The national push to arrest people who trade in child pornography has made its way to York County in recent months, and police hope the cases they are working now will help lead to the identification of more offenders.
That identification doesn’t come easily, though, investigators say, because there is no one “type” of person who downloads and shares images and videos of child porn online and by other electronic means.
Take the recent cases in York County:
• Jeffrey Carlyle Parrish is a military veteran, described in state prison records as gray-haired, brown-eyed and obese.
• Gregory Joseph Lingen worked at a private home-building company. Court records say he is 5 feet, 9 inches tall and weighs 185 pounds.
• Daniel Cobb is a part-time actor and full-time father who federal agents say concealed his identity behind an instant messaging screen name to trade photos and exchange messages with a man in Maine.
• Darin Pearson had worked for more than a decade in Rock Hill schools, where he was promoted to sixth-grade assistant principal at Sullivan Middle School and got his own office with two Compaq computers and an iPod.
Within the past five months, all four have been charged with crimes alleging their involvement in exchanging or receiving child pornography – illegal activities state prosecutors say have resulted in 43 total convictions within the last year and 373 total arrests in the last decade.
“They’re not (only) the creepy, old guys,” said Mark Powell, spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, which oversees South Carolina’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force. “They’re ministers, educators, bank executives; they’re young guys; they’re old guys. It’s black, white, rural, urban, suburban.”
Since 2004, the task force has won convictions of 244 people accused of committing some sort of Internet crime against children, on charges ranging from sexual exploitation of a minor to distribution of obscene material, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
And just since July 2012, ICAC has arrested 29 people.
“We’ve arrested police officers, military officers, bank officers; we’ve arrested teachers and coaches,” said Deborah Shupe, commander of the state’s ICAC task force.
In York County, sheriff’s Detective Chris Bomar works with the county’s own ICAC group in partnership with the state task force.
“I’ve dealt with people who have been 75 all the way down to (age) 24,” he said.
The people arrested in these crimes have “been software technicians ... retirees ... military,” Bomar said, adding that people who years ago would not have been blips on law enforcement “radar” are being exposed because they feel they’re “safe” online.
“You never know the type of people you’ll end up dealing with.”
In January, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations announced that 245 people had been arrested in connection with an international operation targeting people who trade and produce child pornography.
In 2012, federal agents arrested 1,655 people during operations, a nearly 300-person increase from the 1,355 offenders who were arrested in 2011.
“Right now there is a big push in finding people who are trading child pornography online,” Shupe said.
That push has made its way into York County.
Bomar, a forensics specialist who examines computers, cell phones and other electronics seized in a suspected child pornography case, said he has arrested up to 20 people in the county within the past five years. They have been charged with crimes ranging from downloading child pornography to soliciting minors for sex online.
Those arrests included a man who owned a sanitation business, accused of having child porn on his computer; a York Preparatory Academy board member, whom police discovered trying to solicit underage girls online; and the manager of a Florence finance company who traveled to York County to have sex with a 15-year-old boy in exchange for new clothes and a laptop.
The Sheriff’s Office, part of the state ICAC task force since 2005, often receives referrals from other agencies or concerned parents who discover their children are being solicited online, Bomar said.
One of those concerned parents, a father in Alabama, discovered his young daughter received emails from a man who asked her to send him videos of herself, Bomar said. The father tracked the email address to a YouTube account filled with pictures of children “doing inappropriate things.”
The father reported it to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which found the subscriber’s information coming from North Carolina and notified the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation. The SBI learned that the subscriber actually lived in York County and called Bomar, he said.
Local ICAC detectives tracked the video information to Gregory Linden’s doorstep in Clover, Bomar said, and authorities watched the video in question and learned that it didn’t violate state laws – although it’s “very concerning.”
But Lingen, who court records show was employed with a private home-building company with offices in Charlotte and subsidiaries in York and Lancaster counties, told police he uploaded the video to YouTube and had other videos of children performing sexual acts on a computer, according to search warrants obtained by The Herald.
Deputies seized electronics from the house, including a hard drive from an HP Compaq computer. On it, documents say, they found a video that showed two boys between the ages of 9 and 12, unclothed on a bed and engaging in sexual activity.
According to arrest warrants, deputies found several more videos of children performing sexual acts with other children or adults. Officials arrested and charged Lingen on March 22 with 10 counts of third-degree sexual exploitation of a minor.
He was released on a $50,000 bond the next day on the condition that he can’t use the Internet or have contact with minors, court records show. His case is still pending. Court filings indicate he’ll be prosecuted by the state Attorney General’s Office.
Efforts to reach Lingen and his lawyer, Columbia attorney Chris Hart, were unsuccessful on Friday.
“Most of these guys do not have any criminal history,” Bomar said. “In fact, they’re law-abiding. They go to work, they do what they’re supposed to do. Some of them have families; some of them have young kids and they seem like your normal, run-of-the-mill individual in society.
“You just don’t know the cognitive thinking process a person’s going through and what they’re really interested in.”
Adult pornography and “strip joints,” Bomar said, are legal avenues for people to explore their “sexual preferences.” Some of those preferences raise red flags when they target certain age groups, like children.
When interviewing suspects, Bomar said, “they always tell me it starts with a curiosity.”
“All of them know it’s wrong,” he said. “They’ll try to justify the means and say, ‘Every kid, every picture I’m seeing ... the kid seems to enjoy it and like it.’... That may be their rationale.”
Shupe called it an “epidemic in South Carolina.” Offenders “are trading more and more graphic images of children being sexually abused, ranging from toddlers to teenagers in their mid-teens.
“We’ve had videos of infants being sexually molested. There is a real market for that out there.”
For Daniel “doyawill” Cobb, it was a picture of a young girl sitting on a toilet, and several other lewd images, that landed him in federal custody, according to federal court documents.
Cobb had been at the center of a federal investigation since October 2012, when agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security division found a series of messages between “doyawill” and David Edward Muise Jr., a Portland, Maine, man federal agents arrested after they say he sent child pornography to his girlfriend in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Agents tracked “doyawill” to an online child pornography barter site, asked Yahoo! to save all messages drafted by “doyawill,” identified Cobb as the account holder, confirmed his location via Twitter, Facebook and DMV records and tracked him down to Wildwood Springs apartments on Springdale Road in Rock Hill, according to court documents.
On Nov. 15, agents took Cobb into custody and extradited him to Maine. A month later, he pleaded not guilty in federal court, said Craig Wolff, assistant attorney with the Maine U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Since then, Wolff said, he has “evidently” changed his mind and is now scheduled to plead guilty in May. He remains in the custody of the U.S. Marshals.
“The best we can do is try to keep even with the bad guys when it comes to technology,” Shupe said. “One peer-to-peer network shuts down; we work it heavily and then they move onto another network. It’s mind-boggling what’s out there.”
Before, investigators could easily create a fake online profile to lure in a predator. But television shows like “To Catch a Predator,” a series of “Dateline NBC” episodes that featured agents and activists going undercover to catch online predators in the act, have educated offenders, she said.
Now, “they want the spontaneous pictures,” she said.
York County sheriff’s investigators use software to monitor different websites notable for bartering child pornography, Bomar said. Offenders, though, have become more “secretive” and develop “closed communities” online where they can share material.
“Only this group of people can share online among themselves,” he said. “They’ve become more and more active in trying to hide themselves.”
The only way to infiltrate those groups, he said, is to find and arrest a group member, and then take over their account.
“It’s an ongoing battle to find new and inventive ways to catch these individuals,” he said.
In December, investigators arrested Jeffrey Parrish, 63, after the York County Sheriff’s Office’s ICAC unit found he had downloaded images of an adult male having sex with a child, officials said.
Parrish, a military veteran who was already a registered sex offender, told police he received the pornographic images from other individuals. He had been posing as a woman, Bomar said, to solicit photos.
Deputies confiscated CDs, DVDs and floppy disks from his home, court records show. In February, he pleaded guilty to third-degree sexual exploitation of a minor and was sentenced to two years in prison, followed by five years of probation, sex offender registration and sexual abuse counseling, records show.
He’s currently serving his sentence at the state Department of Corrections.
“There’s no way we can arrest our way out of the problem,” Shupe said. “There’s way more of them than there are of us. The Internet gives (predators) a level of anonymity that makes it difficult to find them.”
Difficult, but not impossible.
Detectives said they found at least 13 pornographic images that were sent to a cell phone belonging to Darin Pearson, former assistant principal at Sullivan Middle School, according to court documents obtained by The Herald.
Investigators found Pearson after looking through the iPhone of a homeless Tennessee man, Earl W. Arnold, 34, and discovering he had sent pictures to Pearson’s phone and had discussed sex with minors with the phone’s user, the documents show.
The iPhone’s user said he was a school principal, the documents show, and claimed he had committed sexual acts with a seventh-grade girl in his office. He suggested that Arnold kidnap, “groom” and forcefully marry another girl.
Rock Hill Police said they didn’t find evidence that Pearson had uploaded pornographic images of children on school district-issued electronics, or had sexual relations with students he allegedly named in messages with the homeless man.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police and the SBI arrested Pearson, who lives in Charlotte, at his Picasso Court apartment, seized his electronics and said they found several pornographic movies of children in his apartment, federal and state court documents show.
He was charged with three counts of sexual exploitation of a minor. His case is still pending.
Efforts to reach Pearson have been unsuccessful and his lawyer has declined to comment.
No good profile
Despite some scholarly studies that attempt to categorize offenders, police have little research on the types of people who trade, produce and download child pornography or prey on children online, Shupe said.
To give authorities an advantage, 18 of the nation’s 61 ICAC task forces have partnered with researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston and other institutions to complete two studies they hope will profile offenders who collect child pornography, engage children in chat rooms or meet them with plans for sexual encounters.
“At this stage, we don’t have a good picture of who does this, why or how,” said Dr. Gregg Dwyer, a psychiatrist and associate professor in MUSC’s Department of Psychiatry and Medical Sciences.
Studies already exist on people who sexually abuse children, Dwyer said, but the Internet – with its chat rooms and technology to disseminate photos and videos – is “fairly young.”
One of the studies collects data from a “cross section” of law enforcement agencies nationwide, Dwyer said, and will profile offenders and victims. It also will gauge the differences among people who download child porn, those who reach out to children for sexual encounters, and the ones who do both.
The second study collects data that researchers hope will create a formula and provide geographical information to help police prioritize which offenders to go after, when and where, Dwyer said.
MUSC is the primary research body filtering the information, but researchers at the University of South Carolina, Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and the Royal Ottawa Healthcare Group in Canada also are assisting with the project.
For more than a year, state ICAC officials have sent Dwyer and his colleagues case data that includes an offender’s age, race, gender, occupation, educational background and criminal history. They also send information about the kinds of victims targeted and the types of messages exchanged between offender and victim.
The studies, paid for with grants from the juvenile justice office of the federal Department of Justice, last for three years, and the first set of results will be released next year.
Dwyer was reluctant to discuss any trends researchers are finding, but he did share outcomes he and his colleagues discovered while launching a pilot program that gave demographic data for 165 South Carolina offenders.
Results showed that offenders were three times more likely to discuss meeting a child in person if they participated in more than an hour of online chat time, Dwyer said.
People under the age of 30 who had sexually explicit conversations with children were more than twice as likely to try to meet them in person than those older than 30.
Most were employed men, and most of the victims were female, Dwyer said. The study did not gauge race or educational background, nor did it break down results by county.