit and
Investigator Paul Hamilton
have fought Internet predators
When Jeff Mackston tucked his 9-year-old daughter into bed one evening, he noticed her stiffness. She was quiet, and yet she seemed to be rattled. When asked what was bothering her, she said it was the man on the computer. Even at 9, she knew how to sign on to the Internet, but she couldn't control others from talking to her in a sexually suggestive way.
"I was livid," Mackston said. "I wanted to do something about it. You try to protect your kids as much as you can, but now you have these people trying to get at them right in your home through a computer."
Mackston's daughter was working on a geography project for school when she began "speaking" to someone from California. "It scared her," Mackston said. "But kids like her are subjected to this every day, and after it happens they are forever changed."
Feeling powerless, Mackston turned to a friend, an investigator with a child-abuse unit. Though he had no law-enforcement experience, in 1996 he teamed up with the Long Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (LISPCC) to form a child-abuse unit that would focus on computer crimes.
In April 1998 the Society's Child Abuse Unit (CAU) launched an aggressive campaign to educate and train its officers in how to fight the growing problem of pedophiles who hunt for children in Internet chat rooms and the distribution of child pornography on the Internet.
"This is desperately lacking in law enforcement," said Mackston, 47, of Island Park, who is now not only a certified New York State peace officer but the Child Abuse Unit's chief. "If there were a unit like this in every city in the country, we would still only make a dent in the amount of pedophile-committed crimes over the Internet."
The CAU is empowered by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Service to prosecute or assist in the prosecution of any acts resulting in the direct or potential mental, emotional or physical harm of a child. "We work with the district attorney's office on local cases, and with U.S. Customs and the FBI on state, national and even international cases," Mackston said. "Basically those that read this should know that if you are out there doing wrong, we will be on the other end."
How the unit works
As an example, an officer will construct a personal profile of a 13-year-old girl that depicts the character of a typical child going through the trials and tribulations of adolescence - difficulty with parents who never understand her, searching for friends, seeking acceptance, etc. The investigator will then enter a chat room where pedophiles are known to hunt and simply wait. No conversation needs to be initiated by the officer, and he or she doesn't even need to communicate in the open chat room.
An experienced pedophile looking for children usually won't engage in open conversation in the chat room, either, but will, for example, check the America Online profile of all who are in the room until he finds a participant who interests him. There are times when a CAU officer is hit with 12 to 15 "instant messages" at the same time. The officer may engage in a conversation and eventually set up a meeting. The unit then informs the district attorney, obtains a warrant and works with another law enforcement entity to make the arrest.
It's early on a Thursday morning, and Mackston has just been given transcripts of several conversations with alleged pedophiles from the night before. Posing as young teenagers, officers have been approached by predators from as near as Oceanside and as distant as England.
"It can be anyone," Mackston says. "Your next-door neighbor, your boss, your employee - we've seen people from all walks of life."
Sifting through the transcripts, Mackston sees that some alleged pedophiles have sent sexually explicit photos of themselves. Sometimes it's just a portrait, but this morning Mackston shakes his head in disgust while looking at a man in one photo who is holding his erect penis. "This is what we get, this is every night," he said.
Seventy-seven percent of the targets of online predators are 14 or older, while 22 percent range from ages 10 to 13. The U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that of all convicted rapists and those convicted of sexual assault in 1999, two out of three victims were under age 17. Fifty-eight percent of those victims were younger than 12. "The way I see it, if we just take one of these people out of society, you will be saving a lot of kids from being victimized," Mackston said.
Unit needs funds
With such a large number of suspects and a limited staff and resources, Mackston understands that there is only so much his unit can do. "It makes me sick," he said of the pedophiles he and his colleagues can't get to. "I mean, it just eats at me, because we know that person might be doing something and most likely is."
In the past, officers have met suspects after phone conversations. "We worked with the district attorney for a while, using a female to impersonate a young teenager," Mackston explained. "But to update them on every detail of the conversation was difficult, and eventually the suspect would know something was wrong."
Voice synthesizers will be used in the future so officers themselves will be able to hold conversations. "Hopefully that will allow us to set up meetings and make more arrests," Mackston said. "But we need more. We are short staffed and seriously in need of funds to continue this operation."
The CAU currently operates on a budge of $300,000 a year. Most of the money is raised through fund-raisers throughout the year, but the unit usually falls short of its needs, and the rest comes out of the pockets of Mackston and a few others in the unit. "We could be doing so much more if we had a bigger staff and more money for equipment," Mackston said.
The unit gathers in a small office in Oceanside, but Mackston has made it possible for his officers to work from home in the early hours of the morning, when most Internet pedophiles are signed on. Although many pedophiles hunt on the Internet at all hours of the day, 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. are their favorite hours of operation.
There is no statue of limitations on sexual predators, which gives victims a chance to report their attackers at any time. So while predators are out there, waiting for their next opportunity, the CAU is hard at work, trying to protect the community's children. "We come in contact with over 100 pedophiles a month," Mackston said. "We're out there making arrests all the time."
The Herald goes undercover with the Child Abuse Unit
by Cris Italia
November 20, 2003
This is the second part of an ongoing series on Internet pedophiles and the work of the Child Abuse Unit of the Long Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Child Abuse Unit investigator
Paul Hamilton and Chief Jeff
Mackston hunt for pedaphiles
It's 2 a.m. on a Sunday, and a 55-year-old from Tennessee believes he has been conversing with a 13-year-old from Long Island through Instant Messaging, an America Online feature that allows you to speak electronically with anyone in the world.
The man is an administrator at a high school who coaches both a girls' and boys' basketball team. More than two hours after the conversation began, at 11:47 p.m., the administrator clearly has no reservations about talking to someone so young. He offers the girl several scenarios in which they can meet, and raises the possibility of flying her down to Tennessee.
What he doesn't know is that sitting at the other end of this conversation is Paul Hamilton, a 39-year-old investigator with the Child Abuse Unit of the Long Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. "This guy will be one of our primary targets," Hamilton says confidently.
Only half an hour into their chat, Hamilton had predicted that the man would profess his love for the fictitious 13-year-old. Sure enough, the administrator eventually types, "I think I would have a crush on you." Hamilton isn't surprised. "This is the kind of guy that comes off nice, but once he steps over that line, he will be very dangerous," he says.
Aside from his 50-plus hours a week working at the CAU offices in Oceanside, Hamilton puts in a full night's work on his computer at home on weekends. With a computer gadget called a thumb drive, he is able to save all information and transcripts. The thumb drive serves as a portable hard drive that enables investigators to work from home without compromising the evidence.
Hamilton doesn't do this for the money, but for the goal. CAU has suffered financially, operating mostly on fumes, but investigators like Hamilton believe what they are doing makes a difference. "If we can just save one child or catch one pedophile, we will be making a difference," he said, sitting in his small studio apartment in Long Beach.
With extensive experience with computers, Hamilton could be sitting pretty working just about anywhere else. Originally from Valdosta, Ga., he says he was making a decent living in Knoxville, Tenn., where he worked for an Internet content provider. His cost of living would be a lot lower anywhere else. "I'm not complaining, because I believe in this, and I believe in my chief," he said.
Chief Jeff Mackston recruited Hamilton after watching a segment on pedophiles on ABC's "20/20." Hamilton and some of his associates would disguise themselves as children on the Internet and harass pedophiles by posting their photos. Mackston called the producers of "20/20" and obtained Hamilton's phone number. At the time, in 1997, Mackston's unit had focused mostly on local pedophiles.
"The unit had worked on some Internet pedophile cases, but they flew us to New York so we could show them a presentation," Hamilton recalled. He demonstrated while undercover how a child was approached on the Internet. Through a chat room, a pedophile would contact the child first. As Hamilton showed Mackson's unit how he worked, a pedophile contacted him.
"The unit saw how well it worked and they were just jazzed about it," Hamilton said. "We started a case on that pedophile and within a week he was arrested." The suspect turned out to be a wealthy vice president of an HMO in New York City with a wife and a family. "This was a white-collar guy, and it just makes you think, With everything he has, why does he do this?" Hamilton questioned.
Mackston wanted Hamilton as part of his team. It was Hamilton who helped change the focus of the unit. Soon they were investigating a broader spectrum of cases. In an abrupt move, Hamilton packed his bags for New York, and he hasn't regretted it. "It was a big adjustment," he says looking around at his meager living conditions. "But we do damn good work. I just keep saying our time will come."
Still in heavy conversation with the school administrator in Tennessee, Hamilton has had to balance him with several other pedophiles who were hunting the same prey. His 13-year-old's disguise is a hot commodity. He makes her seem innocent enough for the pedophiles to think they can convince her to do whatever they want.
By now the administrator has offered a plane ticket to Tennessee and a stay at a hotel. "I would love to be together alone somewhere," he says. "I've always wondered about being with someone your age." In addition to his offer of gifts and fantasy, the administrator has sent a photo of himself, a portrait.
Other predators have sent more sexually explicit photos. Hamilton explains that one pedophile went as far as sending a photo of himself with a young teenage girl who is performing oral sex. "I've seen some disturbing images," Hamilton says. He describes one photo in which an older man was ejaculating on a 2-year-old toddler. And there was one pedophile who sent him a video of a young girl being raped. "I can just remember the anguish on her face -- you could tell this was done by force. Not only did this guy rape her, but he glorified it," he said.
Through another instant message, a 44-year-old from Long Island wants to know where Hamilton's 13-year-old girl hangs out. Hamilton responds with some usual locations: area malls, arcades, etc. Through all this, the conversation with the administrator continues. He admits to having crushes on some of his players. He tells Hamilton he is married, but not happily. He says that, physically, his marriage is failing. He asks if she ever wears a two-peace bathing suit at the beach, Hamilton replies yes. "Oh, wow -- what a nice image," he says.
For a suspected pedophile, the administrator has been extremely careful. He has made sure there is interest, but Hamilton does not suggest anything unless he mentions it first. "We present no entrapment," Hamilton said. "We let them suggest everything first."
Hamilton never proposes talking on the phone or setting up a meeting, nor does he talk sexually. "Once the pedophile does it, then we can re-enforce what they say," he said. "None of our cases have ever gone to court, because we're so careful. They always plead out."
While the administrator is careful with his language, others don't hold back. One man from Canada tries to lure Hamilton into cyber sex. He says, "I want to put my hand down your panties while kissing you."
"There are some pedophiles who start to pull back because they feel guilty," Hamilton said. "Others just have no moral dilemmas at all."
In a month he averages about 125 active cases. "Eventually doing this every day wears on you," the investigator said. "You lose faith in people sometimes, but we keep doing this for the good people. We'll never know the kids we save, and if I don't get to a pedophile, he'll get to someone else."
Hamilton regrettably admits that he and his colleagues in law enforcement are vastly outnumbered. There are far more pedophiles than undercover officers on the Internet. "[With] 8.5 million people in New York alone, it's safe to say there are thousands [of pedophiles] just here," he said. Hamilton alone has been involved in hundreds of investigations. "You do not know the feeling of elation we get when we bust someone," he said.
Although Hamilton can lose his focus, he has plenty of inspiration. "I had missed my niece's birthday recently and I called her and told her it was work that prevented me from calling," he said, explaining that his niece is 10. "I said I was just trying to help kids, make it a safer world for her. She said it was OK, and she knows it's 'one bad guy at a time.' That meant so much to me." Hamilton also takes part in the Big Brother program.
It's past 3 a.m., and Hamilton has begun winding down his handful of electronic conversations. At some point, pedophiles are going to question why a 13-year-old is awake at such an hour. He leaves his predators wanting more, and makes sure they will talk in the very near future.
"We made a lot of progress tonight," Hamilton said. "Opened up a couple of cases, and with the help of the Nassau County District AttorneyÕs Office and the United States Customs we are going to make some definite arrests." Internet pedophiles can be charged with a number of offenses based solely on conversations on the Internet: attempting to lure a child and transmitting or distribution of child pornography, to name just a few.
"I know me -- I try to save the world every time I do this," Hamilton said. "Parents don't think about this. Sometimes this is not on their minds. We do this so they don't have to."
I couldn't help but feel powerless while watching investigator Paul Hamilton of the Child Abuse Unit, a division of the Long Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
He was engaged in an electronic conversation with a pedophile, using the disguise of a 13-year-old girl. With each instant message, I couldn't help, but feel rage. How can people do this to innocent children?
Last week the Herald printed the first installment of what will be an ongoing series on pedophiles. In the article, Chief Jeff Mackston mentioned that pedophiles can be from "all walks of life." Although he has seen it himself, I had my reservations -- and an image of what a pedophile was and looked like. After spending time with Hamilton, my perception had changed radically.
Pedophiles can be anyone, and I got a first-hand look of my own. From a high school administrator to a maintenance man to a vice president of a company, pedophiles roam free on the Internet. And while they sent sexually explicit photos and used sexually explicit language, I sat there thinking, This so-and-so does not belong in society.
Just think about a man who is in charge of children in his professional life going home and pursuing his fantasies by way of children he lures from chat rooms. With each invitation for sex, with each attempt to lure Hamilton's imagined 13-year-old, all I wanted to do was go get this guy.
What made it worse were the photos sent by these sexual predators. They looked like normal people. Someone you would see on the street and never guess that they would harm a child. Adding faces to the conversations made them all the more sickening.
I know now that there are tens of thousands of pedophiles surfing the net for fresh prey. They can be anywhere: Your teachers, your neighbors or, as Mackston explained, sometimes even members of your own family.
The images are disturbing. This was just one night for me -- Hamilton sees it every day -- but it was enough to make a lasting impression. Growing up, never thought about this. Never would I have imagined that there were sexual predators looking to take the innocence away from children.
I thought about my young cousins, some of whom are nearing ages 12 and 13. If something were to ever happen to them, I don't know what I would do. I imagine it's common for parents to jump to conclusions when a child is harmed. How can you tell them not to react on impulses?
Pedophiles don't discriminate. There are enough of them who are looking for any child regardless of his or her age, gender or race. The most sobering statistics are the sheer numbers. There are so many out there.
Hamilton referred to an episode of "Law & Order, Special Victims Unit," in which the characters on the show were interrogating a pedophile and he said, "There are too many of us. You will never stop us from doing what we do."
"They believe in that," Hamilton said. "And because they believe that, they will always feel that they will not get caught."
It's hoped that, through the work of Hamilton and others, Internet crimes against children will be reduced dramatically.
He was only 12 when it happened. In those days, the word pedophile didn't even seem to exist. For a long time he thought that what happened to him was his fault. In those days there didn't seem to be anything wrong with someone older hanging around. Up until age 12, Jason enjoyed his youth, comparing his days and friendships to the movie Stand By Me.
We used to do all kinds of things as kids, Jason reminisced. We'd go fishing by the creek or play kickball.
Now, 20 years later, Jason says that a 19-year-old hanging around a pack of kids wouldn't be acceptable. We didn't think anything of it, he said of his attacker. He was just someone older that hung out with us, helped us build a tree house.
At age 12 he never thought his world would be turned upside down. Jason was taken advantage of, raped by someone he thought was his friend. As he explains it, society never taught kids about this. You knew not to talk to strangers, you knew what to do if you saw a crime committed, but this was different, said Jason, who chose to maintain his anonymity. Even all these years later, there are some people he will just never tell.
Jason told no one about what happened. He felt a tremendous amount of guilt. I thought I had done something wrong, he said. I thought that I was bad and this was punishment for something I did. And the whole time, I just didn't understand why he did it. Besides feeling guilty, I didn't know how else to feel.
After he was sexually abused, he never saw his attacker again. From then on Jason suffered socially. He kept a close-knit group of friends, but was wary of anyone new. I lost my childhood, he said. A 12-year-old should never have to think about things like that. He should be thinking about being a kid, having fun, school, friends. I didn't have that option.
Even with a healthy family environment, Jason says he was afraid of telling his parents. He kept all of what happened inside, and eventually he was consumed, making it difficult to open up to anyone. As I grew, I wasn't social at all, he said, and sometimes I was forced into situations when I needed to be. When that happened I didn't do well.
He never knew there was help. As a teenager and into his 20s, Jason was a loner, like Clint Eastwood, as he would explain. He missed the innocence of his childhood and says what he put himself through was unjust.
I'll never know what I would have been, he said. I can only say that what happened to me caused all the things I went through growing up, all the guilt I carried with me, all the insecurities. I couldn't trust people.
Now Jason directs his energy and his experience in a different way. He helps kids. As a member of several child-assistance organizations, he finds strength and resolve in making a difference. I've been liberated of the guilt, he said. I'm an empowered individual, and I always think positively.
Jason says that when he meets others who have experienced what he has, the feelings are always the same. It's always the same thing, and you can put a kid through psycho therapy, but they are going to feel what they feel no matter what, he said. It's just what every kid is going to feel if this happens to them, but it's not their fault.
Jason prospered because of a supportive family and good friends. It was just a matter of people telling me that I was good, that I was a good person, he said. The whole time I just thought if bad things happened to me I deserved it, but that wasn't true.
It's so important for parents to have open communication.
Even though Jason has made tremendous strides, he says he still suffers in relationships. There are long periods of shyness, and he struggles to keep a relationship together. I look at what happened and I know at least I'm wiser for it, he said. With any traumatic incident you have to learn to accept it, and I have.
W. Hempstead woman works to secure the Internet for kids
by Eugene Gilligan
November 18, 2004
Do you know where your children are?
If they're like most kids, it's very likely they are surfing the Internet, chatting with friends in a chat room in "email speak." But a word of caution from West Hempstead resident Valentina Janek: While the Web is a great, revolutionary, learning tool, people with dark motives, such as sexual predators, are also prowling cyberspace.
Janek, the executive director of advocacy for the Child Abuse Unit of the Long Island chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said parents must be aware of the Internet's dangers. Sexual predators can very easily "disguise" themselves as children in a chat room, win a child's trust, and eventually set up a meeting. Parents must monitor what Web sites and chat rooms their kids are frequenting.
"It's essential that kids keep safe on the computer," Janek said. "Parents are in denial, and say 'Not my child."
The CAU-SPCC is empowered by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice to concentrate its efforts solely to enforce the laws that pertain to minors. The group's investigators and New York State Peace Officers are trained and state-approved in the recognition, reporting, and documentation of child abuse cases.
Janek is interested in the group in some measure because of her work in high tech, as an events planner and manager at a computer magazine publisher. When she was laid off from her job, she threw herself into volunteer work, and says her work with the CAU-SPCC is one way to stay connected with the high tech world.
While the group has received support from area businesses, religious organizations, and students, school districts have been unresponsive, she said.
"I'm baffled by that," Janek said. "These schools should be getting behind these kids. Why haven't these schools stepped up to the plate."
The Crime Abuse Unit of the SPCC has started a fund raising campaign by soliciting used ink and toner cartridges. The used cartridges are sold for recycling, with a portion of the funds going to the Child Abuse Unit.
The CAU-SPCC's booklet "Internet Safety Guide," details the different types of child exploitation on the Internet. The book also offers safety tips, and suggests steps to take if a parent believes their child is communicating with a sexual predator online.
The organization is also getting kids involved in the fight, inviting them to design a mascot at their Web site.
Another way for kids to stay safe, Janek said, is to spend significant time away from the computer.
"They should get out more, do volunteer work, raise money for a sick child," she said.
Her student volunteers, Stacee White of Baldwin, Dana Jones and Gina LoCurcio of West Hempstead, and Benjamin Kornick of Roslyn, have made a great contribution to her group, she said. They have appeared on radio station KJOY 98.3 and the Telecare cable TV channel to raise awareness of the CAU-SPCC. The volunteers also help with various fund-raising initiatives, and also visit local business to ask for used printer cartridges.
The group's investigative unit uses some sophisticated methods to track down pedophiles. Last May, the unit and the Nassau County District Attorney's office arrested a man who made contact with a 13-year-old girl. The man, after meeting the girl on the Internet, attempted to set up a meeting by phone. But the 13-year-old girl he thought he was talking to was really Paul Hamilton, chief of investigations for the CAU-SPCC. Hamilton used sophisticated voice-filtering equipment to disguise his voice.
But while there have been successes, Hamilton said the largely unregulated Internet is an ideal hunting ground for the pedophile.
"If you took every police officer from every jurisdiction in the country, and put them all together, we'd still be outnumbered by those who want to exploit children," Hamilton said.
One local business that is an enthusiastic supporter of the group is Cartridge World of Franklin Square, which sells refilled inkjet and laser cartridges.
"Basically, we're trying to help out," said the store's president, Frank J. Francia. "We wanted to do something, so we set up a recycling bin in the store for them." Francia, and his partner in the store, James Carroll, are both retired New York City detectives, and display posters and literature about the organization around their store. They have talked to other businesses in their area to try to convince them to set up recycling bins.
Some people withdraw from their community after they lose their jobs, but Valentina Janek has done the opposite, working with charities and becoming more involved in her community.
In addition to her work with CAU-SPCC, she is an organizer for the Long Island Volunteer Hall of Fame, and has also, along with a longtime friend, befriended and raised funds for Nicole Caputo, a seven-year old whose near drowning three years ago left her severely brain damaged. She is writing a book about the experience.
"Volunteering is good for your soul, good for your career, good for your health," Janek said. She wants to re-enter the world of work, but her charity work has "opened up a new world of people, places, and things. It's given me wings."
To participate in the cartridge recycling program, call 1-866-STOP ABUSE. To learn more about the CAU-SPCC, visit www.childabuseunit.com