Tracking cyber-creeps

Pam
Pam Frampton
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Ed Billard has one of the toughest jobs imaginable

"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root."
- Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Ed Billard is an unassuming kind of guy with a calm demeanour and an easy smile. Like many dads, the 44-year-old St. John's native likes to start the day by making breakfast for his family, including his teenaged kids.

And then it's off to work.

Ask him about that work and he chooses his words carefully.

"There's not too much I haven't seen, but I know I haven't seen it all yet," he says.

What RNC Const. Billard sees - every single day - are excruciatingly disturbing scenes of child exploitation.

"The images are horrific and the videos are worse, particularly when they have sound accompanying them," he said.

"Sometimes the child is co-operating because they've been well-groomed. Sometimes there is resistance and the child is fighting back. …"

Billard points out that co-operation should never be confused with consent.

"At the end of the day, they're still a child."

Those children could live in your neighbourhood, or they could live in another country - the victims of someone's penchant for child pornography.

If a person could never shake those images, they'd probably go crazy, Billard acknowledges. So he tries not to take them home.

What he does take with him are the puzzle pieces of particular cases which he keeps shifting around mentally, trying to fit them into some kind of order that will reveal the identity of a perpetrator, or a young victim.

Billard is the lone investigator in the RNC's Child Exploitation Unit, trying to fight back a wave of sexual deviance in the constabulary's jurisdictions, one odious case at a time.

And it's too bad he doesn't have backup, because the cases keep coming. And changing. And are legion.

• • •

Billard flips open his laptop computer to reveal a Google Earth image of the province peppered with small red dots.

Each dot represents the latitudinal and longitudinal location of an Internet service provider whose client has accessed child pornography.

Billard moves his cursor from dot to dot and locations are revealed: Foxtrap. Portugal Cove. Whitbourne. St. John's and Mount Pearl are densely pixilated with dots. So is the Corner Brook area; Labrador, less so - more an indication of where Internet providers are clustered rather than a comment on the number of sexual predators per capita.

Some of these cases are before the courts. Some have not yet been investigated.

All of them are heinous.

According to an April 2009 article in the Journal of Family Violence, the number of crimes being committed in cyberspace involving child exploitation has kept pace with the growth of the Internet itself.

"The online enticement of children has increased by more than 400 per cent since 1998," the article states, based on congressional testimony by the president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the U.S.

And if you think catching people who like to look at kiddie porn is important work, consider this: a study of sex offenders documented in that same Journal of Family Violence article found that for many child porn viewers, the Internet activity wasn't their first foray into deviance.

Instead, note authors Michael L. Bourke and Andres E. Hernandez, "Results of this study suggest that … many Internet child pornography offenders may be undetected child molesters, and that their use of child pornography is indicative of their paraphilic (deviant) orientation."

Being a policeman and not a politician, Billard won't try to sell you on how the Child Exploitation Unit needs more resources, though he'll admit it does when asked.

Instead, he likes to focus on the success stories, particularly when they involve preventing an incident of child victimization from moving beyond the virtual world and into the physical one.

A couple of weeks ago, a St. John's parent wrote to RNC Chief Bob Johnston to commend Billard for his work when their child was being harassed online by someone in another country.

"His courteous, professional and knowledgeable assistance was of great help and comfort to us and our child," the letter said.

Days with results like those are what Billard always aims for. Ask him if he feels like he's making inroads and he will tell you yes, though it is increasingly difficult to keep pace.

Does Internet luring happen often in this province?

"It's bigger than you think," he said.

• • •

The cyber-exploitation of children can take many forms, and that's one of the big problems as computer-users become more sophisticated and get better at erasing their tracks.

A child could be forced to pose for pornographic photos, which are then hawked online.

A teen could fall prey to someone masquerading as a peer in an online chatroom.

Your 12-year-old's cyber-pal could be asking her to expose herself via webcam.

So it's no surprise that Billard has to know his way around a computer.

In fact, it was his interest in technology that led him to a career in policing, and not the other way around.

He takes satisfaction from fighting fire with fire - using the same tool to smoke out sexual predators that they use to lure their victims.

He is unequivocal about their motives.

"Consumers of this material … have a fantasy of having sex with children," he says.

"The only thing preventing them from that … is opportunity. By getting in front of this using the Internet as an asset … we can rescue victims or prevent it from happening.

"Technological investigation is the wave of the future," he adds.

"It's like when we changed from the horse and buggy to cars, you know?"

Does Billard worry that there are sexual predators out there with bigger, faster cars?

"There will always be people who know how to commit the perfect crime and hide their tracks well. …," he says philosophically.

"Right now, there are enough that aren't to keep us busy."

And busy he is. It's not just the number of files, it's the labour-intensive nature of each one.

There are judicial authorizations to obtain. Correspondence with his counterparts in other jurisdictions. Writing up search warrants. Collaborations with other units of the constabulary, and with the RCMP.

"When we seize a computer, all the data is copied and then my task as part of the investigation is to look at every picture or video stored in that computer," he said.

Billard could do with some help. He said he gets great support from the RNC, but expanding his unit all comes down to government budgets and competing demands.

"If I could have a magic wand, I'd like to have six (additional investigators) trained and ready to go," he said.

"Realistically? Two more besides myself."

That doesn't sound excessive.

Besides, if we aren't willing to pay up front, you can be sure we'll pay much more down the road in societal costs as the number of young victims - and the painful emotional fallout - continues to mount.

Next week: How sexploitation happens and how parents can help prevent it.

Pam Frampton, The Telegram's story editor, welcomes comments by e-mail: pframpton@thetelegram.com or online at www.thetelegram.com. Pam writes a food blog at wininganddiningwithpam.blogspot.com.

Organizations: RNC Const., Journal of Family Violence, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children RCMP

Geographic location: St. John's, Portugal Cove, Mount Pearl Corner Brook U.S.

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