Wednesday, November 7, 2007
The chat begins innocently enough, with the man asking the girl's name. Then he asks what her hobbies are and tells her she's pretty or sexy. It is easy to see how a young girl might think the attention is flattering and innocent: It's just a chat. Then the questions get more personal: What color are your eyes? How old are you?
"Fourteen," is the simple answer, or 11, or 13, although the girl's age is in her online profile, which is probably what prompted the prowler to begin the chat in the first place.
There is feigned surprise, along the lines of, "Wow, I shouldn't be talking to you." But quickly, it devolves into something a more sinister, with clear sexual overtones: "Are you a virgin?"
Then the electronic conversation deteriorates into one so sexually explicit that only a porn rag would attempt to print it. Most people would not be able to read much of it without being profoundly embarrassed or sickened.
In a sting worthy of reality television, the Hinds County Sheriff's Juvenile Justice Division carried out surveillance on several chats originating in and around Hinds County in July 2006. The division's officers worked with Portland, Ore.-based Perverted Justice—PeeJ, they call themselves—a civilian watchdog group dedicated to finding and exposing sexual predators prowling Internet chat rooms.
PeeJ volunteers, representing themselves as minor girls 11 to 14 years old, chat online with the express purpose of finding and exposing predators who use the Internet to find underage victims. In Hinds County, Perverted Justice did all of the computer work, then turned the transcripts over to the district attorney's office and the sheriff's Juvenile Justice group, who sorted through them together, weeding out marginal cases. The volunteers then arranged meetings with the most "promising" hard-core offenders.
The plan was to arrest the offenders when they showed up at the prearranged site, a house at the end of a dead-end street in Byram. The minute they walked in the door, someone from the Juvenile Justice division was there to arrest them, said Capt. Henry Glaze, head of the division. After an arrest, deputies went to the offender's homes to collect other evidence, including their computers, which they turned over to the attorney general's Cyber-Crime unit.
"We made 12 arrests," Glaze said. "We probably had 45 legitimate chats," but not all of them could be persuaded to come to the house. "If anything was the least bit marginal, we said, 'drop that and let's move on,'" Glaze said. "State law now says you have to prosecute either in the county or the jurisdiction where the chat begins or ends. Most of our chats were not ending in Mississippi. They were ending in other states."
Of the 12 arrests made, Glaze turned most of them over to other counties: Four went to Rankin, one to Madison and another to Greene County. In one case, Mississippi deported immigrant Roberto Oropeza-Rosas back to Mexico. To date, three cases are pending forensic assessment from the cyber-crime unit, and two remain in Hinds County.
One of the men caught in the sting, 32-year-old Douglas Hindman of Jackson, attempted to flee the house when he spotted a deputy outside. Deputies arrested him a few blocks away. Originally charged with felony child exploitation, Hindman eventually pled guilty to cyber stalking, a felony that is not a sexual crime, and is currently on five years' probation. As part of the plea agreement, Hindman's two-year sentence was suspended, he had to pay a $5,000 fine, and another $5,000 to a crime-victims unit. With no sex-crime record, Hindman, son of a prominent Jackson family, does not have to register as a sex offender.
Asked why her office reduced the charge against Hindman, District Attorney Faye Peterson indicated that the law itself was insufficient to convict Hindman of the original charge. "The statute had a defect in it," Peterson said. The flaw was that statute Hindman was charged under required that the "victim" had to be an actual child, not an adult posing as a child.
"We were in uncharted territory," Peterson said.
The Legislature has since amended the statute to correct the flaw, Peterson said, but Hindman was arrested under the previous, flawed law.
There was never a question that the deputies had the right man. Hindman gave his consent to have his computer searched, and actually accompanied Sgt. Latasha Holmes and another deputy to his home. "When we walked in the room and just touched his computer, it was on the last page of the chat," Holmes said.
David Pillow of Madison, 28, also came to the house. He brought a teddy bear with him, just as the PeeJ decoy requested, Graves said. The map to the Byram house was on his computer. Hinds County indicted Pillow on child exploitation charges, and he is awaiting trial. His attorney, Cynthia Stewart of Madison, however, is requesting non-adjudication of the case, and, according to the sheriff's office, he will plea "nolo contedere" or "no contest." If accepted, Pillow, son of a Mississippi doctor, will not admit guilt or contest the charge, and will not be a convicted felon, but will accept punishment meted out by the court. Pillow could be another sexual predator who will not be a registered sex offender.
Stewart did not return calls, and Peterson would not comment on the Pillow case.
In the case turned over to Greene County, chatter Justin Shaffer did not want to come to the house. Instead, he instructed the girl to come to a church, where he showed up in a minivan, Graves said. The sheriff's office subsequently learned that he'd previously served time for murder, that he was a suspect in a series of rapes, and that child pornography and drugs had been found in his home.
"Sheriff McMillin made a statement that I think is probably the best way to put it," Glaze said. "He said, 'When we were kids, we were all told to stay away from the guy in the park in the trench coat on. Nobody would go near someone who looked like that in a park or a playground or around a school; they'd be arrested. But you can hide on the Internet and you can do this kind of thing.'"
Glaze said he found it difficult to believe that the 12 men they arrested had never before attempted to meet with underage victims. "How lucky could we be that we got 12 people the first time they came to visit anybody," he said.
For Hindman, at least, it wasn't the first time he showed up in an Internet sex crimes sting. Hattiesburg police attempted to get him to come to Hattiesburg on their sting prior to the Hinds County sting, but Hindman would not come, Glaze said.
Although not all sex offenders are pedophiles, sexual crimes against children are the majority. "In Hinds County, there are 300 (registered) sex offenders," Glaze said, and two-thirds of them are pedophiles.
"The Internet is a new tool, and it makes it easier. … They think nobody is watching," Holmes said, later adding, "You have to really educate your kids, starting (when they are) small." She said parents should be talking and educating their children about what's right and wrong when it comes to sex as soon as children are old enough to talk.
"Most of the cases we work are father, grandfather, mother's boyfriend or a close relative. … It's not a stranger," Holmes said. "It's somebody they know and trust."
"The other thing they can do is monitor that computer," Glaze said, along with the kids' cell-phone use. "More and more, we're finding that these are the weapons of choice."
Gov. Haley Barbour just gave this guy a full pardon. If someone gets a chance, check donations to Haley's PAC, etc., for Hindman and report back.