Homeland Security agents tackle growing trend of child sex tourism by webcam

Agents honored here for cracking big case

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From his house in Washington, Pa., convicted sex offender Jeffrey Herschell preyed on a 12-year-old girl a continent away.

He was watching -- and directing -- the girl in a live-sex show in the Philippines with the help of a pimp there who ran a child sex ring from an Internet cafe and charged his customers a fee to control the action in real time.

This is the latest threat in the ever-shifting battle against child predators: webcam child sex tourism.

It used to be that pedophiles had to travel to molest a child, often to countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines. It was difficult, dangerous and available only to those with means.

Now, with the proliferation of high-speed Internet service even in remote areas, they can do it online from home.

Herschell is in prison for a dozen years after U.S. Homeland Security agents from Pittsburgh traveled to the Philippines in 2011 and identified his young victim.

But the pimp in the Philippines, Archie Abala, had many other customers like Herschell in the U.S. and elsewhere.

"These cases are considered 'virtual traveler' cases," said one of the agents, James Kilpatrick, a computer forensics expert. "Instead of getting on a plane and flying to the Philippines, he can do this on the computer."

Agents Kilpatrick and Derek Bassler won an award in November from the local Law Enforcement Agency Directors for their efforts in finding the girl and putting Herschell away.

It was necessary to identify her so prosecutors could charge Herschell with production of child pornography instead of mere possession.

The honor was gratifying, but there wasn't much time to reflect on it. The agents and their partners in the U.S. Attorney's Crimes Against Children Task Force know they are up against a flood of child exploitation fomented by constantly evolving technology.

This kind of predation seems to be growing in countries where poverty is rampant. Anyone with a webcam and available children desperate for money can set up a business.

Some of Mr. Abala's victims in the Philippines were as young as 8 and were forced to have sex with adults and even animals for a few dollars a session. The 12-year-old used her $7 to buy food for her family.

"One victim [in the Philippines] told us she was doing this almost every night," Agent Bassler said.

There's no shortage of customers around the globe.

"We do get a lot of reports on this issue," said John Shehan, executive director in the exploited children division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "As more people are online with high-speed Internet service, it will continue to grow."

The point was driven home recently with a worldwide sting set up by a Dutch children's rights organization, Terre des Hommes.

The group created a virtual 10-year-old Filipino girl named "Sweetie" and posed as her in chat rooms to entice webcam tourists who wanted her to perform sex acts.

For two months last spring, the "girl" was approached online by 20,000 predators in 71 countries, including hundreds in the U.S. More than 1,000 of the men offered money.

"The moment we got online, we were swamped, like an avalanche," the group's special projects director, Hans Guyt, said in a webcast at the time.

Terre des Hommes turned the customer list over to Interpol.

The organization is worried that webcam sex shows will soon become as common as more typical child pornography. As Internet service grows more efficient in all parts of the world, it seems inevitable that the child sex trade will capitalize on it.

"People use good technology for bad reasons," Mr. Shehan said.

The Philippines seems to be a particular hotbed for child sex; the government there estimates 100,000 children are forced into the trade. But it's increasingly common in other poor countries, too, where the laws may not have kept pace with the Internet age.

Regardless of the motives on the production end, the business wouldn't work without people like Herschell on the receiving end, willing to shell out $30 for a pay-per-view show.

His case began with a 2010 raid of Mr. Abala's "cybersex den" in Cebu City, where he enticed girls from 8 to 17 to perform sex acts in real time for patrons who told him what to make the children do on camera. He communicated directly with his customers by email and instant messenger, and they paid him through Xoom or other services.

Filipino authorities, who were able to identify several victims after the raid, interviewed Mr. Abala, who said he had 10 to 15 customers in the U.S.

One of them was Herschell, 55, a convicted child molester who was working as a security guard and living on Ewing Street in Washington.

Herschell made attempts to hide his identity, using a fake name, email address and postal address. Agents also learned that, at his prior address on Pike Street in the Meadow Lands, he had used the wireless Internet service of his neighbor in making his contacts in the Philippines.

A check of his record indicated he had been convicted in 2000 of indecent assault and corruption of minors in connection with the molestation of a child in 1998. The mother of that child, who had been Mr. Herschell's girlfriend, also had told the FBI that she had found child porn on his computer.

Agents raided the Ewing Street house in March 2011. On his computer, agents found that Herschell had recorded some 20 sessions he had viewed. But among the images in the videos was a 12-year-old girl who was not among the known victims of Mr. Abala and his cohorts in the Philippines.

The U.S. attorney's office could have prosecuted Herschell for possession and moved on. But the agents knew that if they could identify that 12-year-old, prosecutors also could get him for production of child porn and lock him up for at least a decade. Since he had already had a conviction for assaulting a child, they considered him a worthy target for the extra effort.

Agents Bassler and Kilpatrick flew to the Philippines in September 2011 and interviewed the victims in Manila. The girls knew the 12-year-old in the Herschell videos. Mr. Abala, who has cooperated with authorities, also recognized her and described where she was living.

It took two weeks, but with the help of a Philippine national police officer, the agents tracked the girl down.

She identified herself as the girl in the videos and the U.S. attorney's office was able to add a charge of production. The charge was later dropped as part of a plea negotiations, but Herschell pleaded to coercion of a minor and possession of child porn and went to federal prison for 12 years. He will be on federal probation for the rest of his life.

CNN was on hand for the sentencing and highlighted the investigation as part its ongoing Freedom Project focused on sexual exploitation in the Philippines.

"It was a big case for us," Agent Kilpatrick said. "I've been doing this for 10 to 12 years, and this is in the top 10."

Federal agents in other U.S. jurisdictions are pursuing Mr. Abala's other American patrons, but the Justice Department refused to discuss the status of those cases.

Agents Bassler and Kilpatrick, along with Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Smolar, were honored for their work Nov. 14 at the 16th annual LEAD awards ceremony at the University of Pittsburgh.

The Herschell case had unique elements, but in another sense he was just another child predator among so many. By one FBI estimate, 750,000 predators are online worldwide at any one time, searching for child victims.

Agents Kilpatrick and Bassler say authorities are doing everything they can to catch them.

"It's never-ending," Agent Bassler said.

Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.


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