Catching predators

Sharna Johnson, Freedom New Mexico

“asl?”

“He’s asking her age, sex and location,” the officer explained.

“13f clovis,” the officer typed in response.

“ur too young to be in a chat room. Do your parents know this?” the male responded.

Laughing, the officers around the monitor said “atta-boy” to the screen and let the conversation end.

If more Internet chats went that way, the Curry County Sheriff’s Office wouldn’t have an officer sitting at a computer pretending he’s a 13-year-old girl, they said.

Instead, the decoy often attracts people with nefarious intentions, according to an undercover officer who builds cases against Internet predators for the sheriff’s office.

Within minutes of logging into a New Mexico chatroom Friday afternoon, the officer, who asked his identity be withheld, was receiving private messages from people wanting to talk.

An hour later, one conversation with an adult male was escalating with sexual innuendo.

“This is how they start,” he said. “We can probably make a case with this one.”

During the chats, he does not guide, lead or suggest anything because the suspect has to originate and commit the criminal activity of his or her own accord.

“We never initiate (conversations), we never escalate,” he said.

The decoy chatter stays idle in a chatroom and waits for a hit. He plays along with the conversations, while bringing up the age early.
“We don’t want to start talking to them and have them say later they didn’t know (her age),” he said.

Every word is recorded in real time, every image sent documented and streaming video from webcams are captured to build the case.

Females from local law enforcement agencies, including Cannon Air Force Base, are sometimes called on to talk to suspects who feel the need to talk to the decoy on the phone.

The profiles have decoy addresses, phone numbers and other information to satisfy skeptical suspects.

Sheriff Matt Murray said cases are handled carefully because Internet predation cases are fairly new to the judicial system and investigators are conscious that one day, “these cases might set precedents,” he said.

The sheriff’s department first launched Internet investigations about four months ago to seek drug traffickers, but found they were also attracting potential pedophiles, according to Undersheriff Wesley Waller.

“Those agents quickly realized how rampant the sexual predators were within those sites,” he said.

The sheriff’s department joined Internet Crimes Against Children, a nationwide task force dedicated to aiding law enforcement on Internet investigations.

“Right now we are serving as a deterrent and putting the message out there that if you want to mess with the children in Curry County, you might be messing with law enforcement,” Waller said.

Case information is shared with other law enforcement agencies to determine if suspects could be connected to offenses in other states.
Since launching the operation, the department has averaged one arrest a month.

Most offenders look to communities outside their community for victims, the undercover officer said, because,

“They think they can remain anonymous (and) they don’t want to do it in their backyard.”

The travel element is overlooked by critics who think law enforcement should focus on criminals in their community, Murray said.

“How do you feel about a guy that will drive from Albuquerque to talk to your 13-year-old daughter, or son or 10-year-old daughter?” he asked.
“If we do build up a reputation and we do file (cases) on predators, then maybe they will go to other places.”

Where they come from, where they’ve been:


All but one suspect arrested in Curry County came from outside the county, some traveling up to four hours to meet decoy children, the undercover officer said.

After the most recent arrest Wednesday, officers discovered Douglas Edens, a 48-year-old Hobbs power plant operator from Hobbs, has been tracked by a national Internet predator watchdog group for four years and police in California and Texas were also watching him.

Authorities said recent searches on his computer included Information on legal age of consent in Texas and criminal defenses for sexual offenses.

Edens, the undercover officer said, made arrangements to meet another decoy in Texas, but for unknown reasons came to Clovis first.

Edens remains in the Curry County Adult Detention Center on a $20,000 bond.

Perspective: An undercover Curry County officer who patrols local chatrooms maintains several profiles. He said for every hit he gets as a 20-something, attractive female, he gets 100 when playing an unattractive 13-year-old girl.