The operation began around noon on Friday, Sept. 16, in the basement of the Marathon County Sheriff’s Department. There, in a newly designed space detectives call the “war room,” carefully crafted ads were posted on Craigslist and Backpage.com to snare potential child predators.
The room in the county courthouse, lined with computer monitors and whiteboards, was a flurry of activity, as about 30 officers and detectives from three area departments prepared for the long night ahead. Arrest teams were assembled and readied for action. Corrections staff was notified to prepare for new arrivals. Tech experts waited at their stations. At 2 pm, Wausau Police Lt. Bill Kolb briefed the troops, many of whom were told just hours earlier the sting investigation was about to unfold. Secrecy in an undercover operation is paramount.
Amid the preparations that day, a graphic artist was installing an enormous new mural on the hallway wall. The sign, the finishing touch on what’s now called the High Tech Crimes Unit, honors sheriff’s department Det. Kevin Gray, who died in July 2015, ten months after a motorcycle crash.
With members skilled in recovering digital evidence for a variety of crimes, the unit also serves as a hub for Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) operations. It was dedicated the day of the Sept. 16 sting, in recognition of Gray’s passion for keeping children safe. Gray was so instrumental in forming the county’s ICAC task force and securing a forensic detective for the unit that even the operations themselves are named after him. The Sept. 16 sting was dubbed KG-3. It was the third such operation since Gray’s death, but the first in the newly christened high tech unit, the county’s latest tool in the fight against child predators.
By mid afternoon, the investigation was in full swing. Detectives, most of whom work undercover and cannot be photographed or publicly named, were monitoring hits to the ads and chatting online with a handful of men who responded to postings the detectives had placed.
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Hitting up someone for a casual encounter through an online ad isn’t uncommon, and it isn’t illegal—unless the person on the receiving end is underage.
“I’m only 15,” one detective wrote in the chat. “My mom’s out of town. Looking for some fun. HBU?”
Most chats stop there, at the mention of such a young age. But not always.
Behind the scenes, as detectives carried on increasingly lurid and disturbing online conversations, every member of the unit is busy. Technicians worked furiously to trace IP addresses to identify suspects and the vehicles they might be driving if police successfully lure them to a hookup spot, where the arrests would happen. Lieutenants and captains watched large screens that broadcast the online conversations they’re monitoring. Support staff brought in coffee, food, then more coffee. Arrest teams were alert, dressed and ready to roll.
By midnight, the unit rounded up three men, each of whom responded t
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Captain Greg Bean
o the ads and thought they were meeting a child for sex.
Sheriff’s Capt. Greg Bean, who oversees the Internet Crimes Against Children task force, says his detectives call that a successful operation. But Bean takes a different view of success. “I hope there comes a day when we don’t arrest anyone,” Bean says. “Then we’d know it’s not happening anymore, that children aren’t being victimized. Until that day, though, we’re going to keep fighting.”
As the operation wore on, detectives chatted with dozens of men who responded to the online ads: A 45-year-old man wanted to sodomize a 15-year-old boy; a 29-year-old man offered to show a 15-year-old girl “how a man really treats a woman,” then asked if he could bring an adult friend to participate. Another would-be suspect in his 30s wanted to drive around while a teenage girl performed oral sex on him.
By 4:14 pm, detectives had their first suspect on the hook: a 31-year-old man from Plover. Lue Chang spent about three hours sending sexually charged text messages to a detective he thought was a 15-year-old girl—the messages repeatedly reminded him that “she” was underage. Shortly after 8 pm, after driving to Wausau from Plover to meet the “girl” for oral sex, Chang was arrested, according to court records.
Courtesy of the Marathon County Sheriff’s Department
From there, the operation escalated quickly. Two additional suspects came into play: 29-year-old Alan Strasser and 24-year-old Jackson Moeck, both of Wausau. Strasser spent about three hours sending increasingly explicit messages to a detective he thought was a 15-year-old girl. Both men were arrested shortly before midnight.
Adding to the danger: both Chang and Strasser had weapons when they were taken into custody. Chang had a cased rifle in his vehicle. Strasser, who had a concealed carry permit, wore a loaded pistol on his belt.
“The guns were legal,” Bean says. “But the suspects had them in their possession when committing a crime. You never know what their true intent was.”
KG-3 was the second county-wide ICAC undercover operation since January. In that sting, seven suspects were arrested and charged with using a computer to facilitate a child sex crime and child enticement. One of the seven, 29-year-old Griffin Waldinger of Wausau, was arrested three weeks later in Eau Claire, in a similar sting. In both cases, Waldinger thought he was going to meet a 15-year-old girl for sex, according to court records.
“He obviously didn’t learn his lesson the first time,” Bean says.
High crime, high tech investigation
Investigating crimes against children takes significant time, training and technology. The ICAC program is a national network of 61 coordinated task forces representing over 3,500 federal, state, and local law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies.
The program was developed in response to the increasing number of children and teenagers using the internet, the proliferation of child sexual abuse images, and heightened online activity by predators seeking contact with potential victims.
Wisconsin’s ICAC Task Force has been administered through the state Department of Justice since its inception in the spring of 1999. Joining the state ICAC effort in February 2013 gave Marathon County more funding, training and assistance from investigators and forensic analysts throughout the state.
But Marathon County took its commitment one step further. In January 2014 the sheriff’s department reassigned Detective Dan McGhee as a forensic investigator, rather than relying on outside analysts for help. McGhee, who has been with the department since 1997, decrypts phones and handles the bulk of the digital evidence crucial not only in ICAC investigations, but also serious car crashes and other crimes.
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Detective Dan McGhee
Detective Dan McGhee is a forensic investigator with the Marathon County Sheriff’s Office.
McGhee is so well trained that surrounding counties and even state Department of Justice investigators call on him for assistance, Bean says. Usually, it’s local law enforcement looking for outside help. But McGhee’s expertise has become a huge tool in Marathon County’s arsenal. His ongoing training ensures local police will keep up with new technology and trends.
On Sept. 16, McGhee was busy pretending, through an ad on Craigslist, to be a 15-year-old boy. At the next desk, Wausau Police Det. Jennifer Holz was chatting with men who thought that she, too, was an underage teen.
“It’s emotionally exhausting,” Holz says. “You invest so much into catching these people.”
The chats can go on for hours before a hookup is arranged. Sometimes the target senses something is off, and doesn’t show. “That’s frustrating, because you know they’re probably out there doing this to someone else,” Holz says.
Detectives on the task force who lure in suspects wear many hats. They have to know how to text like a teenager, while still thinking like a detective. They also have to think like a lawyer, understanding what will hold up in court and what could sink a case.
Backpage is the world’s largest classified ad company with sites in 431 U.S. cities and another 444 worldwide. According to the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, The site’s users post one million sex ads per day. And according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 71% of all suspected child sex trafficking cases have a link to Backpage. Some victims are as young as 7.
Law enforcement officials targeting internet crimes against children use Backpage and Craigslist as a go-to site for investigation. But Backpage frequently removes ads posted in connection with sting operations and has encouraged customers to use anonymous payment methods, making it virtually impossible to trace suspects without complicated undercover operations such as KG-3.
Thanks to the high tech crimes unit, the department now is far better equipped to fight internet crimes. In a conventional sting, police have no idea who the suspects are until an actual arrest. Now analysts can zero in on suspects as soon as chats begin, tracing IP addresses and tapping state databases to know the identity, home address and drivers license data of a suspect. A highly trained forensic detective is at the ready to decrypt digital information found on computers and phones.
The suspects arrested Sept. 16 face charges of using a computer to facilitate a child sex crime, a felony that carries a minimum mandatory five years in prison upon conviction. Each could spend significantly longer behind bars. Chang, Moeck and Strasser each appeared in court on Monday, Sept. 19; each was released after posting a cash bond. They are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Using a computer to facilitate a sex crime is one of just a few crimes that carries a mandatory prison penalty in Wisconsin; the vast majority of other criminal sentencing is left largely to the discretion of judges. Lawmakers in 2006 first made the five-year sentence a “presumptive minimum,” which meant judges could impose less prison time if they deemed it reasonable.
And largely, they did. In 2009, widespread criticism erupted when data showed that two-thirds of defendants convicted of such a crime were getting probation. In 2012, the legislature responded by removing judicial discretion, making the five-year minimum mandatory. The same 2009 law also requires a three-year prison term for people convicted of possessing child pornography and sexual exploitation.
The statistics surrounding child sex predators are shocking.
One in seven children is asked online to engage in sexual activities, sexual talk, or provide personal sexual information. Suspects are overwhelmingly male, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime. Catching them is no easy task, especially in today’s digital world. Predators hide behind encrypted IP addresses; they use fake names and lie about their age.
And there is no general profile. “We’ve seen everything from the drug user on the street to the highly respected, successful professional wanting to have sex with kids,” Bean says. “You would never know by looking at them.”
The vast majority of sexual predators live normal lives, keeping their dark desires hidden. For some, getting caught is too much to bear.
When detectives read back Strasser’s text messages to him, Strasser sat with his head in his hands and called himself “sickening” and “disgusting.” He took his own life four days later.
Bean says the unit will continue its fight against child predators, with plans to launch at least three to four KG-3 style operations each year. They’re also sharing their expertise with surrounding counties: Oneida County Sheriff’s officials sat in on the Sept. 16 sting as they prepare to launch their own similar operations. And Bean says they’ll continue to participate in statewide ICAC stings, which sometimes last for days.
“We’re going to keep at it until we stop it,” Bean says. “Until that day comes, people need to know, if you prey on children, we’re going to catch you.”
Parent resources and safety tips
The best way to protect children online is through maintaining open communication with them. Internet safety is about parenting; software alone will not protect your children.
• Prepare them for the online world as you would the real world. Talk about dangers and risks online. Discuss their own online activity, including websites they visit, people they communicate with, information they post about themselves, and any situations that make them feel scared, uncomfortable or confused.
• Establish a positive relationship with your children before someone else does. Online predators tell children they love them.
• Place computers in common areas where supervision can occur.
• Sign an internet safety pledge with your child.
• Create and post internet guidelines and rules.
• Know your child’s passwords, screen names and account information.
• Advise your children against downloading from unknown sources. The items may be inappropriate or contain computer viruses.
• Learn as much as you can about the places your children visit online. Keep current on child exploitation trends on the internet.
• Report online child exploitation incidents to the CyberTipline. You can also contact the Wisconsin ICAC Task Force at 608-266-1671, or call local law enforcement.