Internet crimes unit gets new office

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By Tom Wilmoth

On the same day Bedford County Sheriff Mike Brown announced the opening of a new office for the region’s cyber crime task force, investigators also announced the results of a  five-month multi-jurisdictional investigation into the sharing of child pornography over the Internet.

    “A child’s innocence can absolutely never  be  replaced,” stated Brown, in dedicating the new facility of the Southern Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children task force to two victims of cyber predators who are now fighting against those crimes — Alicia Kozakiewicz and Amanda Staubs. Among those attending the meeting were law enforcement officers from the numerous agencies involved in the investigation as well as  Kozakiewicz, a victim who was 13 years old when she was abducted, raped and held captive by an online pedophile. Now 21, Kozakiewicz’s abduction became the impetus for the Virginia Legislature to pass “Alicia’s Law” which provides law enforcement agencies with funding to purchase the technology needed to combat child pornography traffickers and Internet predators.
    Known originally as Blue Ridge Thunder, the SOVA ICAC Task Force works under the auspices of the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office and is comprised of a cooperative group of local and state law enforcement offices. The mission, according to Brown, is to safeguard children “by weaving a seamless web of protection around them...across the nation and around the globe.”
    That, according to Brown, means the task force is proactive in its work to apprehend predators, protect potential victims and educate parents, teachers and children about Internet safety.
    According to Brown, the task force got its start basically working out of a broom closet at the BCSO in 1997 with investigator Sergio Kopelev as the department’s first “cyber cop.” Back then he worked the Internet for about 12 hours a week, posing as a child or a pedophile “chatting” with child pornographers and other sexual predators in order to get evidence and make cases against  them.
    A year later Blue Ridge Thunder was officially launched to fight child pornography and other Internet-related crimes. The unit quickly gained national attention and its work was strengthened by a $200,000 grant from the federal government. At that time, it was one of only 10 agencies in the country to receive the funding.
    With that modest start, the agency has now grown to include a supervisor, five investigators, a full time analyst, a forensic examiner and 77 affiliate agencies throughout the state. Brown said it’s important that the scope of the problem is understood.
    “Regardless of where you live, child pornography is alive and well and readily available over the Internet. Regardless of where you live, a sexual predator can reach into your home and contact anyone in your household via the Internet,” Brown stated about the crimes the unit deals with on a daily basis.
    The new facility has 5,500 square feet of space including working areas for its investigators, a training room, a room to examine forensic evidence and an interview room. Funding for the new office came through the U.S. Department of Justice and the state.
    Brown read a plaque dedicating the facility to the victims of Internet crimes, calling them the “real heroes.” “These are the people that spur us on and on and on and on,” he said, adding that fighting against the online predators is a “passion” for those working with the unit.
    “We’re very proud that we’re able to take this stance and be here for the victims of Internet crime,” Brown stated.
     Kozakiewicz, who was abducted by an online predator in 2002 when she was 13 years old, said she stands as a voice for the untold number of children who are victims of such crimes. “They are always with me,” she said of those victims. “I am their voice.”
    She said it was a miracle she survived her abduction, but she said it was no accident. “Miracles don’t just happen,” she said, noting that the work of the task force allowed her to be rescued. “Make no mistake, we are crafting miracles. For myself and for the children, I thank you” she said to the investigators at the press conference.
    State Sen. Steve Newman said his work in supporting the passage of Alicia’s Law was because of “a great man (Brown), a small woman (Kozakiewicz), a great organization and a group of knights (the investigators) out there fighting.”
    Newman said predators need to know the ICAC unit is out there working to stop them.

Operation Guardian
    Sgt. Terry Wright of the BCSO said all of the seven districts in SOVA ICAC participated in the five-month investigation known as Operation Guardian. The case focused on searching for those who share child pornography over the Internet. Several training sessions were held to help law enforcement investigators prepare for the operation.
    The investigation, which began Jan. 1 and went through May, led to 64 cases being developed by 11 law enforcement agencies. As of last week that had netted 22 arrests or indictments and more than 90 computers were seized representing some 28 terabytes of storage capacity.
    “We’ve given notice to those (predators) who think that they’re safe at home behind a computer that we could be knocking on their door at any time,” Wright said. “It was very successful.”
    Wright added that evidence from Operation Guardian continues to be gathered and more arrests could be possible.
    Among the cases developed through the investigation was against a former Liberty University student, John Cotton, who was indicted in March on 38 counts of possession of child pornography. The ICAC investigators traced an IP address back to the university and images were found on Cotton’s personal computer. In August, Cotton pleaded guilty to two counts of possession of child pornography during a hearing in Lynchburg Circuit Court.