Pedophiles and others willing to exploit children are known to haunt social media platforms and the dark web. In 1993, however, the idea that these nefarious creeps would use a computer to connect with kids was novel, until investigators discovered that missing 10-year-old George Stanley “Junior” Burdynski and other boys in the community of Brentwood, Maryland, had been chatting online with 53-year-old James Kowalski, who lived in the same area. It turns out, he’d even given computers to some boys.
“I kept saying, ‘What do you mean you talk to them on the computer?’” now-retired Special Agent Lou Luciano recalled, according to an FBI press statement.
“Most people didn’t even know where to look for this stuff,” added Bob Coffey, also a retired FBI agent.
Fortunately for Luciano and Coffey, Special Agent Doris Garner (then Doris Hepler) had a background in mathematics and computer science before graduating from the FBI Academy. She understood the emerging virtual communities and guided efforts to dig into electronic files. The team uncovered evidence that led to Kowalski’s conviction.
With the addition of a few more agents, the team continued trolling the web to expose exploiters, and word spread among law enforcement agencies. Within months, Gardner was contacted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement regarding a case involving a male trading exploitive material online.
“That case really opened up the floodgates,” she said. “Because he was trading tremendous amounts of child sexual abuse material, that led us to hundreds of more pedophiles.”
By September 1995, they had accumulated enough evidence to serve 116 search warrants in multiple states, a record at the time for the most warrants issued in a single day by the FBI.
“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.”
Not only did that effort nab a group of dangerous predators, but it also launched the Innocent Images National Initiative in 1995. For the past 25 years, FBI agents, in coordination with state and local law enforcement agencies, have worked diligently to identify and convict criminals abusing, exploiting and trafficking children. During fiscal year 2020, it opened 3,351 child exploitation cases, made more than 1,600 arrests, and identified and/or located 1,410 child victims.
“If you can identify a pedophile and take them out of circulation, you may save dozens of children,” said Coffey.