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Child porn: Utah's ugly secret

Internet has fueled proliferation of child pornography

Next story: Experts see link between child pornography and sexual abuse cases.

"Thomas" knew he was somewhere he didn't belong.

The lewd images of young boys — pictures that had once sent him scrambling to turn off his computer — now enslaved him for hours every day.

Thomas was addicted to child pornography.

Three years after downloading his first pornographic image of adolescent males, Thomas, who asked his real name not be used, is serving two life sentences at the Utah State Prison for sexually abusing his own 6-year-old son.

His story is told here not because it is so different but rather all too common.

Officials say child pornography was almost eradicated in the early 1980s. The U.S. Postal Service, working closely with law enforcement, caught child pornographers when they attempted to ship their goods.

Enter the Internet — and a new era in the exploitation of children, nationally and right here in Utah.

In 1995, the state of Utah filed six charges of sexual exploitation of a minor, the state statute under which the possession of child pornography is prosecuted.

Last year, 158 charges were filed.

Despite this alarming growth, officials say many people don't understand what child pornography is, how it's prosecuted, and what can be done to stop it.

"We close the door and the blinds because it's not a nice thing to talk about," said Lt. Ken Hansen, head of the Utah Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. "But we're overwhelmed with our child pornography cases. It's all over the place."

Thomas started looking at adult pornography on his computer in 1995. Three years later he stumbled onto some child pornography in a news group, a type of computer message board where people post and download news, pictures and sometimes pornography. News groups were around before the Internet and allowed large volumes of text and image files to be traded among users.

"At first I got out of it because I knew that this stuff stays with your computer and I stayed away from it for awhile," Thomas said. "There were lots of times I'd hear a noise outside and I'd have to look outside and see if the police were at my door. . . . Then I waited a few weeks. The cops didn't show up. . . . After a long time of seeing I wasn't getting caught —the police weren't showing up at my door — I would binge for hours and hours."

All the while, he was teaching teenage boys how to overcome their cycles of sexual abuse. At a previous job with an out-of-state ranch for troubled youth, Thomas was named counselor of the year. While working as a mental health therapist in Utah, his superiors commended him for his ability to relate to the adolescents and help them overcome their predatory impulses.

Deseret News graphicDeseret News graphicChild pornographyRequires Adobe Acrobat.

"A lot of my supervisors encouraged me to pursue a master's degree," Thomas said. "My life was definitely compartmentalized. I was a good employee, very conscientious, very ethical, very dependable. But that was just one compartment of my life."

Away from work, friends and family, Thomas scoured news groups for child pornography, spending an average of five or six hours a day downloading images onto his computer. Between 1998 and 2000, Thomas estimates he downloaded approximately 25,000 images of child pornography.

"It was a solitary activity for me," Thomas said. "I didn't want to talk about it with anyone. . . . In my mind I was able to draw the line and say you (the people producing child pornography) are the bad guys because you produce it. I'm only on the receiving end of this.

"It cut into my social life," he added. "It got to a point where I didn't spend as much time with friends. I didn't spend time on the phone — my phone line was connected to the Internet."


Lt. Hansen said he doubts child pornography can even be found in magazine stores anymore — it now exists almost exclusively on the Web. Such widespread access via the Internet allows child pornographers to operate in virtual obscurity.

"It's one of those things that is so easy and is so private that I'm not sure we truly know all the people involved with it," Sgt. Don Bell of the Salt Lake police sex crimes unit said.

Pictures and video footage are shot and distributed via e-mail. Web sites may be maintained in another state or even another country.

But the result of a far-flung industry can be felt alarmingly close to home.

In March, the U.S. Customs Service announced four arrests and the execution of 15 search warrants — one in Utah — in the investigation of a Russian Web site, selling child pornography videotapes over the Internet and through the mail.

Local officials will not comment on the case, because charges have not been filed.

In 1998, a 14-year-old West Valley City boy was found to be gathering child pornography in one of the country's most notorious chat rings.

"They called themselves 'Pedouniversity,' and it was actually a worldwide thing," said detective Marni Montgomery of the Salt Lake County sheriff's child abuse investigations unit. "They'd get online and trade pictures."

The boy, who was prosecuted as a juvenile, had 3,000 photos in his possession, Montgomery said.

Hansen has said he's seen a few cases of child pornography being manufactured in Utah.

But there's no profile of a child pornographer. Last year Hansen said he arrested a homeless man who made a few hundred dollars a month running two child pornography sites from a University of Utah computer lab.

Salt Lake police say they once arrested a man for child pornography who owned his own business and was making $100,000 a year.

Because he seemingly continued to thrive in his career, quitting seemed increasingly impossible to Thomas. He was ashamed to tell anyone, especially his parents who were devout Baptists.

He tried quitting several times on his own — cleaning out his files, trashing any child pornography stored on his computer. Once he even reformatted his entire hard drive. At times he contemplated suicide.

"I always wanted to get out of it, to get free of it," Thomas said. "I couldn't see a way out."

The self-policing didn't work, though.

"That's just like an alcoholic who thinks he can stop drinking," Thomas said.

Then one day, Thomas's 6-year-old son walked in as his father was on the computer. A curious child, the boy inquired about the images displayed on the computer screen.

That's when things started to unravel.

"I never wanted to harm my son," Thomas said, sitting in a small interview room at the Utah State Prison. His eyes search the air, pondering where his addiction had taken him.

"It's not like I wanted to bring him into my world," he said.

Despite feelings of guilt, Thomas said he continued to show his son the images, not to "set up a molest," he would rationalize, but to educate the boy about what was out there.

"There came a point where he would ask me if he could see it and I would allow him to," Thomas said. "I would say, 'I don't want you to do these things.' "

But before long it happened.

Experts say 35 percent to 40 percent of people who deal in child pornography will try to act on their fantasies.

"These people can get addicted to this, and when they do, it leads to desensitization," said Victor Cline, emeritus professor of the University of Utah psychology department. Cline treats sexual addictions.

"After a while, what was shocking and upsetting becomes acceptable," he said. "They escalate and they start searching out stuff that's more rough and bold. Sooner or later, they start to act out."

Hansen estimates almost all of the 108 child pornography cases his office investigated last year involved pre-pubescent victims. And most of them were linked to other hard-core crimes such as child rape, Hansen said.

"We are seeing pictures of 3- and 4- and 5-year-olds being raped," he said.

The technology has driven a once underground community out into the open, Bell said.

Child pornography can't be that bad, rationalize some criminals, because the Internet has introduced them to hundreds of others who have exactly the same urges.

Court records show that on Aug. 1, 1999, Thomas sexually abused his son for the first time. The boy was 6 at the time.

The molestation continued for more than one year and included several incidents, according to court records. All of them were too graphic to detail in print.

After arresting Thomas and searching his computer, police found files depicting child pornography involving 6-year-old boys, court records state.

Thomas cooperated with police investigators, pleaded guilty to two first-degree felonies and is now waiting his turn to get into the prison's sex offender treatment program. That probably won't happen for several years.

His son is in therapy.

The circles under Thomas' eyes and his tired face display the effects of living in a physical prison for the past several months and the prison that enslaved him in child pornography for the previous three years.

"I've basically traded one prison for another," Thomas said, looking around the small room. "That's the way I look at it. I was in a prison of my own making."


Contributing: Linda Thomson, Laura Hancock


Next story: Experts see link between child pornography and sexual abuse cases.


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