Caught in the Net
He waved at the fourteen-year-old girl crossing the motel parking lot. She looked great: shorts, a little white blouse, her brown hair in a ponytail that bounced as she walked toward him. He was high as a kite on the methamphetamine that he'd promised her would make for a better fuck. But somewhere on the trip from Loveland to Denver to hook up with another bus that would get him to the motel in Wheat Ridge, the speed had disappeared into his arm.
He'd have to do some fast talking about the meth, just as he had in their e-mails and telephone conversations. He enjoyed playing the girl, had her wrapped around his finger. It wasn't hard; like a lot of kids cruising the chat rooms, little Katie had been looking for something she wasn't getting at home. Her dad was out of the picture, her mom a drunk who had a new boyfriend hanging around the apartment all the time. Mostly, Katie just wanted someone to care about her. She doesn't really care about you, baby. Not like I do.
Back in June 2000, he'd found her under the nickname Cutie2kewl in a chat room. He'd checked out her America Online profile and liked what he saw. A typical teenager. In the space provided for "member name," she'd written Katie T-hahahaha; under marital status, give me a break, single, 14 years. For hobbies she listed hanging; asked what computer she used, she answered like whoooo cares. Her personal quote: party on babe even if u gotta skip skewl.
He'd taken his time on the girl, nice one moment, nasty the next. A speed freak, he'd wanted to stay with her on the computer and, later, the phone for hours, late into the night. The longer he'd kept her on, the more meth he'd injected, the more graphic and violent his sex talk -- hard sex, rape fantasies. He'd told her not to worry, the meth would make it great. She'd do things she'd never dreamed of doing.
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Their discussions had gone on for three weeks. Finally, after Katie told him her mom was going camping for a couple of days with her boyfriend, he'd suggested they meet. He had hoped he could just come over to her mom's apartment -- save the motel money -- but Katie had worried that the neighbors might see him and instead had suggested a motel close to her home.
Then he'd found one right across the street, even cheaper. More bang for the buck. He was seven hours late by the time he got to Wheat Ridge, but when he'd called Katie, she'd been real nice about it, said she'd be right over.
Just come to the motel playground in the middle of the parking lot and I'll see you, he'd told her. And now here she was, the girl of his fevered dreams. He recognized her from a photograph she'd scanned into her computer: Katie lying on a park bench in jeans and a leather jacket. He waved again from the walkway outside the second-story room, his eyes bright with meth and anticipation, but she didn't seem to see him.
Finally, he caught her eye. "Come on up," he called. She waved back and smiled. But then she dropped her backpack, and she took her sweet time picking everything up before she finally made her way to the stairwell. His eyes locked on the spot at the top of the stairs; when she appeared, she commanded every last molecule of his attention. She was almost his. He pulled out his room key and fumbled at the lock, his eyes hardly leaving Katie.
Suddenly, Katie shrank away, and he was shoved to the ground. He'd been so intent on the girl that he hadn't heard anyone else approaching.
He heard them now. "POLICE! You're under arrest!" Mike Harris of the Jefferson County District Attorney's Crimes Against Children unit shouted at 38-year-old Jeff Beebe.
Harris's knee was killing him from the sprint up the stairs. He'd felt a snap and heard a pop, but kept going; he had to get to Beebe before the man got to the girl. Harris never knew when one of these guys might have a gun, and the last thing he needed was a hostage situation.
He looked at the girl backing toward the stairwell. "Grab her," he shouted at the two back-up officers just reaching the top of the stairs. "I want to talk to her."
Mike Harris had always wanted to be a cop. Growing up in a high-crime area of Albuquerque, he disliked bullies -- small in stature and half-Hispanic, half-Anglo, he'd experienced his share of them -- and liked the idea of helping people. After high school, he'd come north to Denver, where he got a job first with the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office, then the Littleton Police Department and, in 1989, the Lakewood Police Department.
Harris was a gung-ho, balls-to-the-wall macho cop. Tough, aggressive and muscular, as a SWAT team volunteer he'd earned the nickname "Tazman," after the Tasmanian Devil, a whirling dervish of a cartoon character.
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 should have 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.
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.
Cassandra thought Harris's idea sounded exciting: working undercover, catching sex offenders who preyed on children. After she gladly volunteered for the assignment, Harris told her that there was just one more thing: She'd be impersonating a thirteen-year-old boy.
He brought out the baseball cap he'd been hiding behind his back and asked Cassandra to put it on. With her hair tucked up into the cap, she was transformed. The next day, Cassandra met Harris in his office and posed for a photograph, wearing the cap and a loose jacket. Tommy now had a face.
Looking back, Cassandra realized she'd led a fairly sheltered childhood. She'd grown up in Denver, with a businessman father and a stay-at-home mom. Her parents were involved in her life, attending all her sporting events and keeping a close eye on her other activities. If she went to the mall, her parents knew who she was meeting and when she was supposed to be picked up. And she was never allowed to just camp in front of the TV -- or video games, once they appeared on the scene.
Like millions of other kids, she'd heard all the rules regarding strangers. Don't talk to them. Don't get in their cars. If someone approaches and suggests something inappropriate, report it to the police or a responsible adult. She also heard the stories about bad things happening to kids who ignored the rules, but they were always something that happened to someone who knew someone else.
Cassandra graduated from college with a degree in criminal justice. Like Harris, she thought of a job in law enforcement as a way of helping others. And also like Harris, she thought it would be exciting. She landed an internship with the Jeffco DA's office, which turned into a job in the Welfare Fraud division.
And now she was Tommy.
Harris sent Levi a copy of the Tommy/Cassandra photo. It worked; Levi e-mailed that he wanted to talk on the phone with Tommy.
Cassandra started studying printouts of all the e-mails and messages between Tommy and Levi so she'd know the history. Still, she knew the call was going to be difficult: On the computer, Harris had time to think out his answers, but she was going to have to improvise quickly while staying in the character of a thirteen-year-old boy. And she was going to have to be careful not to bring up sex, which might be construed as entrapment. "Let him do it," Harris reminded her.
At last they were ready. Tommy sent Levi a phone number, and soon they were having long conversations. As much as she'd prepared, Cassandra was surprised by how graphic Levi got after just a few minutes.
Is it hard? he asked.
Yeah, Tommy answered, a little bashful. Is yours?
Cassandra couldn't believe an adult would say that to a kid. No, Tommy giggled, I can't find a stupid ruler.
How long is it? Levi said, clearly frustrated with Tommy's lack of focus.
I don't know, probably not as long as yours.
Levi sighed. Well, you have an idea of how long an inch is..., he said, dripping sarcasm.
Yeah, Tommy replied.
Well, look at it..., Levi said.
Tommy giggled. Maybe four.
That's cool, Levi responded. At your age, give me a break...it's not like you're an adult.
Levi told Tommy he wanted to suck his penis. Cassandra was repulsed but concentrated on giving an appropriate answer. Oral sex sounded cool, Tommy said, but he was a little frightened by the prospect.
That's cool, Levi said.
What would you like me to do for you? Tommy asked.
What would you like to do? Levi answered.
I don't know, said Tommy. Maybe the same. ... But you're going to have to be patient with me. I'm still learning.
Okay, Levi replied. You don't have to if you don't want to.
I'm scared, Tommy said. Is that normal?
Sure it is, Levi purred.
A few days later, Cassandra was sitting in a booth at a local McDonald's, wearing the baseball cap and a jacket. Harris and another investigator sat in the booth next to hers, pretending to be just another couple of diners in the busy restaurant. They were all waiting for Levi, who'd arranged to meet Tommy.
Levi, balding and overweight, showed up early. He spotted Tommy, went to the counter to buy a soft drink, then came over and sat down by Cassandra. He smiled when Tommy agreed to his suggestion that they go somewhere else.
As Levi and Tommy chatted, Harris removed his jacket, revealing his badge and the ID hanging around his neck. But Levi didn't notice; he was totally absorbed with Tommy. Suddenly, Harris and the other investigator grabbed Levi's wrists. He was under arrest.
As soon as she could, Cassandra escaped into the bathroom. As far as Levi knew, Tommy was still just a teenage boy.
Levi didn't encounter Tommy again until he was on trial in Jefferson County for attempted sexual assault. Cassandra and Harris were walking down a courthouse hallway when they passed Levi sitting on a bench. At the sound of Tommy's voice, Levi looked up -- and blanched when he realized it was coming from a petite young woman wearing a skirt.
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?
Only later, when he listened to a recording of the conversation, did Harris realize what had been going on.
Do you have your pants down? Angle asked Tommy from his home in Indiana.
Yeah, Tommy replied.
Is your dick big? Angle asked, and then asked Tommy to pat his penis on his stomach. Lacking the necessary appendage, Cassandra had used her pager.
It was enough to convince Angle, who twice before had served time for sexual assault on a child, to make arrangements to fly to Colorado. Two weeks before he was due to land here, though, he took a side trip to Mexico, where he filmed himself having sex with boys. When Angle told Tommy about the trip, Harris warned the FBI -- and as Angle re-entered the United States, he was arrested by the agency. The Jeffco team was able to add a count of attempted sexual assault to the feds' child-pornography charges.
Some of the suspects were just plain pathetic, like the man who complained to Tigger, supposedly an adolescent female, that he didn't have a good Internet name. He was overjoyed when Cassandra sent him one, which he recorded onto his answering machine. This is the Pooh Bear Man...
But others scared even Cassandra and Harris. Denverite Thomas Ormsby told Kendra, another character under the Cutie2kewl moniker, that he liked to physically abuse his sexual partners. He sent photographs of himself forcing a child to engage in oral sex; the girl looked about ten.
I got a big dick, huh? he boasted.
Yeah...is it really nine inches? Kendra replied, almost breathless, although Ormsby was one of those who didn't need much prompting.
Are you fingering yourself? Go ahead. When I shoved it down her throat, she gagged...I've got big balls, too.
My cum was dripping out of her nose. Somewhere on the disk, he said, he had pictures that would demonstrate how much cum he produced.
Ormsby asked if Kendra had any friends to bring with her when they finally met. Kendra replied that she didn't want anyone else to know about them, and he quickly moved on to the next subject. Do you take it in the ass?
I never have.
You'll like it.
If you're sure it won't hurt me.
Well, I do have a big cock.
Cassandra could hardly stand to listen to him; he made her skin crawl. How many other children has he hurt? she wondered. When they talked, the question was never far from her mind. She wished they could hurry up and arrest him -- but when the day came, she nearly balked.
"I hate this," she told her husband. Ormsby had demanded that she dress up for his violent fantasy: spandex shorts, a tight-fitting shirt without a bra, high heels and bright-pink lipstick. Cassandra, who rarely wore any makeup, thought she looked like a teenaged hooker.
Even worse, they were supposed to meet at a McDonald's near Columbine High School. She felt terrible showing up at the restaurant in that outfit. She tried to ignore the stares from parents, as well as her own embarrassment.
Finally, Harris reported over the radio that Ormsby had driven into the parking lot. "Go to the front door and act like you're looking around," he said. She did, but either Ormsby didn't see her or he was being cautious. Harris had Cassandra go to the door again, then sit back down in a booth by the window.
Ormsby saw her, parked, then went into the restaurant and took a seat across from her. He was practically licking his chops when, as Harris likes to say of these moments, his world came crashing down.
As the police moved in to arrest Ormsby, parents grabbed their children. Cassandra left as soon as she could, so she wasn't there to hear Harris address the crowd after Ormsby was escorted away. He announced that they had just witnessed a joint operation of the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office and the FBI. "We arrested a man who came here to meet someone he thought was a child," Harris said. "He wanted to hurt a child."
There was a moment of silence, and then everyone in the restaurant began applauding. It was one of the most gratifying moments of Mike Harris's career, but something was missing: His wife wasn't there to hear it.
When he got out to the car, Cassandra was steaming. "Why did you make me come to the door twice?" she yelled. "I will never dress up like this again."
Then he told her about the applause from the restaurant's patrons. "Really?" she asked quietly.
Playing decoy was not an easy job. In her guise as a minor, Cassandra had to listen to vile conversations. Photographs of her were all over the Internet. The team had seen pictures of Cassandra as a little boy pasted above a pedophile's computers, pictures of Cassandra as a teenaged girl lying on the floor next to a suspect's bed. They knew what the sick bastards were doing, but as long as the perps were concentrating on Tommy or Katie or Kendra or Tigger, they weren't hurting a real child.
In May 2000, Richard Templeton picked up a thirteen-year-old girl at Arvada Middle School; he'd met her on the Internet. He took the girl to a park, sexually assaulted her, and then threatened her. I know where you live.
He did it again, twice, before the girl's mother found a love letter from the man. The girl admitted she knew Templeton but denied that there'd been any sexual contact. Arvada detectives brought the case to Harris's team.
They knew Templeton's AOL moniker was Super225, so when the Harrises saw him sign on, they sent a message from Cutie2kewl.
Are you SuperStar25 who was John?
No, Templeton answered.
Sorry to have bothered you, they sent back, and let him go. They were getting pretty good at reading these guys. He'd check out Cutie2kewl's profile, and then they'd hear from him again.
Sure enough, when they signed on as Cutie2kewl a week later, Templeton sent an instant message. Three weeks later, after receiving a photograph showing Cassandra as a nubile cheerleader, he left a message on the undercover telephone at the Harris apartment. So I'm 40. So you're 14. Age is just a number. I don't care what people think. I don't care if it's against the law. You're mine.
Harris thought it was one of the stupidest moves he'd seen yet, but it was a great piece of evidence for the investigators. Templeton wouldn't be able to deny that he knew his victim was a minor, that he was planning to break the law.
Templeton asked if he could visit Kendra's apartment when her mother was out. Kendra told him she was worried about the neighbors and asked him instead to pick her up outside the complex where she supposedly lived. She was sitting on the curb when he pulled up without a worry in the world. Then he opened the car door, and that world came crashing down.
Harris called the Arvada mother and told her about the arrest. Ten minutes later, the mother called back. "I think you need to talk to my daughter," she said. With Templeton in jail, the girl was no longer afraid and was ready to tell her story. As a result, the Jeffco DA was able to add sexual assault to the charge of attempted sexual assault.
A month after the Templeton bust, Cassandra was crossing a motel parking lot while Jeff Beebe waved from a second-story balcony. She'd spotted him right away but had had to stall for time while her backup raced to get into place.
Beebe had made them wait seven hours, but they'd expected him to be erratic because of the drugs. Beebe's motel switch was a bigger problem. Cassandra and the rest of her team from the Jeffco DA's Crimes Against Children division, as well as the Wheat Ridge Police Department and the West Metro Drug Task Force, had planned the arrest down to the slightest detail. Even the motel clerk was a cop.
Then Beebe, that cheap bastard, had changed motels. Suddenly, the risks had escalated. Beebe had told her to come to the playground, where he'd contact her. What did that mean? What if he drove up in a car and insisted she get inside it? Or what if he was holed up in a place where it would be tough to reach him without putting herself in a great deal of danger? Cassandra didn't carry her gun while posing as a teenager.
The Harrises knew that the longer Cassandra kept posing as a target, the more her picture would get around on the Net. Someone, someday, would get a photograph and a message saying Watch out, this girl's a cop. Then it would be easy to set her up, turn the tables.
So Cassandra stalled. She dropped her pack, slowly picked up what spilled out of it. As she approached the stairwell, she could see her husband and another investigator racing beneath the balcony. And when she emerged at the top, they were coming up right behind Beebe.
He had no idea they were there. Beebe had what they'd come to know as "target lock." He had one thing and one thing only on his mind: sex with the teenager standing coyly in front of him.
A few minutes later, she was backing down the stairs as Mike Harris yelled, "Grab her. I want to talk to her." The other investigators hustled Cassandra out of sight. While the suspect lay sprawled on the ground, she proceeded to the motel office, where she picked up the registration form Beebe had filled out -- proof of his criminal intentions.
Mike Harris's office -- Cassandra calls the dimly lit space "the cave" -- is adorned with photos of his wife. Only they're not really his wife. They're Katie. They're Tommy. They're Tigger. They're Cassandra wearing coke-bottle glasses and overalls. Cassandra as a cheerleader.
There are also photographs of the sex offenders they've brought to justice -- a population of doomed men in orange jail jumpsuits. There's the framed photograph of a little boy, with the words "Why We Do, What We Do." And there's a school photograph of a pretty blonde who was once a nine-year-old girl raped by her mother's boyfriend. One night, about two years after Harris had found the girl at the motel, his pager had gone off at 1 a.m., waking him from a deep sleep. "I don't like cops, and I don't like you," a male voice said, then added that an eleven-year-old girl had given him the pager number and asked him to call. "I just left her," the man said. "She's in a motel on Colfax Avenue with her mother and three drunk guys. She was in bed with one of them when I left."
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."
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.
Penry has since logged more than eighty hours of training with the Center for Missing and Exploited Children; this year his unit was awarded a federal grant to beef up its operations. But despite his growing expertise, Penry says he still turns to Harris. "A lot of other investigators, myself included, have a lot of respect and admiration for him," he says. "He's been doing this for a long time. It takes a lot of dedication to do this -- it's a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job. And if there's anyone who's dedicated to this, it's Mike Harris. He does it for the kids.
"Mike will bend over backwards to help anyone trying to help these kids."
Harris recently returned to an old stamping ground to help the Littleton Police Department with an Internet case. Harris is helping Littleton "prepare for the future of computer crime," Commander Bob Brandt says. "We know it's going on, and a lot of it isn't being reported. The problem is that it's very personnel-intensive, and unless you have someone to whom you can say, 'Okay, this is your primary area of focus,' it's difficult to be proactive like Mike and Cassandra."
But being too active has its drawbacks. This past spring, military police in another state spotted a cheerleader picture being used as a screensaver on a perpetrator's computer; an FBI agent recognized the photograph as Cassandra and contacted the Jeffco team.
Cassandra was simply becoming too well known. The risk that she could be set up was growing with every picture of Katie, Kendra, Tommy, Tigger and the others sent out over the Web. So Jeffco decided to retire her face, as well as the Cutie2kewl moniker.
Although Cassandra still works on Internet cases, she now stays behind the scenes. In recent weeks, the team has found three volunteers to take her place on the front lines.
"It'll be strange watching from another viewpoint," she admits. "I used to get so hyped up and into these roles, knowing I was replacing some kid. But it was time."
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