Kansas City, Mo. Federal and state officials in the Kansas City area are embarking on the largest local crime initiative since a 1999 crackdown on gun-toting felons.
U.S. Atty. Todd Graves, the top federal prosecutor for the western half of Missouri, said aggressive pursuit of people who traffic in child pornography was his top local priority.
"We will commit whatever prosecutorial resources we need to make the good cases," Graves said. "We're encouraging investigative agencies to get more hooks in the water."
Around the country, federal convictions for child pornography offenses nationwide rose from 85 in 1992 to 422 in 2000, according to the U.S. Justice Department. New cases opened by federal investigators increased tenfold between 1996 and 2000.
Experts say the rapid escalation of child porn cases is attributed largely to the Internet and the worldwide access to shared information.
Graves expects to see the caseload rise. In the past year, his office has prosecuted about 20 child exploitation cases, and those were filed before his office began gearing up for the latest push.
In Kansas, 26 such cases were prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office during the last year.
"It is something we are very concerned about," said Kena Rice, spokeswoman for U.S. Atty. Eric Melgren in Wichita. "We have several attorneys prosecuting it."
Graves has hired a computer investigator and created the Computer Crimes and Child Exploitation Unit in his office. Helping with the effort is Kevin Stafford, special agent in charge of the FBI field office.
Working in Maryland a decade ago, Stafford established a nationwide sting operation that seeks to identify child pornographers as well as people who contact children on the Internet and travel to meet them.
The FBI will soon begin a similar sting in the Kansas City area.
"You're fishing in a gigantic pond," Stafford said. "You could have people in Germany who are willing to travel to Kansas City for sex with children. The number of traveler cases coming to Kansas City will definitely increase."
|The Kansas Offender Registration, a list of convicted sex offenders who have registered with authorities in Kansas counties, is available on the KBI Web site at www.access kansas.org/kbi/ro.htm. The list, which includes statistics, addresses and convictions, is searchable by name, city, county and ZIP code.|
In-depth academic studies of child pornography are unusual because it is a difficult area for educators or journalists to explore. Possession of even one image of child pornography is a violation of federal law, which does not allow an exemption for reporters or academic researchers.
But people who are pursued and caught give investigators a glimpse of their world, such as the middle-aged Kansas City man who talked to FBI agents this spring about a large amount of child pornography they had seized from his home.
He quickly admitted that he was a pedophile, court records show, and told the agents where to find the child porn on his computer's hard drive. That led to federal charges against him.
He said he had collected child pornography for about 30 years, and had taken nude photos of his own children. He also told agents he once molested his own daughter.
Officials involved in the Missouri crackdown all describe child pornography as an urgent child-welfare issue.
Pornography is a recurring factor in local child molestation cases, experts said. In about a quarter of the nearly 700 child abuse cases that go to the Jackson County Child Protection Center each year, the victim reported that the abuser had used pornography in the molestation.
"We see it as a grooming tool," said Mary McEniry, director of the center. "A lot of kids will say that 'as he was doing this to me, he showed me a movie and said that's what he wanted me to do.' (Abusers) show it to the kids so the kids will think that's normal."
Graves said a study last year by the Federal Bureau of Prisons suggests that jailing those who possess child pornography will remove a dangerous pool of potential molesters from the general population.
In that study, interviews with 62 federal inmates convicted of child pornography offenses found that they had committed 1,434 sex crimes that never had been reported to authorities.