By Karla Liriano, Cronkite News
PHOENIX – Thousands of Arizonans are trading in child pornography online and almost none of them are being investigated, said a state lawmaker who wants to spend leftover lottery money to help find and prosecute them.
“Children are being raped, tortured, abused – beastiality, the worst possible things that you can imagine, are occurring right here in Arizona, and we only have four full-time investigators in the entire state to proactively go after these guys,” said Rep. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix.
Boyer authored HB 2517, which would direct $5 million of leftover state lottery funds each year to the Arizona Internet Crimes Against Children task force. The money would be used to hire up to 35 full-time investigators and forensic examiners to locate and prosecute people participating in the sexual exploitation of children, Boyer said.
There currently are four investigators and two forensic examiners working full time, a number that hasn’t changed since the task force was established in 2001. Boyer said that even with its limited resources, the task force rescued 70 children last year.
A typical investigator can handle around 20 to 25 cases a year, Boyer said.
“We have great laws on the books, but unfortunately we have little enforcement, and the guys on the task force, in my opinion, they’re heroes, because they’re going out there, and they’re rescuing kids,” he said at a House Judiciary Committee meeting in January.
Of the $5 million, $4.5 million would be used to fund the task force and $500,000 would go to a victims’ fund.
“That’s just really to help restore the victims to wholeness,” Boyer said. “They can utilize services at their discretion, what may be a good fit for them. Perhaps it’s counseling, perhaps it’s some kind of restorative services, really whatever the victim needs.”
Boyer started looking at ways to give the task force more funding after a friend informed him of the issue last May.
“I thought to myself, ‘What possible way could I come up with that isn’t a direct tax or general fund impact?’” Boyer told the committee.
Boyer’s bill is receiving support from The Alicia Project, led by Alicia Kozakiewicz, a Chicago resident who survived child sexual exploitation and advocates for Internet safety awareness. Kozakiewicz was abducted in 2002 at age 13 and raped and abused before she was rescued by the FBI.
Her foundation advocates for legislation, under the name Alicia’s Law, that would direct more money toward combating these crimes in all 50 states. So far, Alicia’s Law has passed in Virginia, Texas, Idaho, Tennessee and California with state funding.
“Law enforcement does not have the funding and resources to rescue these victims, and every child deserves the same chance that I had to be recovered,” Kozakiewicz said in a phone interview.
Boyer said the Internet Crimes Against Children task force would receive money from the Arizona State Lottery Commission only after all the beneficiaries are paid, and the attorney general would then be in charge of administering the enforcement fund.
Attorney General Mark Brnovich testified at the House Judiciary Committee meeting in favor of the bill.
“Ultimately, I’m a fiscal conservative, but there are folks out there, kids, that can’t protect themselves, and we have the obligation to protect the least among us,” he said.
Brnovich said it’s important to offer proper training for investigators, both in the technology necessary to track down criminals and on the psychological effects of the work.
“These are very very difficult cases emotionally on the detectives and the folks that have to investigate these crimes,” he said. “They also involve the Internet, they involve computers very often. The folks that are engaging in child pornography, child exploitation, those types of crimes, they’re very sophisticated in how they do it.”
Phoenix Police Detective Eric Oldenburg, who testified in support of the bill, was one of the four original investigators on the task force. After leaving in 2005 because of the emotional toll the work had on his personal life, he’s now back as one of the two forensic analysts responsible for connecting criminals to the evidence.
“Our goal as investigators is to find the victims that we don’t know about, and because of that it takes us going through every single bit of every single hard drive that we seize,” Oldenburg told the committee.
According to Boyer 60 to 65 percent of images intercepted in Arizona are of pre-pubescent children, most younger than 10 years old. Nine percent involve infants.
“The victims that we’re rescuing here still believe in Santa Claus,” Oldenburg said.
Arizona law enforcement agencies’ computer forensic detectives dealt with more minor sexual exploitation cases in 2014 than any other crime, at 106, followed by narcotics at 63, according to data collected by the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center’s Computer Forensic Unit.
“They have to sort through every single image, every single video, and I can’t even imagine what that would be like,” Boyer said. “That’s why it’s so important, I think, to hire more investigators to share that load.”
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery told the committee it’s also critical to target those who create the child pornography.
“We don’t just have people within the state of Arizona downloading these images as consumers of this deplorable product; we actually have people who are abusing children and creating the product and then distributing it,” he said.
Montgomery noted that one Arizona resident was sentenced last April to 170 years after authorities found his collection of images and videos featuring the rape and torture of children.
“It involved infants, pre-pubescent children, the most vile and deplorable things you could imagine, and then some,” he said.
Boyer said Arizona ranks 13th in the country in the number of pornographic images and videos circulating that involve children.
“I don’t think that we should wait another day to see this legislation passed,” he said.