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Hunting down the men hunting for child sex victims

On any given day, you can find Mike Hockwater posing as a 12-year old boy. Or, depending on the guy he’s talking to, a girl barely into her teens.

By now, the language that makes him convincing is old hat and, with the explosion of social media, so are the laptops and cellphones that provide him cover.

What doesn’t get tiresome is locking up the child molesters, sex traffickers and child pornographers he initially lured and schmoozed into believing he was someone else.

Unfortunately, Hockwater says, there is no shortage of predators waiting to meet him.

“It’s just a horrible problem,” the Cheektowaga detective says, “and yet, it’s not getting the headlines.”

Now assigned to the FBI, Hockwater has been investigating child exploitation cases for 14 years and, to hear him talk, the problem is worse now than ever.

He also will tell you it’s no coincidence his squad, the FBI’s Child Exploitation Task Force, is one of the busiest, if not the busiest, unit in the local FBI office.

In the year ending last October, the task force made 50 arrests and conducted 80 searches of residences and electronic media. In the six months that followed, there were 20 more arrests and 50 more searches.

“There are child pornographers everywhere,” Hockwater says without hesitation.

While some might challenge that kind of bold claim, it’s not surprising given the source: An investigator who wants kids to understand there are threats in every corner of our community. And they have never been more prevalent.

There is nothing fake or subtle about the passion Hockwater and his fellow task force members bring to their jobs. As investigators on the front lines, they know firsthand about the dark, ugly aspects of cyberspace.

They hear the conversations between predators and the children they target. They see the cellphone and laptop videos of underage girls and boys, even infants, who have been sexually abused.

“We keep the door closed because we’re looking at horrific stuff,” Hockwater says.

At a time when judges, defense lawyers and, yes, even prosecutors are encouraging reduced sentences for some, less-serious child pornography crimes, the agents and detectives working those cases will tell you, quite bluntly, that society is becoming too accepting of child pornography.

In their eyes, the ones that watch the videos that would make most of us turn away, there is nothing more important than eliminating the threats and risks facing underage boys and girls.

“A lot of great work is done here,” said Jeremy Bell, the FBI agent who until recently was in charge of the squad.

Created more than 15 years ago, the task force was designed to provide a rapid response to allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse, and over the years has emerged as the premier law enforcement squad for investigating sex trafficking and child pornography cases here.

The agents, detectives and analysts who work them will tell anyone who will listen that their sons and daughters, regardless of their age, upbringing or income, are at risk of becoming victims.

And the reason is simple. Almost all of them have cellphones or laptops, or both.

“A lot of our victims are good kids,” said Randy Garver, an FBI special agent and task force member.

Hockwater will tell you that every case has a face. And when he and others talk about investigations, especially the ones that stand out, they always measure them by the same standard – the impact on victims.

Were there a lot of them? Were they particularly young?

“I don’t know how you disconnect from that,” says Hockwater.

In the case of David A. Vickers, it wasn’t just the number of victims – six boys from Buffalo and Batavia – but the fact that his sexual abuse continued uninterrupted for 25 years.

Now adults, some of the boys testified at Vickers’ trial, telling jurors that the tractor-trailer driver sexually abused them on overnight trucking trips and during visits to his home in Chili and later Geneva.

Vickers, now 52, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara to life in prison.

“That’s something I’d never thought I’d see,” said Kim Smith, an FBI intelligence analyst and task force member. “To see him put away for life and know he’ll never hurt another boy is satisfying.”

Sometimes, it’s the cases that start small and evolve into major prosecutions that are memorable. For Hockwater, it was the investigation of West Seneca teacher Timothy Bek.

Bek adopted a fake Facebook persona as a teenage girl to entice high school boys into sending him explicit photos of themselves. He was eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Unlike most child porn cases, Bek’s prosecution garnered headlines. He was a teacher and his arrest led to several other arrests, some as far away as Texas. His brother Jason was among those convicted.

In some respects, the Bek case also became a precursor. It was one of the earliest prosecutions involving social media and provided an early glimpse into how technology would alter the landscape for investigators.

“Not only are more kids communicating with each other, but every phone now has a camera,” said Jeffrey McAuliffe, a Niagara County sheriff’s detective assigned to the task force.

On a recent weekday afternoon, McAuliffe, Garver and several other task force members sat around a table talking about their jobs and why they do what they do.

To a person, they acknowledge the obvious pitfalls, most notably burnout, and admit that not everyone is wired to deal day in and day out with young children who are sexually abused.

“I have three kids of my own,” said task force member Steve Miller.

Miller, an FBI special agent, acknowledges the extra occupational motivation that comes with parenthood and says the work is rewarding, even fulfilling, a mantra you hear over and over again.

It’s a satisfaction, task force members say, that is rooted in their ability to take predators off the street.

“I love puzzles, and I love being challenged to find something or someone who does not want to be found,” said Melissa McCaffrey, an FBI intelligence analyst and task force member. “Our job is a big puzzle.”

But it’s a puzzle filled with innocence and brutality, a never-ending combination that over time makes it difficult for task force members to grapple with the current debate over child pornography cases.

In recent years, a growing number of federal judges have complained about the sentencing guidelines for lower level child pornography cases, especially those involving possession of child pornography. They claim the guidelines are too severe and, given the rapid rise in the internet, do not adequately reflect the different levels of culpability and risk among defendants.

Earlier this year, a federal judge in New York City sentenced a Brooklyn man who downloaded child porn to five days in prison. He also criticized sentencing guidelines that he claims fail to distinguish between defendants who distribute or produce child porn and those who look at it.

One of the consequences of this ongoing legal battle is that more and more judges are doling out sentences below the ranges recommended by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. By 2013, only one out of three child porn defendants was receiving a sentence that was within the recommended sentencing range.

Those who investigate child porn cases acknowledge that some defendants may never abuse a child, but many do, they claim. And even worse, they add, they all contribute to a system that exploits victims over and over again.

In short, it’s never a victimless crime, they say.

“That could not be further from the truth,” says Bell. “Every time a photo is traded back and forth, that child is victimized again.”