The FBI says at any one time there are 750,000 child sex predators online. Martha Mendoza and Jim Gomez meet one who may face justice
THE suspected paedophile could see people banging on his front door through his security cameras. Were they neighbours? Police?
One had letters on her jacket.
As David Timothy Deakin googled “What is NBI?” from the laptop on his bed, the Philippines National Bureau of Investigation smashed their way into his cybersex den.
Children’s underwear, toddler shoes, cameras, bondage cuffs, fetish ropes, meth pipes, and stacks of hard drives and photo albums cluttered the stuffy, two-bedroom townhouse.
Pencilled on the wall, someone had scrawled “My Mom and Dad love me” and a broken heart. In his computer were videos and images of young boys and girls engaged in sex acts.
“Why is everyone asking about children coming into my house?” said Deakin, 53, his wrists bound with a zip tie.
Deakin’s arrest on April 20 reveals one of the darkest corners of the internet, where paedophiles in the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia pay facilitators on the other side of the world to sexually abuse children, even babies, directing their moves through online live streaming services. The relatively new crime of webcam sex tourism is spreading rapidly, with new digital technologies sparking what the United Nations calls an “alarming growth of new forms of child sexual exploitation online”.
The FBI says it is an epidemic, and at any given moment, 750,000 child predators are online.
Almost every case stems from the Philippines, where good English speakers, increased internet connections, and widespread international cash transfer systems combine with widespread poverty and easy access to vulnerable kids.
There were as many as three busts a week there last autumn. The youngest victim ever, rescued a few weeks ago, was an infant, two months old. Most are under 12.
Last autumn, the Associated Press watched a raid, rescue, and launch of a major investigation that continues to play out on both sides of the world.
“This should serve as a warning,” said NBI anti-human trafficking chief Janet Francisco, who leads the case. “We will really catch them, with the help of our foreign counterparts. We will really put them in jail and they will die in jail.”
FBI computer analysts
Bare-chested and slick with sweat, his breath sour and glasses foggy, Deakin watched agents — including FBI computer analysts — crouch on his bed over open computers, rushing to find and preserve hidden files.
The tip that led authorities to Deakin came, as they often do, when an online international money transfer service notified an American internet provider about a suspicious account.
Western Union, PayPal, and others have reported concerns in the past — business names in this case are being withheld because of the ongoing investigation. Records in Deakin’s town house included debit cards for money transfer services, including Smart Money and Payoneer.
The raid began just before dawn, as seven vanloads of police, investigators, lawyers, and social workers rolled out of Manila, past rice paddies and water buffalos, and into a town that was once a large US military base, now a major red light district.
The vans passed Fields Avenue, a notorious street lined with bars, strip clubs, and massage parlours; shops advertise Viagra and lingerie-clad women beckon customers.
When they reached Deakin’s apartment, a small cadre went to his door. Even as they burst in, he was streaming illicit content through the Tor network, which disguised his identity. Agents said he had a webpage open to wipe his phone clean.
They tied him up with the first thing they could grab, an iPhone charging cord, before he could hit the button.
“I’m a file pack rat,” said Deakin. “I’ve got files of frigging everything.”
AP and investigators asked him repeatedly why he had images of children engaged in sexual acts on his computer and bondage and fetish tools in his apartment.
“I’m just a costumer,” he said at first, as if the leather wrist restraints and ropes in the second bedroom were just for dress-up.
“I’m schizophrenic, you know,” he later told AP, rotating his finger at his temple.
He described a series of houseguests, people he let crash in his small place from down the street, other countries. Perhaps “some Danish guy” used his computer.
And this: “There was no children in front of the cam in my house, not even dressed, as far as I know, not even with their frigging mothers as far as I know.”
At one point, he told AP the images might have inadvertently slipped in when he downloaded massive files using BitTorrent. BitTorrent is a data tool used legitimately by academics and artists, but also by child pornographers and other criminals because large amounts of digital content can be moved and sorted.
FBI agents looking for abusers search BitTorrent to spot people sharing exploitative images.
Hours after his arrest, wrists tied behind his back, Deakin grew nervous.
“I don’t even know what you’re frigging doing here!” he yelled.
DEAKIN grew up in Peoria, Illinois, he said, “around the corn fields”. His family was splintered, his sister hated him, and he didn’t finish high school, he said. He was licensed as a roofing contractor in his 30s, seasonal work which left winters free. He used the time to study computers.
Illinois court records show Deakin was arrested on marijuana and drunken driving charges several times before visiting the Philippines in 1998. Two years later, he moved there for a job setting up internet service providers and installing Blackmagic livestreaming production programmes.
“The office computers were full of pornography,” Deakin would write to Filipino authorities three years later, when an inter-office argument led to immigration charges. The charges were dismissed. He was supposed to leave the country, but he stayed, remotely running computer systems for clients around the world, and hosting, he said, tens of thousands of websites as well.
In recent years, Deakin said, he earned $30 (€27.60) an hour as a systems administrator. But his home was filled with junk, his refrigerator near empty. Stacks of used egg cartons fell from the shelves, and a half-eaten pot of cold rice sat on the stove.
“You know what you’ve done in this room,” an investigator told Deakin.
She showed him a photo he had of several children. Shrugging, he said one of them was probably a few doors away with her cousin. Minutes later, two girls, 9 and 11 years old, were rescued by police.
AP did not interview the girls Deakin told police about; victims of such raids need immediate and long-term counselling and care. But in the tranquil garden of a shelter for sexual exploitation survivors about 60 miles south of Deakin’s town house, 19-year-old Cassie described her ordeal. AP did not use her whole name to protect her privacy.
The youngest daughter in an impoverished family of 14, Cassie believed the man who came to her village and promised her a better life and family support if she would go to the city with him. When he told her he would be selling her, she had no idea what that meant.
“I was laughing,” she said.
Cassie was 12.
Within months the man bleached her dark skin, straightened her hair, and began waking her at 4 am to meet customers. She started working as a cybersex model.
“He needed some girl to show her whole body in front of the camera,” she said.
He told her it was her job, in exchange for an education.
Over time, six more girls came to live in the house, and one had a baby. At school, Cassie tried to act normal, hiding her secret from classmates. At home she was terrified and thinking about suicide. The abuse ended when her older sister found out. Furious, she went to the police.
Dolores Rubia, who runs aftercare programmes for rescued girls through Washington- based NGO International Justice Mission, said parents and relatives turn to online exploitation for easy money. Some consider it benign, she said, because they think children don’t mind taking off their clothes. But that exposure is abuse, and it often escalates.
“It’s a myth for some of them, that nothing is wrong,” said Rubia. “That, anyway, these children are not physically touched and the perpetrators are actually overseas.”
Buyers abroad also sometimes try to use the lack of contact as an excuse for their crimes.
“The people I was talking to were hurting people, hurting children in a way that I would never have allowed in my presence,” said Scott Peeler, a former Southbridge, Massachusetts, middle school math teacher who admitted he tried to buy live video feeds of children having sex in the Philippines.
“I drifted into a world that repulses me,” he said.
Peeler was sentenced in March to 11 and a half years in prison.
“It’s not just a virtual crime. It is an actual crime,” said human rights attorney Sam Inocencio, who heads International Justice Mission’s Philippines office, which supports local law enforcement with investigators and attorneys.
“Online sexual exploitation is possibly the most evil thing that I’ve seen.”
THE first high-profile international case of livestreaming sexual exploitation of children was reported in 2011 out of the Philippines. The proliferation of smart phones and wi-fi have led to rapid growth.
Perpetrators now use bitcoin or untraceable credit cards. By livestreaming, they bypass digital markers law enforcement embeds in illegal content to catch people downloading, sharing or saving child pornography on computers or in the Cloud.
Once isolated, paedophiles now operate with virtual anonymity, sharing images and children, say experts.
In 2013, online sex exploitation of children gained global attention after researchers at the Netherlands-based nonprofit Terre des Hommes launched a realistic-looking animation of a 10-year-old Filipino girl named Sweetie.
They took the fake girl on chat groups and online forums. Paedophiles swarmed. In 10 weeks, analysts identified 1,000 men in 71 countries who had tried to get illegal images.
Last year, UK-based Internet Watch Foundation worked to remove 57,335 URLs with child sexual abuse imagery. The websites were hosted on 2,416 domains, up from 1,991 in 2015.
The proliferation of crimes, along with new mandatory reporting, led to 8.2m reports last year to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline related to online child sexual exploitation. That compares with 8.3m reports in the 17 years prior.
One of those reports led analysts to a four-time convicted sex offender, Louis Francis Bradley, 66, of Baltimore, Maryland, last year.
He had paid at least 17 people in the Philippines to take sexually explicit photos of prepubescent girls and share them with him on Facebook. He also admitted in March to paying women to expose their genitals using video streaming programmes.
“can u get any really young girls,” he asked in one online chat.
Bradley was sentenced on May 2 to 35 years in prison.
Because it’s a newer crime, legal systems grapple with how to prosecute. In the US, the buyers are typically charged with possessing, distributing or producing child pornography.
In the Philippines, it is a human trafficking crime. In 2015, five people were convicted of online child sex trafficking in the Philippines. Deakin has been charged with cybercrime, child pornography, child abuse, and child trafficking.
Officials at both ends of the abuse agree they need to collaborate to stop it, and last month the US committed $3m.
Philippines National Police’s Liborioi Carabbacan said they’re trying to raise public awareness, letting parents and children know it’s illegal. One woman forced into prostitution as a child turned the cameras on her own kids when she grew up, he said.
“She thought that’s already the norm,” he said.
Deakin’s bust turned out to be one of the largest seizures of its kind in the Philippines, and also a first for investigators on the case who caught the suspect in the act.
His Cheery Mobile Touch HD tablet — which can be wiped clean and reset with a four digit code — had more than 4,000 contacts. One computer had another 13 networked into it, from servers he said around the world. There were 30 hard drives.
“The suspect is really a highly technical person, he is computer savvy, so he was able to hide several computers within the computer,” said Francisco.
Investigators hope digital forensics will lead them to rescue dozens, possibly hundreds, of victims. And they expect to catch more conspirators in the wider syndicate, both in the Philippines and abroad.
Neighbours who gathered to watch the raid knew something was wrong in that house.
“No, no, not drugs,” said a man who rolled up on a bike. “Computers. Sex. Children.”
Josue Santos, who patrols the neighbourhood on foot, said he saw seven children, three boys and four girls, heading into Deakin’s home one evening a few months ago.
Others nodded. Bessie Geronimo, across the street, was teary-eyed. She’d seen children going in and out. Now, she wondered, could she have intervened?
“How could they do such a thing?” Geronimo asked. “Oh, I pity those children.”
Authorities from a village police substation said a housekeeper filed a complaint against Deakin last year: He wasn’t paying her, she said, and she was worried about what he was doing with children in the bedroom with the door closed. They visited his house but had no authority for a raid.
“There are many such places,” said security officer Mike Wood.
Before Deakin was taken to jail, he asked for a cigarette. He asked to use the bathroom. He asked for his Bible. And he said he’d been planning to leave town.
Just one day earlier, he had texted a friend: “I’ve got to get out of here.”
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