By Emily Babay
When Kevin Ricks admitted last week that he took sexually explicit photographs and videos of boys in his care for more than three decades, U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride called the former Manassas teacher a “dangerous and serial predator who assaulted scores of young men.” The Ricks case is just one of dozens of child pornography cases in local courts. The number of such cases in the D.C. region has risen dramatically in the past decade.
That’s the result of both the rapid proliferation of online child pornography and a more vigorous effort to apprehend those who produce, distribute and view it.
“Before the Internet, child pornography had almost been eradicated,” MacBride said.
In fiscal year 1999, just 15 child pornography cases were filed in MacBride’s district, the Eastern District of Virginia, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics data. But his office handled 71 cases in 2009, a 373 percent jump.
Nationwide, cases increased 330 percent — from 481 in 1999 to 2,069 — in 2009. And Maryland and the District also saw steep jumps — Maryland’s cases rose from seven to 32, and D.C.’s climbed from two to 21.
Since the mid-1990s, greater Internet accessibility, advances in file-sharing technology and increasing storage space on personal computers have spurred a proliferation in child pornography, said Joe diGenova, a former U.S. attorney for D.C. Between October 2008 and October 2009, more than 9 million U.S. computers were identified as having shared child pornography, an August report by the Justice Department says.
“A lot of people never would have gone into an erotic video or magazine shop and asked to see child pornography,” Virginia criminal defense lawyer Mike Sprano said. “But when it’s just one click away on their computer, it seems to be more tempting for people.”
The increase in material has spurred law enforcement to ramp up efforts to catch sexual predators who target children.
A 2006 Justice Department initiative called Project Safe Childhood has placed prosecutors who target child-exploitation offenses in each federal judicial district. The FBI also has devoted more resources to the crime, creating task forces to work with and train local authorities and establishing an Innocent Images National Initiative to centralize evidence collection and analysis, said Kevin Gutfleish, the unit’s chief.
The FBI now handles more than 2,500 new child pornography cases a year, he said. And as criminals use new file-sharing methods and social networks to view and distribute child porn, undercover law enforcement uses those same tools to hunt down predators.
Such undercover operations have made the FBI increasingly proactive in tracking suspects in child porn cases, Gutfleish said.
Like the Ricks case, most child pornography prosecutions end in a plea agreement.
“The material speaks for itself,” diGenova said. “There is no innocent explanation for its existence.”
“What the Internet is teaching us is that it’s a far more prevalent behavior than we thought,” he said.
With sidebar: Guilty often in positions of authority, prominence
By Emily Babay
A Fox News producer, Navy lieutenant commander, NPR editor and Capitol Police officer are among those who have who have faced child pornography charges in the Washington region in recent years.
Mark Motivans, a statistician with the Bureau of Justice Statistics, says child pornography offenders tend to be older, white men. But their professions, economic status and education levels run the gamut, said Dr. Fred Berlin, director of the Sexual Behavior Consultation Unit at Johns Hopkins University.
“It’s one of the sad realities,” he said. And in many high-profile cases locally, the suspect is someone in a position of authority or trust, such as a teacher, military member or law enforcement officer.
Most child sex offenders “are extremely socially capable,” said Heather Steele, president and chief executive of the Innocent Justice Foundation, an advocacy organization. “They have to learn how to manipulate children and adults.”
A few cases that have made news in the region:
Dennis Bell: The former Capitol Police officer admitted last year that he used online file-sharing services to distribute child porn.
Aaron Bruns: The Fox News Channel producer is serving a 10-year prison sentence after authorities found a laptop filled with hundreds of explicit images at his Dupont Circle apartment.
David Malakoff: The NPR science editor admitted to downloading videos of young girls being raped on his work laptop.
Scottie Lee Martinez: The Navy Reserve intelligence officer was sentenced in January to 80 years in prison for coercing two girls into sexual conduct so he could make child pornography.