When a US postal inspector in St. Paul, Minn., was surfing the Internet, he happened to come across a website advertising child pornography. It included graphic thumbnail pictures and blatant banners advertising children involved in sexual situations.
The inspector pulled out a credit card and took out a subscription to a linked site. From there, he was able to track the gatekeeper - the advertiser of the service - to Fort Worth, Texas, where law-enforcement officials found a business, called Landslide, grossing $1.4 million a month.
That happened two years ago. Last week, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the dismantling of the largest child-porn enterprise uncovered in the US and the indictment of 100 people.
Aside from its scope, the case is likely to have a far-reaching impact because:
It marks the first time an individual has received a life sentence, without the hope of parole, for trafficking in child porn. Investigators hope this sentence has a sobering impact on other purveyors.
It has shown the law-enforcement community that a large number of profitmaking enterprises are selling child pornography. This case will help them to identify and prosecute some of these sites. The police, in essence, are following a money trail, since buyers use credit cards.
It shows what role the public can have in helping authorities. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit organization based in Alexandria, Va., gave authorities 270 tips relating to Landslide.
"The case is saying to the purveyors, you will not be allowed to exploit our children. You will be investigated, identified, and prosecuted," says Reuben Rodriguez of the center's Exploited Child Unit.
Yet, law-enforcement officials are realistic. These child-porn sites, using names like "Lolita," move around all the time to try to elude law enforcement. They estimate that at least 100,000 sites offer child porn. "If we're making progress, we would see fewer and fewer people with access - and that is just not the case," says Andreas Stephens, section chief of the FBI's violent crimes unit.
One of the worst fears of law-enforcement officials is that the Internet will allow sexual predators access to children on chat sites. On Monday, police said this is exactly what happened when a 15-year-old Massachusetts girl, after developing an online relationship with a 41-year-old man, left home with him and was sexually abused. "There is a need to educate people about the real danger on the Internet," says the FBI's Pete Gulotta.
To try to protect the public from future cases like this, there is a growing investment in tracking down purveyors. Almost every federal law-enforcement agency, from the FBI to US Customs and even the Secret Service, is involved. They are forming partners with local police departments, which also have full-time officers working on the problem.
To combat websites that can be in many countries, the agencies often form ad hoc task forces. "We often pool together. No one agency can win this battle," says Ray Smith, head of the US Postal Inspector Program for Child Exploitation.
Landslide is a good example of how this works. After the postal inspector tracked Landslide to Fort Worth, postal authorities contacted the Dallas Police Department's Youth and Family Support Division.
The information went to Detective Steve Nelson, who pulled out a credit card and subscribed to a dozen of the child-porn sites. As he went to each site, he saved the images, which would become the basis for the 89-count indictment.
Armed with a search warrant, about 50 law-enforcement officials showed up at Landslide at 9 a.m. and shut down the operation. Within minutes, Landslide's phone was ringing as subscribers wanted to know what had happened. "We literally said, 'Please give us your phone number and credit card number; we'll try to find out what's happening,' " says Mr. Nelson.
In the first round of indictments, the government prosecuted some of the most egregious buyers, including registered sex offenders, a former fire chief, and a man who worked in a hospital that handles sexually abused children. Indictments are expected to continue for some time.
But even the government admits challenges. As many as 35,000 subscribed to child-porn services at Landslide. "If the plan was to prosecute everyone, then the resources needed would be daunting," says Mr. Stephens of the FBI. But, he adds, if individuals know they can be identified, "that might deter some people."