MIDVALE – Hail fell as men carried computers and flash drives from a small Midvale apartment to a mobile command vehicle parked outside.
As I watched, Jessica Farnsworth, the commander of Utah’s Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force turned to me and said, “This gentleman’s house is right next to a child’s playground.”
The man is 31 year old Richard Epperson, and ICAC had just hauled him out of his apartment because a program called Chat Step accused him of sharing child pornography with other users.
“They report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children,” Farnsworth explained, “They say, ‘We found these images on our server. They are connected to this account. NCMEC does what they do and figure out what task force to send it to.”
Before making contact, the team gathered in a parking lot several blocks away; gearing up in bullet proof vests and loading guns. They dressed in all black with large, white block letters spelling out POLICE on their arms and backs.
“We do that so that there is no mistake that we’re a bunch of hoodlums coming in,” Farnsworth said, adding that far too often their suspects become dangerous and may even go for a gun when they realize officers are at the door.
In this case, Epperson cooperated and officers began to search through every piece of technology he owned.
“A lot of people think the child pornography we’re going after are the barely legal kids, and we just don’t have the resources. We really have to pick and choose,” Farnsworth explained that often means their suspects have been looking at images of young pre-pubescent children, “The kids who still believe in Santa Claus.”
In this case, the team told me they found thousands of images downloaded into Epperson’s tech.
Special Agent Alan Conner is one of the officers who searches the computers. He spends hundreds of hours every year training and learning how to bring photos and videos to the surface, even when they’ve been deleted. He, and his team members, continue to do the work even though he says it takes a huge emotional toll.
“They don’t have the capability most of the time to take care of themselves, so somebody has to step in,” Conner said.
The man has his own children, and teared up when I asked him, “How do you handle it?” His answer: hobbies and therapy, but for some ICAC members the combination doesn’t cut it. Farnsworth says officers will sometimes ask for a transfer after just one case.
“They got into this job to serve and protect and it’s a very helpless feeling to watch a child being sexually assaulted,” she said.
When the program was first started in 2000 Farnsworth said they only had four officers, two of which were part-time, and covered all of Utah, Montana and Idaho. She says in her 17 years with the program, online sex crimes against children have only increased. Now every state has their own team and Utah has 80 full time officers working in ICAC. Farnsworth says it still isn’t enough.
She claims faster internet speeds, digital cameras, and a growing number of computers in Utah homes are all combining to make child pornography easy to make, easy to find and easy to share. The numbers support her claim.
Last year the task force investigated 924 tips from NCMEC. By April of this year they had already investigated over one thousand tips.
“Parents just need to be very cautious. Every app that a child is downloaded they should be getting online and reading about that app and finding where the control settings are,” Farnsworth said, adding that in some ways she feels Utah is like candy for people attracted to young children, “A lot of registered sex offenders want to move in to Utah. They have a playground- a lot of kids.”
Maria Peterson, spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, said right now 7,482 sex offenders are registered in Utah. Even as ICAC brings them in Farnsworth worries that in many cases they are back on the street in a matter of months.
“You ought to look at how many of them are actually incarcerated,” She said. “Most of these cases get no jail time and 36 months probation.”
Peterson couldn’t tell me how many sex offenders were sentenced here in Utah and how many had moved in, explaining over email, “It is not a data point that is tracked, because it does not change the way they are managed on the registry.” She was, however, able to shed a little light on the current trend in sentencing. The latest numbers show that while the majority of 1st degree felony sexual crimes go to prison, about two-thirds of third degree convictions are released on parole.
“I think it’s a lack of education. A lot of people think that these crimes are childless crimes: It’s just a computer crime-it’s not like he was sexually abusing kids,” Farnsworth said. “What they fail to realize is that a child is being sexually assaulted- was being sexually assaulted. You are feeding an appetite.”
Investigators were able to uncover thousands of images on Epperson’s computer. Charging documents show he admitted to investigators that he shared several of them on apps and websites. Epperson is now facing 20 second-degree felony charges for child pornography.
Who knows what court will bring for the man, but after doing hundreds or maybe thousands of these cases Farnsworth says she’s learned anything that can connect to the internet is dangerous.
“I have parents all the time ask me at what age do you think a child old enough to have a cell phone? I always put it back on them and say at what age do you feel it is appropriate for your daughter or son to have a loaded gun. Because in a way it’s just as dangerous.”
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