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Customs Service Announces Child Pornography Bust

Aired August 9, 2002 - 11:04   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We want to go live now to Washington, D.C. for news of a news conference concerning an international child pornography ring.

ROBERT C. BONNER, U.S. CUSTOMS COMMISSIONER: We also have Kathy McClure here, who is the deputy chief of the Justice Department's Child Exploitation and Obscenities Section, and we also have with us today, I am pleased to say, Rubin Rodriguez who is the director for the Exploited Child Unit at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Thank you for being here, Rubin.

Following my remarks -- I am going to make an announcement -- but following my remarks this morning, I am going to invite John Rabin (ph) to make some brief comments, and then we will answer some questions that you may have, but I also am going to invite special agent of the U.S. Customs Service, Mike Netherland (ph), along with Rubin Rodriguez, and Kathy McClure, to give you a short briefing on the details of the case that we are going to announce this morning.

Today we're announcing the results of an investigation called Operation Hamlet. This is a difficult case to announce, because I've rarely seen crimes as despicable and repugnant as the crimes involved in this investigation. "Operation Hamlet" is a ten month investigation conducted by special agents of U.S. Customs Service in conjunction with the Danish National Police, the Department of Justice, U.S. attorney's offices around the country, but particularly the Eastern District of California, and the Southern District of California, and law enforcement officers in six European countries, and 11 different states of our country.

Operation Hamlet uncovered a ring of pedophiles who sexually abused and exploited at least 45 children, and 37 of those children -- by the way, which were ages 2 to about 14 -- 37 of those children were citizens and residents of the United States, they reside here in our country.

Fifteen members of the ring were charged with -- 15 members of this ring were charged in an indictment that was unsealed this morning in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California. They are all charged with conspiracy to sexually exploit children. There are also charges of sexual exploitation of children, and receiving and distributing materials involving sexual exploitation of minors.

What is particularly disturbing about this case is that the majority of the people who have been charged in this case were actually the parents of -- and were sexually exploiting their own children. In many instances, parents forced their children to commit sex acts that were then photographed and posted on the Internet. With the power of the Internet, what may have once been an isolated crime became a global crime. The case began in about November of last year, 2001, when a group called Save the Children, -- it's a very good group, by the way -- they discovered images on the Internet depicting a child, apparently in Denmark, being sexually abused. They immediately notified the Danish National Police. The Danish police investigated the report and arrested a Danish citizen for molesting a child whose image he had posted on the Internet. The child was his own 9-year-old daughter.

On his computer, the Danish police discovered a web of pedophiles throughout the world, many of whom were here in the United States. In late January of this year, the U.S. Customs Service CyberSmuggling Center, which is located right across the river in Virginia, received its first leads in this case from the Danish government, from the Danish police, and opened the investigation that we called Operation Hamlet, and we are announcing today.

This led to search warrants and arrests of ten individuals in the United States, individuals that live in California, Florida, Texas, Idaho, New York, New Jersey, South Carolina, Michigan, and Washington state, and ten individuals have also been arrested in this case outside the United States, primarily in Europe, in Denmark, the Netherlands, in Belgium, the UK, Germany, and in Switzerland.

The 20 arrests and charges all relate to using and sexually abusing and exploiting children, often their own children, and then to compound the crime, the publication of the photographs, the visual depictions of their crimes on the Internet, circulating these images amongst themselves as part of a pedophile ring. According to the allegations of the indictment, the individuals indicted today as part of the conspiracy to sexually exploit children in violation of federal law, circulated these child pornographic images between and among themselves, e-mailed each other as to images that they wanted to see, and at least in one case, exchanged children to be sexually abused and depicted.

Special agent Netherland (ph) will be available, as I said, to give you some specifics on the investigations a little bit later, but I do want to make a couple of general comments about the investigation of the crimes that has led to the indictment that was unsealed in California this morning.

Throughout the summer, we have been repeatedly shocked at the rash of abductions, molestations and murders of innocent children. It cannot be repeated enough, and bears repeating again, that America's most precious asset is its children. And our children must be protected at any cost.

At the root of many child abductions, child murders, child sexual molestation is a twisted desire for sex with children. This desire of pedophiles is fueled by child pornography, which today, unfortunately, is more available than ever, via the Internet. By aggressively pursuing pedophiles through their efforts to obtain child pornography through the Internet, we can identify child molesters and abusers as the agents have done in this very investigation. In Operation Hamlet, dozens of children were molested, and their images posted on the Internet.

In this case, the normal safe harbor for children, which is there own parents, turned out to be these children's chamber of horrors. Instead of protecting their children, these parents exploited them in the worst possible way. We depend upon the natural instincts of parents to protect their children from being abducted, from being exploited and being exposed to pedophiles, but when the parents are the abuser, then the government must step in with all of its might. With the images now distributed on the Internet, these 45 children who suffered abuse at the hands of those charged in this case will continue to suffer, because these images will be on the Internet for years and years to come, passed from pedophile to pedophile. This is a crime that never ends.

I have seen some horrendous crimes, by the way, in my time as a federal law enforcement and as a federal prosecutor and as a federal judge, but these crimes are beyond the pale. They are despicable and repulsive.

The people who engage in these kinds of acts, sexually exploiting children, especially their own children, should be removed from their children forever and incapacitated for as long as the law allows.

I applaud President Bush's call for White House conference next month on crimes against children. It's critically important to address this issue head on, and to do it now before other children are harmed.

I want to commend the efforts of law enforcement in this case, by the way, the Danish National Police, in particular. And I also want to commend other federal agencies who worked with United States custom's agents in this case, and that was the Postal Inspection Service and the FBI. We also, because we executed arrests and search warrants in 10 or 11 states, received valuable assistance from state and local law enforcement.

I particularly want to commend the efforts, by the way, of the police department in Clovis, California, the police department in West Palm Beach, Florida, and the Internet task force, Internet crime against children task force in San Diego.

The assistance of the Justice Department and the child exploitation and obscenities section, by the way, and the U.S. attorney's office in the eastern district of California have been invaluable in this case.

And I also want to applaud, especially, the work of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as they create and encourage networks, like the Amber Alert Network, to find abducted children quickly, before any serious harm can come to them from the hands of predators. Together, we must find ways to protect our children, the children of our nation, the children of all nations, and to starve the pedophiles of the sordid images that induce them to act.

The assistance, by the way, in this particular case, of Michelle Collins, by the way, who is also here, who is with the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, has been invaluable to this case, Michelle.

At this time, I would like to invite John...

KAGAN: We've been listening in to U.S. Customs commissioner Robert Bonner as he describes the bust of a huge child pornography ring.

You know, we hear a lot of stories here on CNN, and just when you think you kind of heard it all, you hear one you just shake your head at.

Commissioner Bonner announcing this arrest, this is -- he himself described it as disgusting and heinous of crime in nature as he's ever seen. A ring of pedophiles from around the world arrested. This involved 45 children pictured in different acts, sexual acts, abusive acts, children that were only age 2-14, and 37 of those children residing right here in the U.S.; 15 members of this ring arrested.

And what really captured our attention here as we listened to this most of the people arrested were the parents of these children, putting their own children up to these just terrible, terrible acts.

Let's bring in our Jeanne Meserve who is covering this story from Washington D.C.

Jeanne, I'm sure you listen to this story as reporter, and also as a parent, and I can't believe that any, any parent would put their child in this situation.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, and I thought Commissioner Bonner made a very interesting point when he mentioned, this doesn't end with this arrest. The images are still out there. These images are going to be passed around from pedophile to pedophile, probably going to be on the Internet for decades. These children, who are not being identified, of course. In fact, you know, Commissioner Bonner did not even identify who the people who were arrested, because you and I could deduce from that who the children might be.

The damage is going to be ongoing. No amount of counseling I think can ever erase the fact that these images are out there, and will continue to be.

KAGAN: And that's the factor of the Internet, as you mentioned, it's not like this was just books or magazine, you could burn all of them. I mean, they're out there, out of control, but also, it's what has made it so easy to make it global in nature, and how it involves so many different countries at the same time. MESERVE: That's right, as Commissioner Bonner mentioned, this started in Denmark, the investigation did. It involved many countries in Europe, as well as the United States. He talked a little bit about the easy availability of this child pornography and how he believes that it gives child molesters an impetus to act. I'm sure we will hear more about that from the experts in the field as the day progresses.

KAGAN: Jeanne Meserve in Washington, thank you so much.




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