NEWS- 1,800 pervs? Sting targets local pedophiles

At Hook presstime on Tuesday, May 1, former Albemarle girl's soccer coach Raja Charles Jabbour, a Lebanese citizen, was sentenced to nine years in prison for soliciting sex with a minor online and for possessing hundreds of sexually explicit images of children, some involving bestiality.

Charlottesville has lots of history, lots of restaurants, and, it seems, lots of something else you won't find in any travel brochures: pedophiles. As many as 1,800 of them, according to an ongoing investigation conducted by a statewide task force run out of the Bedford County sheriff's office.

Investigators for the group, the Southern Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children task force, say that in the past two years they've tracked 1,800 separate Charlottesville-area IP addresses– the number that links an Internet user to a physical location– where people are downloading child pornography from various online sites. 

The number isn't so surprising when combined with other data that's been released in past years– in particular that one of every five children who use the Internet will be solicited for sex.

Critics of that research point out that some of those "solicitations" come from other teens, not from grizzled predators, but one local law enforcement officer says even taking that into account, following a visit to the Bedford ICAC, his "eyes have been opened" to the extent of the problem.

 "I think that abuse of the Internet is much more serious than the average person realizes," says Charlottesville Police Captain Chip Harding, who likens the online child porn problem to the drug problem in the late 1970s and '80s when law enforcement officials hadn't realized how ubiquitous drugs had become.

(Harding was the city's first full-time officer dedicated to fighting drugs in the early 1980s; now there are a dozen officers assigned to the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement task force. )

Harding says he knows of several families in Charlottesville who have had children actually go to meet adults they've met online. To his knowledge, none of those local children have been victimized, but other children have not been so lucky.

In 2002, Christina Long, a 13-year-old Catholic school student in Connecticut, went to meet Saul Dos Reis, a 25-year-old man she'd met and had been having sexual chats with online. Her strangled body was found in a ravine in Greenwich, Connecticut, and Dos Reis was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role in her death. That case sparked a national debate over how best to protect children from such online danger. 

For the past several years, the televised newsmagazine Dateline NBC has aired a popular episode called "To Catch A Predator." Dateline sets up bait– an adult posing as a young teen who agrees to meet with the men– and in each episode, dozens of men arrive for the liaison, most bringing alcohol, some unzipping their pants before realizing they've been caught.

Stopping predators before they act is the goal, says Harding, who says a lack of police manpower makes that difficult. He says Charlottesville's police force is understaffed, which puts officers in the position of having to respond to typical crimes but unable to be proactive about emerging problems. The strain on local departments is why, in 1998, the federal government began offering grants to fund ICACs like the one in Bedford, one of the first 10 such forces in the nation.

Lieutenant Mike Harmony with the Bedford sheriff's office works full time for the ICAC and says tracking pedophiles online is a full-time job and then some.

"I have probably the ultimate job security," he says. "If the Commonwealth gave us unlimited manpower and resources, we still could not investigate every lead that comes in."

In the month between January 1 and February 1, 2007, Harmony says, he tracked 143 leads coming from Charlottesville area IP addresses. He declines to publicize the exact method of investigation, but says, "We're not like Big Brother" monitoring everyone's computer. His force backtracks from known sites containing child porn, investigating anyone who downloads images or videos from those sites. 

"Anybody in the world could do the same thing," he says. "It's just we receive expert training on a proper sequence of events for a successful prosecution."

Harding says he hopes that Charlottesville and Albemarle will receive funding in the near future for their own ICAC, which would allow several officers to work full time to catch local predators. But in the meantime, Harmony hopes there will be fewer left for local enforcement to catch.

"As the investigative leads come to fruition in the Charlottesville area," he says, "there could be multiple arrests."

Harmony says when that happens, the arrests will likely come as a shock to people who know the perpetrators.

"The stereotypical idea of what a sexual predator looks like and acts like is a myth," he says. "Just look at people around you and realize one of them could be a sexual predator. You'd never know until they're caught."