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Caught in the Net

The Web was a pedophile's paradise -- until Mike and Cassandra Harris logged on.

He had a passion for working undercover, particularly on cases involving drugs, which he saw as the root of most crimes. He'd discovered he had a knack for fitting into the drug-dealing world, a community with its own rules, its own characters. Once, he wormed his way into the inner circle of a drug dealer he'd arrested three times in the preceding two years; the dealer didn't recognize the bearded, long-haired Harris as the cop who'd busted him.

Harris wanted to be where the action was. After he'd been at Lakewood about eight months, he applied for a position open on the department's K-9 unit. Never mentioning that he was afraid of dogs (he'd been bitten as a child), he'd gone through the mandatory dress-up-in-a-bite-suit routine, letting one hundred-pound dog after another drag him around for a day. He did it because in Lakewood, the dog handlers and their charges were brought in on all the "hot calls" -- man with a gun, robbery in progress. And he enjoyed competing with other K-9 units to get to the call first -- and therefore have first crack at a "bite," the official term for when a dog sinks his teeth into a suspect. His partner was Rex, a Belgian Malinois that looks somewhat like a German shepherd, only with shorter hair and a bigger chest. Cruising with Rex, Harris would report that he was "on the scene" while still a half-mile away, hoping to discourage other units from hurrying to the call.

But in 1991, two events in almost as many weeks convinced the self-professed adrenaline junkie that he had to pull back. First, Harris was nearly shot -- and coming that close to catching a bullet made him wonder whether he was being fair to his family. Even without the danger, K-9 duty was rough on family life. Since he was generally on the job from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m., he wasn't around much for his wife and three sons.

He missed one of his son's ball games because of the near-shooting. Determined to make the next one, he drove to the field to hook up with his family. Another father came up to Harris and slapped him on the back. "You should have seen your boy yesterday," he said. "He hit a grand slam. It was really something." Harris felt about two inches tall: He shouldhave been there to see his son's big moment.

Then, a few weeks later, Harris was broadsided in his patrol car by someone who ran a stop sign. It was time, he realized, to get into a new line of police work.

Harris hoped to be named a detective in the Lakewood PD's burglary unit. Instead, he was assigned to the Juvenile/Crimes Against Children unit.

While with the Littleton PD, Harris had met Joan Schroer, the lone detective in that department's Crimes Against Children unit, and he'd attended her seminars. Sexual-abuse cases were notoriously difficult: The crimes occurred behind closed doors, where there were no other witnesses, and usually came down to the word of a child against that of an adult. Schroer had opened his eyes to the types of crimes being perpetrated on children: assault, torture, rape. He'd developed a deep admiration for Schroer, who was exceptional at establishing rapport with children who'd been through the most godawful experiences he could imagine.

Still, he never saw himself working child-abuse cases.

Most of these crimes received little or no attention from the media. There was the six-year-old boy who'd been tortured with cigarettes by his mother's boyfriend; a teacher noticed the burns, and the case was turned over to Harris. The boy was the same age as one of Harris's sons, but he had no one to protect him. The mother said she didn't believe her son -- even though she dressed the boy in long-sleeved shirts even on the hottest days.

The boyfriend was found guilty of child abuse with intent to injure and sent away for five years. The mother was convicted of negligence and given probation. The boy was sent to live with relatives; Harris never heard from him again. But in his office, he kept a framed photograph of the boy, with the caption "Why We Do, What We Do."

Even when the media did pay attention, the public didn't always take Harris's job as seriously as he did. One boy's father bought a stripper for his son's thirteenth birthday. The dad thought it was a great joke, but a videotape of the boy showed that he was clearly uncomfortable and participated only at his father's insistence. The father, his girlfriend and the stripper were all charged with sixteen felony counts, including sexual assault on a child, but the crime became a joke on David Letterman's show. Harris just looked at the photograph in his office and continued to do his best.

His best wasn't good enough to save them all, however. Another case involved the sexual assault of a nine-year-old girl by her mother's boyfriend. Harris arrested the boyfriend, who was sent to prison, but he had no illusions that the girl's life was going to get much better. She and her mother moved from motel to motel on Colfax Avenue and hardly owned a change of clothing between them. Harris and some other officers chipped in to buy the girl some clothes, and Harris tried to point the mother toward agencies where she could get help. But other than giving the girl his pager number and asking her teachers to call if they noticed any problems, there wasn't much more he could do.

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