Caught in the Net

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

Harris jumped out of bed. He remembered the girl, remembered the mom, and knew how bad things could get. He called for backup as he drove to the motel. Alone, he knocked on the door the caller had mentioned. A man, drunk, answered.

Harris looked in. The mother was passed out on one bed with a man. The girl was on the other bed with another man, who was also passed out. The girl was nude, wide awake and staring at him, scared to death.

The adults were arrested; the girl was taken to the police department, where Harris asked a victim's advocate to talk to her. He could hear the girl yelling in the next room. "I hate Mike Harris. Fuck Mike Harris."

 
Scott Laumenn
 
Mike and Cassandra Harris have a line on pedophiles.
John Johnston
Mike and Cassandra Harris have a line on pedophiles.

Three years later, he saw the girl again -- this time with her foster mother, working at a benefit for the Children's Advocacy Center, a nonprofit that helps abused children. The girl came up and hugged Harris, even as she told him she was still mad at him for taking her away from her mother.

That was several years ago. Today the girl's a straight-A high school student. "Sometimes she pages me to report cars speeding through her neighborhood," Harris says. "She asks, 'What should I do?' I tell her, 'Don't stand in the street.'"

That's a long way from "Fuck Mike Harris."

The Harrises have grown to expect hostility from the kids they're trying to save. Sometimes the victims blame themselves for whatever predicament the pedophiles find themselves in. Their pleadings on behalf of these men can be sad beyond words. The team recently arrested the forty-year-old Internet boyfriend of a fourteen-year-old girl who is extremely overweight, with no friends and not much of a home life.

"What if no one else ever says they love me? He did," she cried. "Who will want to be with me? At least he wanted to be with me."

With that bust, the Internet operation's arrest record rose over forty; Jeff Beebe -- convicted of felony enticement of a child and given an "indeterminate" sentence of between three years and life -- was number 35. "Last year was a slow year," Harris says. "The rebirthing case took up a lot of our time." The death of an eight-year-old girl at the hands of her therapists made headlines across the country.

But Cassandra and Mike Harris have made plenty of headlines, too. This spring they took their cause to the Sally Jesse Raphael show, where they warned the audience that pedophiles trolled the Internet. The show's producers had set aside four hours of film time to see if Harris could log onto a computer as Cutie2kewl and have an adult make sexual overtures within that time frame. It took ten minutes.

The Harrises hope the media exposure will remind parents to pay more attention to what their children do on the Internet. They also hope that it will plant a seed of doubt in a sex offender's mind, so that the next time he logs on, Harris says, he'll wonder: "Is it really a fourteen-year-old boy he's talking nasty to, or is it that crazy Mike Harris, and am I headed for a fall?"

For every child they save, they know many more are at risk. Even if the Jeffco team were able to work on their Internet operation full-time, the Harrises estimate they would make three arrests a week -- a good haul, but just the tip of the iceberg. And they're still squeezing the sting into their spare time.

On a national level, the government has funded regional task forces charged with protecting children against sex crimes over the Internet. A two-year federal sting operation culminated earlier this month in a hundred people being charged with receiving child pornography from an Internet provider. In a good month, Landslide Productions Inc. took in as much as $1.4 million; its Web site counted more than 250,000 subscribers.

The same day that sting broke in the news, Randall Ankeney, a member of the governor's economic development office and a volunteer coordinator for Bill Owens's re-election campaign, was taken into custody on suspicion of sexual assault. He'd met a thirteen-year-old on the Internet, authorities say, then took her home, plied her with alcohol and marijuana and sexually assaulted her. Every week, there are stories about other kids -- real kids -- violated by adults they met online.

While many local jurisdictions still have no proactive Internet operation, a few police agencies around the state have started programs modeled after Harris's Jeffco operation.

Two years ago, when the Douglas County Sheriff's Office decided to form its Internet Crimes Against Children unit, investigator Keith Penry was the first to be assigned to the job. He was aware of how the Internet was being used by pedophiles, and of some police attempts to go after suspects by posing as young teens. But after he ran into his first victim -- who'd met two men on the Internet -- he turned to Mike Harris for advice on how to catch her perpetrators. Both men are now in prison.

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