Like the four men who work there, the offices of the North Little Rock Police Department's Special Investigations Unit are haunted by Kacie Woody. Her photograph is tacked up in places around the room, grainy shots from the newspaper, often sharing space on corkboards and file cabinets with pictures of the detectives' own families. Talking to them, her name comes up a lot.
On Dec. 4, 2002, 13-year-old Kacie was sexually assaulted and killed by a California man she had been chatting with over the Internet. Detective Steve Hunter has the newspaper clipping over his desk. On his computer hard drive, Keith Jackson keeps an image of Kacie's locker at Greenbrier Middle School, decorated with flowers and cards after her death. All the detectives have kids. That day, they got one more.
"It was the worst-case scenario," said Lt. Tracy Roulston, who took over as SIU supervisor in January 2003. "The fact that a young girl lost her life like that was just tragic. You bet it hit home for us, especially in this unit. We'd have loved to have been on the other end of that, instead of her."
B.T. Carmichal is the unit's surveillance specialist and a member of the North Little Rock S.W.A.T. team. The month before Kacie Woody was killed in Conway, Carmichal lost a hand when a S.W.A.T.-style "flashbang" grenade exploded prematurely. In the hospital at the time of the slaying, he still remembers his sadness at the news, and wishing that there were more units like his to prevent what happened. "It brings it to reality," Carmichal said. "It did for me, like a cold splash of water. Makes you realize the importance of your job. We feel like we're doing it for Kacie."
The North Little Rock PD's Special Investigations Unit is so called because it investigates things that don't quite fit the mission of any other segment of the department: alcohol compliance, some vice crimes, and all forms of computer crime from identity theft to people scammed on eBay. Originally envisioned as a staff of five officers, a sergeant, and a lieutenant, they've never been staffed at full strength, due to manpower shortfalls (right now, with one man shipped out to Iraq, the unit has a staff of four).
Despite their small size, in the past three years, the unit has landed in the news more than any other unit of the NLRPD. Their renown comes from what they're all most passionate about: apprehending "travelers" - men who come to North Little Rock seeking sex with children. Or what they think are children.
Posing as young teens in online chat rooms, the detectives have lured in and arrested almost three dozen men in the past three years, some from as far away as Arizona, Ohio, and - in one of their most recent arrests - South Korea. Most of their catches are charged under Arkansas law 5-2-603(a), which states that a person commits the crime of Computer Child Pornography if they use a computer to sexually "seduce, solicit, lure, or entice" online a person they believe to be underage. Those convicted after stings have been sentenced to everything from probation to long prison sentences. In some of their cases, federal prosecutors have tacked on separate, lengthy sentences.
Detectives say there is no enticement involved, just the carefully wrought façade of a child online, one that could be anyone's son or daughter. So far, they boast a conviction rate of 100 percent.
They claim to be taking pedophiles off the street. But there is this: Of all the men they've arrested not a single one had a prior criminal history of child sexual solicitation or molestation. But, after enticement by North Little Rock cops, sometimes over months of suggestive e-mail exchanges, they got up the nerve to act on the impulse lurking in them.
You won't find any apologies among North Little Rock police for arresting men who've actually committed no illegal acts involving a real minor. They figure they were just a crime waiting to happen, or perhaps even bad actors who'd just eluded arrest before.
While some might question the logic of bringing in suspects from outside North Little Rock when the city has its share of home-grown criminals (not to mention arresting suspects for crimes against a child when there was no actual child involved), the officers- from North Little Rock Police Chief Danny Bradley on down - say that their online predator stings are a valid and even necessary pursuit in a world that has shrunk drastically since the inception of the Internet. And they say not enough agencies are doing it.
According to a 2001 study by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, one in five children who regularly chatted on the Internet had been approached sexually. One in four was sent unsolicited pornography. The previous year, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children had been able to identify 785 cases where an adult had traveled to meet a child they met on the Internet, or vice versa - a figure even the NCMEC agreed was most likely inaccurate due to cases not reported. With up to 77 million American children expected to log on this year, detectives say numbers like these are what drive their online stings.
Lt. Donnie Bridges was the supervisor of the squad when it was formed in January of 2000 (then called the Criminal Intelligence Unit). Charged by police administration with investigating computer-based crimes as part of their case load, the unit soon acquired an "undercover computer" - a computer that presents the appearance of being owned by a family or individual to anyone inquiring about it via the world wide web.
Their first online investigations were strictly small potatoes: people soliciting prostitutes, and monitoring chat rooms for those looking to have quickie sex in North Little Rock's Burns Park. While monitoring those chat rooms, however, Bridges and his detectives began to recognize the phenomenon that would lead to their first online predator arrests.
"We started noticing, hey there's a lot of kids in here," he said. "There's a lot of sexual innuendo, trying to solicit these kids. We need to really start looking into that."
During their downtime, detectives created profiles of fictional children and posted them online. Bridges said that while the ads would appear harmless in content to the average person, their descriptions of young teens looking to chat drew at least 15 responses from older men on the first day alone. Some wanted to correspond. Others were looking for more.
"What in the hell does a 40-year-old and a 13-year-old have in common?" Bridges said. "Some of them, their first response to us was an out-and-out solicitation for sex. 'Do you enjoy sex? I'll meet you for sex.' "
"The response was overwhelming," said Detective Keith Jackson. "The times we were hit on and contacted by adults wanting to meet for sex." A former juvenile sex crimes detective, Jackson has been with the unit since the beginning. The unit's first child profiles online in late October 2000. On Nov. 3 of that year, less than two weeks after their fictitious teen's profile went up, Jackson helped net North Little Rock's first traveler, a school teacher who allegedly arrived at the sting location hoping to have sex with a young teenage girl (the arrest eventually garnered the man a 25-year federal sentence).
Since that first arrest, the unit has nabbed 34 other men in similar stings. Because they target chat rooms with an Arkansas connection, the majority of those arrested - close to 30 - have been from the state. Once, they arrested two men in the same hotel room, on the same night. Four suspects arrived carrying brand new rolls of duct tape. One suspect showed up with a hatchet. Another came with a loaded gun. While none of the detectives would speculate on the intent of those men who brought weapons, they all believe the same thing: If it had been a child who had opened the door instead of a policeman with a gun on his hip, it could have been very, very bad.
For the North Little Rock PD, a simple questions has been the justification for the online predator stings from the beginning: What if it actually was a child, instead of a cop?
But the expense has not always been easy to justify. North Little Rock already has plenty of criminals to catch. Why go hunting for more, some not even in the city?
"It's hard to justify to anybody, to the city council, to the mayor, to the people who control the purse strings," Donnie Bridges said. "How is it affecting us if we have somebody come down here from Ohio and we arrest? The fact remains that if it's that alderman's kid or that mayor's kid or that chief's kid that he's coming down here to meet, then it's affecting us."
In the early days of the unit's online predator stings, Bridges said it was difficult to convince city fathers, police administrators and even judges that a serious offense was being committed. Until Kacie Woody, it was hard to make those in authority understand that the crime was anything more dangerous than an obscene phone call. Back then, arrests were often met with a resounding "So what?"
"Again," Bridges said, "I hate to keep using Kacie Woody, but that's a prime example. There's more than just talking nasty on the Internet. If you've got a grown man who is so wrapped up in his fantasy world that he can't see it's wrong to travel umpteen thousand miles, kidnap a girl, sexually assault her and then kill her, then it could be anybody. It didn't have to be Kacie Woody."
Some in North Little Rock are still not swayed by the "could have been a child" argument. Attorney John Wesley Hall, Jr. has represented four of the men caught in stings, and consulted on the case of another. While Hall said the unit generally does a good job of avoiding entrapment in their cases, he is still concerned by the lack of an actual child victim in a case where the charge deals with the solicitation and/or attempted rape of a child. While representing one client during a hearing, Hall was told by a judge that the people of North Little Rock "just don't like that kind of crime" before handing down a particularly steep bond.
"All I could think of was, 'What goddamned crime? What North Little Rock involvement?'" Hall said. "They're sucking people here to get arrested for a fictitious child. Nobody in North Little Rock is being harmed by this. The only people benefiting from this is bondsmen and local lawyers."
Hall said that when police get a suspect into North Little Rock, they tend to keep him here, even if it means changing charges to ensure arrest. Though he has never taken an SIU case all the way to the courthouse, his argument against the arrests so far has been that suspects "didn't come to Arkansas for sex, just to meet, which is a big difference" - that a person who talks about something criminal shouldn't be seen in the same light as someone who actually carries out a criminal act.
"Of course, they're looking for people who are pedophiles to begin with and most of the time they hit paydirt," he said. "They get really overt stuff coming out in the chats. Then other times they get chats that are relatively benign. They talk about what it would be like, but they're not saying they want to do it."
Hall has three cases pending, and thinks they'll all go before a jury. He expects a hard fight and potentially troubling outcomes, especially if any of his clients are additionally charged in federal court. Hall calls the federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines (five years for anyone convicted of online solicitation of a child) a "hammer." "If there's no child and it's all made up, that's just a horrendous punishment," Hall said. "That's five years to do, you'll do four a and a half years."
There's at least some evidence to support Hall's notion that suspects have been "sucked in." None of the 30-plus men arrested so far by the Special Investigations Unit had ever been convicted of a incident of child molestation, solicitation, or indecency with a minor prior to their arrest in North Little Rock. "I can't think of any who had any type of previous child [molestation convictions]," said Keith Jackson. Asked if that troubles him, Jackson answered, "Does it bother me that they didn't get caught?"
Jackson said that with 70 million potential victims instead of a handful, the Internet makes sexual solicitation of children much easier to get away with than in the days when pedophiles had to put on a trenchcoat and tempt kids with a bag of candy at the park.. "When I used to work juvenile sex crimes with kids," Jackson said. "We didn't have a lot of those cases of guys hitting on kids at the mall, or the skating rink, or Wild River Country. They just didn't do it. It just wasn't safe. With the Internet, they perceive anonymity and it's an open field."
North Little Rock Police Chief Danny Bradley stands by the methods of his officers and the validity of their arrests. Soon after coming on board as chief in January 2001, Bradley sat in on some of the chat sessions with suspects. Since then, he's been a believer.
"This problem with the Internet predators is so much greater than I ever imagined," Bradley said. "I knew it was a problem, but once we started doing investigations, I was just shocked to see what happens out there and with what ease and how relaxed these people are who do these things. … It's a little mind-boggling to think, how many times have they done this? How many times have people we haven't even touched yet done this successfully?"
Like the detectives, Bradley is convinced that if predators will come to North Little Rock to meet his investigators' faux children, they would come unseen to molest real live children in the city. And while Bradley said he would like to see other police agencies do what North Little Rock is doing on a state, regional or national level, for whatever reason, they aren't. For him, that's reason enough to spend the time and money.
For Bradley, the murder of Kacie Woody was a wake up call for the department and the state, and proved that the work of SIU was valid.
As for the legal issue of arresting people for attempting to molest a child when there is no child involved, Bradley's explanation is similarly clean cut. "The only reason that there's not a true victim is they got our officer instead of some 12-year-old girl online," he said. "That was just fate, luck, whatever. How many more out there got a 12- or 13-year-old child instead of a police officer? You can call it victimless, but the only reason that there wasn't a child victim is that the perpetrator rang the wrong number. I don't have any issues with that at all."
With 35 arrests under their belts, the normally low-key detectives of the North Little Rock SIU have found themselves in the odd position of being sought after. Last year, they presented more than 50 Internet safety courses for children and parents, speaking at churches, businesses and schools.
In the process, their offices have become one of the state's largest repositories of a very obscure talent: the ins and outs of grown men authentically representing themselves as young girls.
Detective Steve Hunter is the unit's forensics specialist. Something of a computer geek since his parents bought him a Commodore 64 at age 14, Hunter can carve up a hard drive - extracting even information that has been officially deleted - like a Christmas ham. In addition to his forensics work, Hunter is one of the unit's men of a thousand faces. A former burglary detective, he likens impersonating a young teen to a narcotics investigator going "deep undercover."
"They become somebody else," Hunter said. "That's almost what you have to do sitting at a computer chatting with these guys."
Like Jackson, Hunter says he often visits teen chat rooms to research nuances like lingo and the topics children are talking about. And while it may seem absurd to think of a hardened police detective dishing in mallspeak about the latest Justin Timberlake CD, members of unit say that success or failure often lies in just such seemingly trivial details - things that would only be known by a child.
"If you were acting like a 13-year-old girl and someone asked you over the Internet, 'What's your favorite band?'" Bridges said. "'Well, what's some of their songs?' These guys do this. They test you. They've done it for so long that they test you."
To keep their cases airtight, the unit has a series of rules that they follow during conversations with suspects. Donnie Bridges was the author of the unit's three sacred protocols: Make sure the suspect states that he knows you're underage; don't initiate a conversation about sex, ever; record everything.
Bridges said rules like these are crucial, because defense attorneys have their own set of rules: Attack the victim. If you can't attack the victim, attack the police investigation.
In the case of the North Little Rock stings, the weapon of choice so far has been the charge of entrapment. Because detectives are careful to follow their protocols, Bridges dismisses the idea. "I can't get you and say, 'Hey, let's go rob a bank,' and then arrest you. But if you come to me and say 'Let's go rob a bank,' if you discuss it with me after you've initiated the conversation about the illegal act, then yeah. Then I can discuss it with you."
For Hunter and Jackson, those discussions with travelers have sometimes been as long as five months. "You're not going to go in and face 25 years in prison on a whim," Jackson said. "You've got to believe that you're walking into something that's really real. Their need-driven behavior is going to make them make that decision: Maybe it's the police, but what if it's not? Look at the prize."
With so much to lose, the slightest lapse in character can spook a suspect. "There are things that I've said early on that may have scared some people off," Jackson said. "Things that I've typed, that I've typed wrong, that I used the wrong font, the wrong color, the wrong style of language, [the wrong] abbreviated language. There's things that we've learned."
While Jackson says that he doesn't know if his skill at impersonation is a gift or a knack, his track record proves he is good at it. "I know that they think I'm a kid when they're talking to me," Jackson said. "We've arrested attorneys and teachers and professionals. We've arrested a lot of people who wouldn't risk their careers if they didn't believe that it was a child they were going to meet."
For Hunter, it helps that he's got a 13-year-old son at home. "How he talks and things that he makes reference to as far as school, we use that here," he said.
Part of Hunter's job - searching a suspect's home computer once a warrant has been issued - means that he is often the first to be exposed to what most would consider the darkest side of pedophilia: child pornography. Though the unit is forbidden from sending out child pornography to suspects, their job means they often discover it, sometimes finding thousands of images on a single computer. Though they all claim to have become immune to the shock of it after a while, every so often something breaks through even their shells. They deal with it together.
Dealing with it, they say, is the difference between catching another suspect, or letting him slip by.
"I've physically thrown up a couple times in the last five years doing this," Jackson said. "Actually sick to my stomach seeing some of the things that we've never seen before. But you get to the point where - like my wife says - 'If you don't do it, who will?'"
For the men who work there, the online portion of their job can be taxing at times, full of fears about the kids they didn't save and things they'd probably rather forget. Still, they all admit that they love it. Moved out of the unit by interdepartmental manpower shuffling, Donnie Bridges said that given the chance, he would be back with unit in a heartbeat. Though he enjoys regular police work, online predator stings are something he's still passionate about. Like the rest, he found especially sweet those days when - after weeks of careful planning - they set the hook, and reeled a suspect in.
"This is something you can go home and say, 'Man I did good,' " Bridges said. "This sumbitch, there's no telling how many people that he's either molested or tried to molest, or would have molested in the future. And I did good. I earned my damn keep tonight."
Though they allow that the Internet can be a dangerous place, the detectives say that they don't want to scare anyone away from using the computer. They all have computers at home, and all allow their children to go online with proper supervision (though Steve Hunter doesn't allow his son to chat; partially the residue, he says, of what he has seen on the job). The key, detectives say, is parental supervision. Jackson used the example of a recent case to show how easy it is for a child to be approached when supervision is lacking. "Mom works, daughter's 15," Jackson said. "They went and bought a computer, got a free disk for AOL, and two days later mom is up here with a complaint and says 'Some guy is trying to meet my daughter for sex.' Two days."
Though Jackson was able to assume the girl's identity and eventually arrest the man who had approached her, he said the situation could have easily gone wrong if the child had been willing. "If mom had worked nights or the girl had been willing to go out, stuck at home by herself," he said, "you've got a Kacie Woody situation, and that's not good."
With so much publicity coming their way, the Special Investigations Unit may find itself put out of business by their own success. Articles like this one will end up online, to be regurgitated for anyone who types the words "North Little Rock" into an online search engine. In recent years, the unit has been involved in something of a low-key feud with attorney John Wesley Hall Jr., whose website has a page that lists locations of past stings and details of the group's methods - a situation that police fear might "warn off" potential suspects looking for information about North Little Rock online.
Still, ex-supervisor Donnie Bridges' opinion of the idea that pedophiles might be frightened off is as old school as it is perfectly logical: Isn't that the entire point?
"I think it would be the greatest thing since sliced bread if all the pedophiles would stay out of North Little Rock, scared they're going to get caught," Bridges said.