by Dan Richardson

It's almost as if they're reading from a script, these adult men seeking 13-year-old sex partners on Internet chat rooms.

Their opening line: Are you a virgin?

Yes, the girl replies.

She's shy, but willing to respond, sharing secrets via keyboard. She knows he's older, but he's probably lied about how much so. He might have sent her a photograph; it, too, is a lie, perhaps a photo of a catalog model. The man eventually convinces her to meet him for sex.

The girl gives the man direction by telephone. He arrives, somewhere in Spokane, knocks -- and half-a-dozen police officers swarm him.

He's just become the most recent would-be predator arrested by the Spokane Police Department's Sexual Exploitation Unit.

And the girl? "She" was actually a male SEU detective at the other end of the computer line. A female cop supplies a telephone voice.

"The ones who show up and we arrest are the ones we need to get off the streets," says Detective Jerry Keller, one of the two SEU cops who poses undercover online.

Keller and partner Curt Kendall have caught three alleged would-be child rapists since January, when they got new computers, and perhaps 20 in the past several years. Kendall has 20 years in police work, Keller nearly 30.

The Internet is a hotbed of sex and porn, providing anonymity to pedophiles. It's also rather trendy among police departments. There are perhaps eight or 10 detectives looking for online predators in Washington state, and police departments around the country are sending officers to computer training sessions. Nationally, agencies like the FBI and U.S. Customs conduct investigations to ferret out sexual predators hiding behind computer screens. The FBI's "Avalanche" operation in Texas two years ago, for example, uncovered mailing lists of people around the country ordering child pornography. There were nearly 50 customers in the Spokane area, says Keller.

Police amassed enough evidence to make three arrests.

Chasing child porn isn't the SEU's main responsibility -- that's keeping eyes on Spokane's roughly 700 registered sex offenders. But with new computers at their desks, Keller and Kendall can spend a couple hours a day online while performing their other duties: A phone call here, some paperwork there, a few minutes chatting online with a stranger looking for a 13-year-old virgin. Just a morning at the office.

"These [three recent] arrests are misleading, because we're working on a lot more," Keller says. He adds, "Basically these guys are preying on Spokane teenagers. By getting them off the street, I think we're saving a lot of young girls from rape."

Sometimes the ploy is elabo-rate. One man engaged in online chats with a police detective for several weeks before his arrest. Another spent six months online.

Often, though, the police sting is much quicker. An Eastern Washington University student contacted the supposed 13-year-old girl played by a police detective at 8 am on March 18, according to a police news release. Five hours later, he was in police custody, after allegedly driving to what he believed was a tryst. (Charges in that case are pending, lawyers say.)

The standard charge for someone caught in the SEU stings is second-degree attempted rape of a child. It carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.

Kendall and Keller have attended a number of training sessions around the country, sometimes for a week at a time. They learn cop stuff -- how to properly seize and search someone's home computer -- and some technical gee-whizzery, like how to penetrate past screen names to actual identities, even locations.

They also learn how to play a young girl on the Internet. They study what young girls look like, what words they use, what bra sizes they wear. These details help them pose as 13 years old -- 13 because, under Washington law, attempted rape of a child under 14 carries double the standard five-year maximum prison term. (Attempting to rape a child 11 or under could bring a maximum life sentence, but pretending to be 11 years old online, says Keller, "is a little far-fetched.")

And details are necessary, he says, because men seeking child sexual victims ask for them.

There are all kinds of people involved in these grim charades and attempted sexual encounters, from professionals to drugged-up losers to family men and singles who just want a little racy computer chat, say detectives. The thought is disturbing, but so are the numbers.

The two Spokane detectives "have probably talked to over -- this is very conservative -- 200 people since January," says Keller. "Eighty percent of them have talked to us about sex. We're not on sex chat rooms, we not on porn chat rooms. We're on up-and-up ones."

He declines to give specifics, citing ongoing operations, although America Online is the most popular provider for them.

"We don't talk about sex until they do," alleges Keller.

The men on the other end of the line set the mood and the pace of conversation, he says. They coordinate face-to-face meetings. In other words, they arrange their own arrests.

That's not the way everyone sees this undercover work on the dark side of the Net. Some defense lawyers blast the idea of detectives hiding behind computer screens, pretending to be little girls.

"Obviously, we have a concern for privacy," says Mark Hannibal, a lawyer representing Joseph C. Griffith, Jr., an Edwall, Wash., man recently arrested in an online child sex stings. Hannibal continues, "That's a concern for the entire community. Any time the authorities operate under certain falsehoods, and when they're intrusive into our homes, that's a big problem."

Police arrested Griffith on Feb. 19, after just one day chatting online. Griffith has pleaded not guilty to second-degree attempted rape of a child and is fighting the allegations, says Hannibal.

It's not illegal for the police to lie in pursuit of criminals -- all undercover work, after all, is based on deception. Still, online investigations do raise some new questions of privacy and technology, according to Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. EFF is a San Franciso-based group advocating computer privacy and free speech rights.

Says Tien: "There's very little case law on it, in part because a lot of these cases don't go to trial. Think about it. Would you want a jury on this sort of thing?"

One of the early Internet stings in Spokane, in 1999, netted Donald Theodore Townsend, leading to what may be a seminal state court case for online detective work. (Hannibal was Townsend's attorney, too.) The Washington State Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments from Townsend's appeal, which police and lawyers say will likely establish e-mail privacy rules.

No one is arguing that Townsend didn't meet "Amber," a fictitious 13-year-old online, played by Detective Keller, and arrange for a sexual encounter with "her." In this case, Keller began investigating after receiving complaints from two people that Townsend was trying to use a computer to set up sexual liaisons with young girls, say court records. So he was all too happy to chat online with "Amber."

"The details of what he intended to do with "Amber" became increasingly graphic," reports an appeals court record.

On June 4, 1999, police arrested Townsend when he arrived at a motel where he believed "Amber" to be staying.

Townsend has fought his conviction on the grounds that the e-mail conversations were illegally recorded and that a person cannot attempt to rape a fictitious girl. Two lower courts threw out those arguments, but the state Supreme Court justices heard the privacy aspect in late January.

Townsend's defense is that police should not be allowed to print out his e-mails as evidence, and that doing so is the same as wiretapping a telephone conversation without a warrant. In Washington, it's illegal to record conversations without people on both ends of the line knowing about it.

"That's protected speech," explains Hannibal. "If they can come into our online conversations, where do we go next?"

Everyone involved knows computers will automatically record their words, says Kevin Korsmo, the senior deputy Spokane County prosecutor defending the case against Townsend. "It's not like the cops are intercepting communications."

The Supreme Court's ruling is expected within a few months.

Townsend remains locked up at the Stafford Creek Correctional Center in Aberdeen, Wash. The Department of Corrections has his tentative release date listed as May 2004.

Lawyers say the Supreme Court's ruling could either reinforce the Sexual Exploitation Unit's method of investigation or else sink a number of their cases.

Yet all this doesn't even address the question of whether these online stings are the best uses of the police officers' time. Says Tien, the EFF attorney: "Law enforcement priorities are something that are hard to judge. Should they be spending hours online, doing this sort of thing? I think it's an open question."

Not for the SEU's detectives. They can't arrest enough pedophiles -- one senior police official calls the Internet a "target-rich environment" -- and they would spend more time at it if they could.

Says Keller: "We're not even catching a fraction of one-tenth of these people."

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