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FBI’s Innocent Images program marks 25 years of investigating online child exploitation

FBI’s Innocent Images program marks 25 years of investigating online child exploitation

From the Federal Bureau of Investigation

On May 24, 1993, George Stanley “Junior” Burdynski went missing from his Brentwood, Maryland, neighborhood. The 10-year-old boy was never found, and no one was ever charged in his disappearance.

The exhaustive investigation of his case did lead to charges against three men who were found guilty of sexually abusing several boys in the neighborhood—some of them friends of Junior’s.

But it was another investigative discovery from that case—that the offenders were using computers to chat with their victims and with other pedophiles—that led to a revolution in how law enforcement investigates child sexual abuse.

In the months after Junior’s disappearance, the tiny Hyattsville offshoot of the FBI’s Baltimore Field Office began the FBI’s first online undercover investigations into child predators. The scrappy but resourceful team crammed three burly agents into the telephone closet used for wiretaps and sent them online with undercover identities.

Within hours of putting messages out on these burgeoning bulletin boards, the office was flooded with leads. By 1995, the overwhelming results from the program in Baltimore led to the creation and nationwide expansion of the FBI’s Innocent Images program.

The legacy of that program is both an uplifting tale of success and a dispiriting account of some of the worst of human behavior. In its 25-year history, the number of convictions and cases generated by Innocent Images and its successor programs is eclipsed only by the scope and scale of the criminal behavior they uncovered. And running through every day of the program is the story of the agents, analysts, professional staff, and partner agencies who do what is arguably some of the hardest and most important work in law enforcement.

“Go Help That Squad Out”

In the early 1990s, the small Hyattsville FBI office ran two squads—one investigating narcotics offenses, the other violent crime. When Junior Burdynski was reported missing, the Hyattsville agents went in to support the Prince George’s County Police Department with the case.

“Every available agency brings in resources when a child goes missing,” said Bob Coffey. Now retired from the FBI, Coffey was assigned to Hyattsville as a special agent and supported the kidnapping case. Fellow Hyattsville Special Agent Lou Luciano, also now retired, became the FBI’s primary case agent.

Also sent in to help was Special Agent Doris Gardner (then Doris Hepler), now retired, who had graduated from the FBI Academy barely six months before. With a background in mathematics and computer science, she had been assigned to the white-collar crime squad in Baltimore. “I was the newest kid on the white-collar squad,” Gardner said of being volunteered to support the kidnapping investigation. “I was told, ‘Go help that squad out.’”

Within hours of Junior’s disappearance, a team of state, local, and federal officers began searching for clues and interviewing neighbors.

Sitting off Maryland Route 1 near the Washington, D.C., line, the Brentwood community was a tight-knit one, but the agents recalled many of the families were struggling—beset by addiction problems and financial strains.

As investigators spoke with the kids in the community, one name kept coming up—a 53-year-old neighbor named James A. Kowalski. “He was taking them on trips, feeding them, buying them clothes, giving them money,” Coffey said. This information, he recounted, made the hairs on his neck stand on end.

Luciano recalled several of the boys telling him they also communicated with Kowalski and others by computer. In fact, Kowalski had gifted computers to some of the boys. “I hadn’t done a thing on a computer at that point,” Luciano said. “I kept saying, ‘What do you mean you talk to them on the computer?’”

Gardner, however, understood right away and encouraged the team to make the computers part of their search warrants so they could be examined for evidence. “Most people didn’t even know where to look for this stuff,” Coffey said. “Doris did.”

With support from the few computer forensics experts at FBI Headquarters, the team was able to uncover chats and file exchanges between Kowalski’s ring of pedophiles and several boys. Investigators also uncovered videotapes and other evidence that allowed prosecutors to charge Kowalski with sexually assaulting six children in Brentwood and Hyattsville. Two other men associated with Kowalski were also prosecuted for exploitation, but there was not enough evidence to charge anyone in Junior’s disappearance.

The kidnapping remains an active investigation, but what was uncovered on the computers became a case unto itself.

“The case was opened and assigned to me—just that part of it,” said Gardner, who suddenly found her focus was no longer on white-collar crime.

The Hyattsville Program Makes a National Impact

The Hyattsville team knew they had uncovered something huge, but the laws were not quite ready to support their investigations. “We are looking at the prosecutors, and they’re telling us, ‘There is no law for this,’” said Coffey.

The agents from Hyattsville credit an aggressive and supportive supervisor for helping them work with FBI Headquarters and the Department of Justice to find a legal path to make these investigations happen.

Lou Luciano also reflected back on the willingness of each agent and staff member to help—and go well outside their traditional professional expertise. “We took a guy off the drug squad and two fugitive guys,” he said of the first three agents to go undercover online. Special Agents Al Little, Jerry Dougher, and Dan Chadwick were all over six feet tall and solidly built.

The retired agents laugh thinking back on the three of them sitting in a tiny space in a tiny office pretending to be young kids online. But what came of the work was not funny at all. “The very first time we threw the switch on this operation, it was like sharks coming for blood,” Luciano said.

A few months into their new investigation, Gardner got a call from a Florida Department of Law Enforcement officer who was looking for help on an investigation. He had identified a man living in New Hampshire who was actively trading this material online.

“That case really opened up the floodgates,” said Gardner. “Because he was trading tremendous amounts of child sexual abuse material, that led us to hundreds more pedophiles.”

That case culminated in September 1995, when the FBI executed 116 search warrants across the United States simultaneously. At the time, it was the most search warrants ever conducted by the Bureau on any one case in any single day. “We knew these guys communicated quickly, and we had to do it together or they would tip each other off,” said Gardner. “Destruction of evidence on a computer can be so quick.”

“We wanted to make a big bang and let these folks know the Bureau is here, we are investigating this, and we are protecting children,” Gardner said. They were successful on each and every warrant that day. “We didn’t miss,” she said.

The official launch of the Innocent Images National Initiative followed on those arrests. “We knew we needed resources, and the FBI could not do it alone,” said Gardner. “Other law enforcement agencies wanted to get involved. We had to train FBI agents across all of the field offices. We started offering training at the FBI Academy and at National Academy classes.”

What began in that closet in Hyattsville would expand to a nationwide and worldwide effort to contain a crime that the internet had both brought into the open and allowed to proliferate.

Carrying the Weight of So Many Cases

Special Agent Matt Vilcek joined the Innocent Images National Initiative in 1999, just a few years after its creation. Now a supervisor in Baltimore, he has watched the program grow exponentially.

“The Baltimore Division recognized this problem first and took action,” he said. “Not that someone else wouldn’t have caught on, it just happened to have started in Baltimore.” But the number and reach of these cases quickly overwhelmed the one office.

“Now—when you take into account local task forces, local detectives, task force officers, FBI agents, Homeland Security Investigations agents, and Secret Service—you’re talking about thousands of agents and officers domestically and internationally,” said Vilcek. There are currently 86 Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Forces operating across the Bureau.

The work is also supported by analysts and professional staff and extraordinary advocacy organizations like the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). “I want to shine a light on the work that they all do,” Vilcek said. “They truly are heroes.”

Because this work is nearly inhumanly hard.

Vilcek will acknowledge that two decades of working this offense has taken a toll—from the images and sounds that he wishes he could forget to the awful feeling that with so many of these cases coming in everyday that he and his team can never do enough.

“There is a significant amount of stress around the number of cases we have,” said Vilcek. “We have to pick and choose based on severity. But still, you know, that case you’re not working—some kid is getting hurt.”

Vilcek said that he has seen an uptick in the number and severity of the offenses in each of the years he has been in the unit, but 2020 has been especially bad. “With COVID and the lockdowns, we’ve seen a significant uptick in leads,” he said.

Leads can be anything from reports of online child enticement to sextortion cases to tips about the transfer of files that document the sexual abuse (often violent) of teens, children, and even babies.

While the pool of cases is overwhelming, the teams have extraordinary success. In fiscal year 2020, the FBI opened 3,351 child exploitation cases and made more than 1,600 arrests. The agents and task force officers also identified and/or located 1,410 child victims.

When you consider that most offenders will hurt more than one child, every conviction is meaningful. “If you can identify a pedophile and take them out of circulation,” Bob Coffey said, “you may save dozens of children.”

When Doris Gardner reflects back on the early days, she is heartened by the help and support she got and how the program has grown. “Because we were working to protect children, I never had any problem getting people to be willing to help,” she said. “It was a lot of coordination and a lot of teamwork.”

Twenty-five years later, those elements of teamwork and coordination and a drive to protect children are still at the heart of the work.

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