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CYBER COPS SPEND HOURS CRUISING THE INTERNET TO INFILTRATE CHILD PORN TRADE

Steven Forrest sat down at his office computer one day recently, clicked on to the Internet and entered a chat room called vyg567 -- "very young girls, ages 5, 6 and 7."

It is chat room for men who trade images of child pornography.

In less than five minutes, Forrest found a man who e-mailed him a video of a toddler girl -- perhaps a year old -- being repeatedly sexually attacked by two adults.

"I've seen a lot. You get used to it, but this one is about as bad as it gets," said Forrest, a look of disgust on his face. "I'm going to open a case on this guy."

Forrest, 37, is a special agent with the FBI. He is one of a new breed of cyber cops who spend countless hours on the Internet, infiltrating the seamy world of those who enjoy looking at pictures of children being molested, or posed nude.

Forrest adopts various screen names and portrays himself as a man looking for images of toddlers being sexually molested. Forrest is one of hundreds of such law enforcement officers who cruise the Internet every day from their offices.

"I'm proud to do this work. I think it's important," said Forrest, a father of three. "I hold no animosity toward these men we arrest, but I am glad when we're able to stop someone from doing this."

But not all Americans are enthralled with this kind of investigation. John Perry Barlow, one of the founders of the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, considers it entrapment and a violation of privacy and free speech rights.

"I think it's reprehensible," said Barlow, a longtime songwriter for the Grateful Dead rock band. "Entrapment is entrapment, whether it's in cyberspace or elsewhere. I don't think people should be prosecuted for looking at pictures. If someone is generating pictures of children being abused, it's the abuse that should be prosecuted, not the viewing of a picture."

FBI officials strongly disagree.

"There's no entrapment. The guys we arrest have shown a predisposition for sending this material out to anyone who asks for it," said Paul M. Moskal, a spokesman and legal counsel for the Buffalo FBI office. "Anybody who looks at these pictures, downloads them or sends them to someone else is perpetuating the market for child pornography. These children are victimized again every time somebody looks at their picture."

"I don't think there are appropriate words to describe how disturbing some of this material is," said Jackie Dougher, another undercover agent who often plays the role of a 14-year-old girl interested in older men.

Forrest and Dougher work on a massive FBI project called "Innocent Images," which began in 1995 as an effort to stop exploitation of children on the Internet. At least 3,000 people -- almost every one of them men -- have been arrested in the nationwide effort.

When the FBI gets evidence on an individual via the Internet, it obtains a search warrant to search his home. Then, they seize the target's computer. In most cases, there are arrests, indictments, prison terms and ruined careers.

One of Forrest's most recent cases was an art teacher in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda school district. The man resigned the same day he was arrested.

"I do feel sorry for some of these people. Most of them are very apologetic, and they give us confessions, right there in their homes," Forrest said. "But I've met some who were very unapologetic, even proud of what they were doing."

Many of those arrested are men who went far beyond just looking at pictures in the privacy of their own homes.

Forrest said his most disturbing case, two years ago, involved Ronald Trimm, 56, a former Cheektowaga railroad worker. Trimm is now serving a sentence of 15 years and nine months for convictions that included producing, trading and possessing Internet child pornography.

In his plea agreement, Trimm admitted that he produced a videotape of himself having sex with a boy younger than 12, and took color photos of himself having sex with another boy younger than 5. In his home computer, the FBI said it found more than 100,000 child pornography images.

Dougher recalled the case of Mark Friedman, 39, a New Jersey man who spent months on the Internet to lure a 14-year-old Buffalo girl into meeting him for sexual relations. In January 2002, Friedman drove to Cheektowaga to meet the girl. A Cheektowaga security guard caught the couple kissing in Friedman's car, where condoms and nude photos of Friedman were also found. Friedman was sentenced to six years and nine months in prison.

"This kind of thing happens quite often, and a lot of vulnerable young girls are targeted by these guys," Dougher said.

Observant parents can help, the agents said.

Forrest said parents -- or anyone else -- can tip law enforcement about child pornography crimes by accessing the CyberTipline at the Web site run by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The Web address is www.missingkids.com.

"The Ronald Trimm case started with a tip to that Web site. It's the best and easiest way to pass along a tip about this kind of activity," Forrest said.

Forrest said he watches his own three children "like a hawk" when they're on the Internet, and he urges other parents to do the same. He said parents should be just as concerned about their children talking to strangers on the Internet as they would feel if their children were talking with a stranger in person.

"I always tell parents they should not be afraid to keep an eye on what their kids are doing on the Internet," Dougher said. "The kids may get mad at you for invading their privacy, but it's worth it."

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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