Caught in the Net

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


With his online sting up and running, Mike Harris was at the cutting edge of law enforcement. There was nothing like his operation anywhere in the Rocky Mountain region, nor in Kansas or Nebraska, two jurisdictions that began to call on Jeffco's expertise. And not only was Cassandra one of the earliest Internet decoys in the country, she was also the first to portray both boys and girls.

As they worked more cases, the two perfected their roles, learning to mimic the habits of adolescents. A typical teenager wouldn't be on the computer at all times of the day, for example, so they sent e-mails to suspects at 6 a.m., before I go to school, and then at 3 p.m., when Tommy or Kendra or Katie or Tigger got home. Cassandra studied how teenagers talked in the chat rooms, on the telephone. Then she'd be on the phone at 11 p.m., whispering after her fictitious mother had gone to bed.

Unfortunately, much of what Harris and Cassandra learned came from talking to victims. The kids were from a variety of backgrounds -- rich kids, poor kids, kids of all races -- but they had some things in common. They all had too much unsupervised time on their hands. Their parents were working or couldn't be bothered -- if there were two parents; another shared feature of victims was the prevalence of broken homes.

Time and again, they'd come across victims who'd spent hours on the computer, going to chat rooms, while their parents thought they were doing homework. In one case, a fourteen-year-old's parents were dropping the girl off at the mall, supposedly to meet up with friends. Instead, she was going to motels with a man she'd met on the Internet -- a man in his forties. He told her he loved her, that he would take care of her, that he would give her what her busy parents didn't. The assaults were uncovered when the girl told friends, who reported the trysts to school officials.

The offenders were as varied as their victims. Sometimes they were respected members of the community -- a minister in Evergreen, a self-made millionaire from Oregon. Other times, the investigators would get a search warrant for some filthy little apartment with a computer sitting on the floor next to a dirty mattress. But perpetrators had common habits, too, including "grooming" their targets to lower their guard. Most teenagers, even those starved for affection that they weren't getting at home, were put off by someone who started demanding to meet and have sex right off the bat. It was much more effective for the adult to pass himself off as a friend or parent figure.

You don't have a dad? I could be your dad.

You want to go shopping? I'll buy you whatever you want. You like vacations? How about I take you to Disneyland?

I got your picture. You're so cute...you can be my little girl.

Then the perp would start testing the waters, discussing sex, backing off when the target took offense, then returning later to his favorite subject. For their first meeting, the teen might drag a few friends along, and the adult might spend a little money on a meal or shopping, show how "safe" things were. The next time, it would be much easier to get his victim alone.

Some pedophiles stopped at sexual assault, which was bad enough. But others stepped much farther across the line. One twelve-year-old girl who'd met a forty-year-old perpetrator on the Internet wound up in a motel, where she was tied to a bed, injected with drugs, then raped. The process was repeated on several occasions. By the time the crimes were discovered, the girl was addicted to drugs.

Although Jeffco's online operation was more successful than Harris had ever imagined, team members still had to handle their regular caseloads while juggling computer cases. But somewhere, Harris and Cassandra found the time to fall in love. Soon they were husband and wife at home -- at least until the pager went off, turning them into crime-fighting partners.

Like the Internet, their cases stretched outside Colorado. But crossing state lines to engage in sex with a minor was a federal crime, so they frequently ended up working with the FBI. At such times, there was none of the animosity often found between federal and local law-enforcement officials; in fact, the Jeffco team appreciated the stiffer sentences handed down by federal judges.

The suspects flew or drove in from Oregon and Montana, Nebraska and Ohio. Cassandra sometimes scrambled to remember her background story, even her gender. Some of their suspects talked to so many kids that they might not notice a slip; others recalled every detail.

Harris was amazed by Cassandra's ability to think on the run. One day he walked into her office to see how a conversation with one of their latest projects, Wayne Angle, was going. He saw her put the phone down on the desk and then pat her pager twice next to the mouthpiece.

She picked the receiver up. How was that?

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