Each photo is a crime. In each photo, a separate tragedy: a tale of abuse, exploitation and stripped dignity.
And those tragedies are then shown over and over as the images are copied and shared tens of millions of times across the internet.
This is the horror that is child pornography.
In March, the Santa Ana Police Department decided to do something more to combat it and assigned Police Investigative Specialist Kerry Torres to enter the fray. SAPD created a specialty division within the department’s Internet Investigations Unit focused on online child sexual exploitation and crimes against children.
SAPD is working with the Los Angeles region for the Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce, or ICAC, a national network of 61 task forces with more than 4,500 officials and agencies investigating child abuse and exploitation involving the internet.
For Torres, she may have found her calling.
“I always wanted to be in a position to change lives and help children,” Torres said. “To be the person who can make a difference and arrest these individuals, I can’t describe it.”
The job is daunting. Torres inherited nearly 300 cases generated by tips from individuals and child advocacy groups. She has closed about 180.
Working from the tips, Torres said it’s her job to build the case. She traces IP addresses, identifies suspects and has delivered more than 60 search warrants.
“She’s doing tremendous warrants. We’re talking up to 10 to 15 per case,” said Commander Jose Gonzalez, who heads the Special Investigations Division.
“Although she’s not a police officer, Torres does everything a full-time detective does,” Gonzalez said. “She’s able to go into the field. She’s there every step of the way.”
At suspects’ homes, Torres is on-hand for interviews, looking at devices and uncovering how much is stored on desktops, drives and cellphones. And, sadly, how much content has been shared.
“That’s one of the hardest parts,” Torres said.
A NATURAL FIT
Torres was an obvious choice to join the task force. She already had internet experience, investigating vice, narcotics and domestic violence for Santa Ana.
The child of parents she jokingly describes as “computer nerds,” Torres has always been interested in both technology and law enforcement.
She was part of the Orange County Sheriff’s Explorers Program before attending UC Irvine, where she graduated in 2007. She went on to earn advanced certifications from Cal State Fullerton and has attended the National ICAC conference and received specialized and customized training since joining the task force.
Gonzalez said Torres’ computer skills were evident from the time she joined the department in 2015.
Once Torres’ skills were realized, Gonzalez said the department began to look for ways for her to have a “bigger footprint.”
Once the opportunity came to join the task force, “that’s where Kerry took off,” Gonzalez said.
“We realized her capacity to scour social media platforms. Because of her abilities, we said, ‘Let’s create this investigative unit.’ ”
Two of the investigations led by Torres have ended with major felony arrests.
One of her early cases led police to Jaime Castillo, 28, of Santa Ana, who is suspected of possessing “thousands” of child sexual abuse images and videos. Because of the severity of the case, it was presented to the United States Attorney’s Office for consideration. Federally prosecuted cases can lead to increased sentencing in federal prisons.
Over a two-month investigation, Torres was able to track an IP address and drew up nine search warrants. That led cops to a Santa Ana home and discovery of suspected illegal images and videos on multiple devices. These included more than 75 that Santa Ana police described as “young children,” according to City News Service.
In a more recent case, Roberto Tiro, 31, of Santa Ana, was arrested Nov. 12 on suspicion of felony possession and control of child pornography.
Using a tip from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Torres and the unit were able to identify Tiro and execute online and residential search warrants, according to the police.
Police said Tiro downloaded more than 600 pornographic images of young children and had thousands of images of child erotica and pornography on a home data storage device.
TIP OF THE ICEBERG
The New York Times writes that child pornography on the internet has grown exponentially, with tech companies reporting about 70 million images and videos of child abuse online in 2019, with no signs of slackening.
Those are just the reported instances.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children operates a Cyber Tip line that received more than 17 million reports of suspected child abuse, trafficking and molestation, 16.9 million were from internet service providers.
From Cyber Tip line information, 19,000 child victims were identified by law enforcement. In May this year, Congressional lawmakers began considering a bill, the Invest in Child Safety Act, a 10-year, $5 billion national plan to battle the surge.
Another potential law, the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act, or EARN IT, has passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee. Aimed at pushing internet service providers to more aggressively police child exploitation content on their platforms, it has drawn fire for possibly weakening encryption technology and the privacy of all users.
With the growth of the internet, not to mention the so-called dark web, the government has waged an expensive and often futile battle against illicit activity, not the least of which is child exploitation.
As for her role, Torres is happy to play her part.
In addition to finding people who possess and share such images, she is confident that investigations will eventually catch more distributors and producers of the exploitative images and video.
There’s just one thing she misses out on.
“The only thing I don’t get to do is to put the cuffs on,” she said.