Caught in the Net

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

In 1995, Harris took a job with the Jeffco DA's Crimes Against Children division. He'd worked frequently with Laura Dunbar, the deputy district attorney in charge of the division, as well as Dennis Goodwin, the chief of investigators; both of them had encouraged him to apply for the slot. Working for the DA's office, Harris knew he'd have a broader reach -- and perhaps the time and resources to explore a new avenue of child abuse: the Internet.

One of the biggest frustrations with working a Crimes Against Children case was that by the time police got involved, a child had already suffered. The challenge was to find a way to be proactive, to stop the perp before he ruined a kid's life.

During a computer-class discussion of chat rooms, Harris had a thought. What would happen if I got in a chat room and pretended to be a child?Would the pedophiles who cruised the Net looking for victims approach him for sex? There was a law on the books -- attempted sexual assault on a child -- that would apply if an adult suggested sexual acts with someone under legal age and then tried to act on those suggestions. Harris would have to be careful to avoid entrapment issues -- posing as a child, he couldn't suggest a criminal act -- but if the suggestion came from the other side, he might be able to put a pedophile in prison.

In 1996, Harris broached his idea with Goodwin and Dunbar and got the blessing of District Attorney Dave Thomas. If Harris could catch a few Internet pedophiles in his spare time, that was fine with the DA.

Harris still knew next to nothing about the Internet; he'd never even logged on to a chat room. Fortunately, Julie Posey, an intern in the DA's office, was a computer whiz. And after Harris explained what he was trying to do, she not only showed him how to get into the chat rooms, but translated some of the online lingo for him, such as "LOL" for "laugh out loud."

At first, Harris ventured into chat rooms just to observe the action. He was amazed by how much information the kids -- at least, they said they were kids -- exchanged over computers. They talked about their bodies and their sexual exploits -- things many of them would never have discussed face-to-face. The Internet seemed to provide a safe buffer -- but in fact, he thought, it was a perfect hunting ground for sex offenders. Just follow the dialogue and pick a victim.

When Harris decided he'd watched enough, he created the character of Tommy, a thirteen-year-old boy whose mother had died and whose father worked all the time, leaving him home to fend for himself. When Tommy logged into a chat room for the first time, Harris was surprised at how quickly other kids responded. But it also wasn't long before he ran into men who wanted to talk about sex. While some were only interested in cyber-sex, others wanted to take it to the next step.

In one newsgroup, Harris noticed an ad: Daddy ISO Boy. After running to Posey, who told him that "ISO" stands for "in search of," he replied as Tommy. Soon he had Tobias Levi, a 54-year-old businessman, making sexual suggestions to the supposed thirteen-year-old. The pedophile was crafty; if Tommy got upset when talk of oral sex turned graphic, got gross, he'd back off for a while, then return to the sex discussion later. And little by little, Harris allowed his alter ego to be seduced.

Then an unanticipated problem came up: Levi wanted a pic, a photograph of Tommy. Harris realized that he hadn't thought through the whole process. Someday, Levi was going to want more than a picture; he was going to want to meet Tommy for sex. He needed someone who could play Tommy in person.

There was no way he was going to pass for a thirteen-year-old; he didn't know any police officers, male or female, who could. And then Posey suggested Cassandra, a 28-year-old investigator in the DA's Welfare Fraud division.

Cassandra had a reputation as being real gung-ho, just like Harris. He and Posey walked downstairs and stood outside the fraud office, peeking in at Cassandra as they discussed the possibility. She was certainly the right size: slight, about five feet tall, maybe a hundred pounds. Her voice was perfect, Harris thought, a "tweener" who could pass as a teenage girl or a boy in the throes of puberty.

At her desk, Cassandra wondered why the investigator from the Crimes Against Children division and an intern were standing in the hall checking her out. She was about to confront the pair when Harris finally approached and told her about his plan. He wanted to catch pedophiles on the Internet. Would she be interested?

Harris wasn't the first person to make use of Cassandra's small stature. When other investigators had had trouble serving subpoenas to reluctant witnesses, she'd sometimes helped out. She'd been to the police academy, carried a gun and everything, but she sure didn't look like a cop.

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