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Policing a dark secret: How Boca group tracks child porn downloads

Boca Raton-based Child Rescue Coalition uses software to monitor child pornography downloads and trains cops around the world to ‘catch bad guys.’


In an astonishing and disturbing display, a map of the world slowly lights up with tiny, brightly colored dots, painting its surface until parts — mainly Europe and the East Coast of the United States — are no longer visible.

Each dot represents several computers downloading child pornography at that moment.

“I wish I could tell you it’s a time lapse,” Bill Wiltse says. “But this is happening right now.”

Wiltse, executive vice president of the nonprofit Child Rescue Coalition in Boca Raton, has spent the past decade tinkering with one of the world’s most sophisticated computer programs to hunt those downloading child porn. He says 30 million to 50 million child porn files are downloaded worldwide each day.

“It could be anyone and unfortunately, it usually is anyone,” Wiltse said. “It’s the attorney; it’s the school teacher.”

Or the gymnastics coach.

Carl Lechner, a 66-year-old employee at a CATS Gymnastics children’s gym in Jupiter, was arrested July 31 on charges of possession of child pornography, detected because law enforcement used CRC’s technology.

That arrest led detectives from the Broward County Sheriff’s Office to connect Lechner to a complaint of sexual abuse from 2004. He was charged Tuesday with sexual battery on a child under the age of 12.

The CRC software, called the Child Protection System, detects IP addresses downloading lewd photos and videos of children. The CRC turns that list over to law enforcement agencies.

The Broward Sheriff’s Office scoured Lechner’s home computer in Lauderdale Lakes and found seven child porn files and software intended to erase any trace of deleted files.

A mission to combat child porn

Like the map indicates, there are many illegal downloads going on at any given moment, but most don’t result in arrests, something late data guru and business millionaire Hank Asher pledged his life — and money — to combat.

The CRC, based in Boca Raton, is just under two years old. It was started after Asher’s death at the age of 61.

In 2009, Asher launched technology firm TLO — an acronym for The Last One — that developed software that scanned for child porn downloads, a venture Asher spent $500,000 on.

When Asher died, his daughters, Desiree Asher and Carly Asher Yost, took over the firm but filed for bankruptcy four months later. They sold TLO and its software to Chicago-based credit bureau TransUnion 10 months after their father’s death.

But Asher’s daughters kept an important piece of the software — the piece that monitors child porn — and launched the nonprofit CRC, Vice President Colleen Lockwood said.

In 2009, Hank Asher cryptically kept quiet the details of the software, telling The Palm Beach Post he did not want to alert predators.

But the nonprofit now relies on donations from the public rather than Asher’s bank account.

“Really it’s about fund-raising and raising public awareness about how bad the problem is,” Wiltse said.

In Palm Beach County, more than 200 arrests in the past six years have resulted from using CPS, said Palm Beach County Assistant State Attorney Greg Schiller, who focuses on prosecuting internet crimes against children.

“This technology is our way of finding people who are trying really hard not to be found,” Schiller said.

‘The virtual police’

“How do we sit our granddaughter down and ask her, ‘Did this man ever touch you?’” said Suzanne Mastropa, whose 6-year-old granddaughter attended CATS Gymnastics in Jupiter until Lechner was arrested.

“Every time I think about how this man had girls jump on his neck or how he would catch them while spotting, it makes me sick,” Mastropa said.

The CRC uses an algorithm to “rank” the IP addresses they monitor based on the most potentially dangerous targets — like Lechner, Wiltse said.

The goal at its simplest is to find the people who work with children or have access to children and get them behind bars. The main targets are people who are potentially abusing children, recording it and distributing it on peer-to-peer file sharing programs, Wiltse said.

The CRC is like “the virtual police,” Wiltse added.

The software can identify an IP address and general location. It can spot when someone downloads obscene photos of children; it can detect when a new child porn file emerges, likely created by the user of that IP address; it can tell if someone has downloaded videos depicting bestiality or incest.

They’ve even found horrifying files explaining, in the form of a guidebook, how to sexually abuse a child, Wiltse said.

“We’re dealing with really dark stuff here,” he said.

When detectives combed through Lechner’s computer in April, they found software intended to erase any trace of deleted files. Similar software often works, Wiltse said, hindering the amount of evidence investigators can gather.

But the CRC’s job ends at the IP address to avoid violating privacy rights, so it trains officers around the world, at no cost to law enforcement agencies, on how to use the software to “catch bad guys,” Wiltse said.

The CRC has trained law enforcement officers in its software in 55 countries.

Tracking child porn

Once detectives have an IP address, they get the name and address attached to it from the internet service providers by court order, said Wiltse, who is also a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s reserve deputy.

Detectives focus first on suspects who have access to children, like Lechner.

“Before CPS, we had to wait for a child to come forward and report sexual abuse, and many times they don’t report that abuse,” said Fort Lauderdale Police Detective Robert Mauro, who uses the software to investigate internet crimes against children.

The software is a detective’s “silver bullet,” he added.

Because of the volume of people downloading child porn, investigators have to decide which cases they will pursue, said State Attorney Dennis Nicewander, who will prosecute Lechner’s case.

“If we find someone downloading child pornography that works in an occupation around children, we make that a priority to investigate,” Nicewander said.

Up to 90 percent of offenders who commit internet crimes against children also commit “hands-on” crimes, or sexual abuse, according to data collected by the CRC.

A complaint was filed against Lechner in 2004, alleging that he repeatedly sexually battered a child between 1999 and 2003 — she was 3 years old when the abuse began.

Detectives learned the investigation was not completed in 2004 by Fort Lauderdale Police, the jurisdiction in which the complaint was filed, according to the report. BSO picked the case up while Lechner was being investigated for possession of child pornography.

Parents at CATS Gymnastics in Jupiter expressed concerns following Lechner’s arrest that law enforcement should be investigating whether anything inappropriate happened at the gym between Lechner and the children.

The protocol is to wait for people to call in tips, Nicewander said.

“It’s kind of touchy,” he said. “You can’t just go around contacting everyone’s children asking, ‘Hey, were you molested?’ Most kids are uncomfortable and will deny it.”

The right to privacy

Wiltse said defense attorneys are quick to argue that using CRC’s technology infringes on their client’s right to privacy.

He’s been called to testify on numerous occasion about the legitimacy of the software. In every case, the judge has overruled contestations against the use of CPS.

“We are not hacking; we are not scanning people’s hard drives,” Wiltse said. “We’re not doing anything other than going into a public place and recording the criminal activity that we see right before our eyes.”

If it weren’t for the software, law enforcement have no way of knowing that someone like Lechner was downloading child porn while working around children, Nicewander said.

“The bad guys are making their interests known publicly,” Wiltse said. “We’re just documenting it.”



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