The Kalispell offices for the Department of Homeland Security are bright and clean, with views of downtown and the mountains.
Det. Jeanne Parker can see most of the city’s west side, down Center Street and across to the mall. But with her back to the outside view and her eyes on her computer screen, Parker sees some of the darkest, seediest parts of the Flathead Valley.
It starts many different ways, but usually ends up the same: adults exchanging child pornography, extorting nude photos from children, or trying to meet up with children for sexual activity.
The schism between the light and dark in her office is stunning, and in the middle is Parker, trying to illuminate this shadowy world as the first full-time Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force detective in the Flathead.
Her job is simple, but ever-evolving: protect the children in Northwest Montana from predators on the Internet, a rapidly changing landscape of apps and websites that cater to young users.
With such a dynamic landscape and the persistent, creative nature of humans trying to get what they want despite the legality, Parker isn’t sure law enforcement will ever get ahead of the curve.
“I don’t even think we’ll scrape the top of the iceberg,” she said.
In late August, the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC) ran a proactive operation in the Flathead, setting up a sting that netted seven men who were allegedly seeking sexual contact with a 12-year-old girl.
Kalispell-area residents Justin Allen Zeiss, 34; Joshua Frederick Naethe, 34; Daniel Anthony Hall, 33; Christopher Paul Adams, 37; Benjamin David Emrich, 32; and Karl Cilroy Wortley, 34, all face felony sexual abuse of children charges after the sting, and the seventh man, Curtis Foster of Missoula, will face charges in Missoula’s court.
All of the local men have pleaded not guilty to their charges.
On Sept. 5, Parker said there were more arrests pending in the case. Each of the men arrested allegedly responded to undercover agents posing either as an adult woman offering a 12-year-old girl for sex or as an underage teen.
The sting technically ran for four days, but Parker said the agents did most of their work in three. Six local men arrested in three days is a significant number, she said, because it shows how prevalent this type of crime is in the Flathead.
“These were all six members of our community that were living with us,” Parker said.
Internet crimes are easy for the public to overlook, because it’s a world that tries very hard to stay out of the limelight. It might surprise parents and community members how many kids get involved in these situations, Parker said.
“Sometimes the public doesn’t want to know,” she added.
The ignorance-is-bliss attitude isn’t unique to the Flathead. Tim West, the director of Montana ICAC, said he’s seen the same from all the communities where these proactive stings run.
In Montana, there have been multiple operations since ICAC started in 2007. In Missoula, a three-day sting in 2013 brought in seven arrests, and in Great Falls, a two-day operation netted five arrests. Two one-day operations in Great Falls brought in another five arrests.
“It shows people that unfortunately it’s something that’s going to be very common in your community,” West said.
ICAC is a national organization, and West helped lay its foundation as a police detective on the East Coast before moving to Montana. Before Montana had its own ICAC division, it was a sub-affiliate of the Utah ICAC program.
Montana would get about $10,000 to combat these crimes, West said. Now that the state has its own division, it has a budget of about $250,000 a year, paid through the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Nationally, there are now 61 ICAC task forces, which include 3,000 federal, state, and local law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies.
The stings like the one in August cost tens of thousands of dollars and months to organize, Parker said; child predators don’t troll for victims on a 9-to-5 timetable, and the entire team pulls long days.
Parker is accustomed to such toil. As a detective for the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, she began working on these cases in 2004, but only in her spare time. She was a full-time detective and on the weekends and in the evenings, she put in the extra hours on her computer.
Back when she began, child abuse stemming from the Internet was a reality in the Flathead, but law enforcement hadn’t quite caught up.
“It had been something that was around, but there wasn’t the training for it,” Parker said.
Having been directed and drawn toward sexual assault cases from the beginning of her career, Parker felt the need to explore the seedy side of the Internet, but didn’t know how to go about it.
“I had never dealt with the technical aspects of it,” she said. “The county attorney hadn’t dealt with it either.”
But Marcia Hurd, who was working as a federal prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney in Montana at the time, did have those skills. Hurd mentored Parker, and in one instance, stayed for hours after both their workdays were over to teach the detective.
From then on, she worked on the cases in her spare time. It wasn’t until May, after the Montana ICAC program received a $2 million donation from Whitefish philanthropist Mike Goguen, that a full-time ICAC detective position was created, and Parker got her chance to patrol the Internet with a singular focus.
“Now with this position, I’m really ready to sink my teeth into this,” she said.
There’s urgency to her work, and she knows that if she can catch or deter child abusers, she could potentially save the lives of local children. She recounted one investigation that revealed an adult man had been posing as a teen boy, wooing a 12- or 13-year-old girl from Kalispell online, and then demanding nude photos of the child with threats that he would kill himself if he didn’t get them.
It was traumatic for the girl, and Parker hopes to shield others from a similar or worse experience.
“The pain that was in her voice was just astronomical,” Parker said.
Dealing with some of the worst crimes committed against the most vulnerable section of our population can take its toll, but Parker has a strong foundation.
“I have a wonderful husband and my faith in the Lord,” she said.
She also has the knowledge that her job can create real and lasting change in the lives of these kids and the communities they live in.
“If this stops one person from having an interaction with a child and makes them seek some help, we’ve done something,” Parker said. “If you take a singular event that can change the outcome of somebody’s life, it is being the victim of sexual assault.”
“Crimes against children and women are so heinous,” Mike Goguen said in a Sept. 13 interview with the Beacon. “They have such a long-lasting effect after the crime.”
Donating $2 million to ICAC was a way to protect children – something Goguen repeatedly says is a passion of his – and a way to see his donation make immediate impact on the state he now calls home.
It all started with Two Bear Air, another of Goguen’s philanthropic endeavors in the Flathead. He’s invested more than $10 million in the organization, including purchasing a new Bell 429 helicopter for search and rescue missions, and for all the annual operational costs of two helicopters used in the missions, with no money required from taxpayers.
Two Bear Air has already saved many lives, and it’s one of those programs that has the immediate, direct impact Goguen looks for when he donates to a cause.
“These are the ones that feel so rewarding,” he said.
So when the call came in December 2013 from ICAC requesting air support for the Missoula sting, Goguen gave it the immediate go-ahead. A week or two later, he heard the news of how successful it was, with the arrest of seven people who had answered ads offering a child for sex.
Goguen got a notification that Det. Chris Shermer from Missoula had been looking at his LinkedIn profile online; curious, Goguen looked up Shermer and found a KPAX article from March 2013 that said grant money was running out for the Missoula ICAC detective.
The first line of the article said the loss of grant money would affect the job of a detective whose job it was to protect children.
“That struck me right away,” Goguen said. “It strikes a chord with me.”
He reached out to the detective, and Shermer came to the Flathead in February 2014 to meet, along with ICAC program director West and Parker. The meeting lasted about an hour, and Goguen found himself drawn to help.
“After gruesome story after gruesome story, you’re even more motivated to do something about it,” he said. “One case is too many.”
The group did some math, and Goguen offered $2 million over five years to fund three full-time detective positions and the leftover money to pay for more proactive sting operations.
By June, Parker had her new job, and now there are 14 ICAC detectives in Montana.
Goguen said he takes both protecting children and personal privacy very seriously, but felt there was little in the way of respecting the personal liberties of others to keep him from donating to ICAC.
The program doesn’t randomly screen people’s emails or spy on them, he said. These are people answering ads posted online, and there are more of them than the community would like to think.
With his donation, Goguen knows he’s already made a difference.
“We’ve actually taken child predators off the streets,” he said.
ICAC isn’t just going after an online subset of child predators, he asserted; because the Internet is so pervasive, there’s little chance a predator isn’t using it to find victims or fuel their fantasies.
And instead of waiting to find these people after crimes have occurred, more ICAC funding allows for more proactive operations and for detectives like Parker to patrol the wilds of the Internet with fervor.
“These are wolves among the sheep, and sometimes a shepherd has to take out the wolves,” Goguen said. “This is predator hunting. This is about catching child molesters.”
“Montana is the most amazing state of all, and I think it would be amazing to make it the safest state of all to raise a family,” he added.
Local law enforcement still has work to do after the August sting, Parker said; there were plenty of people chatting with agents about sex with the offered child, but they didn’t make the drive to engage, so they weren’t arrested.
Traveling to meet up with the child shows clear intent, Parker said, which is key to charging and prosecuting these individuals.
Both Parker and West acknowledged there have been accusations of entrapment leveled against ICAC task forces across the country – there is a current case in Florida accusing a sheriff of padding his stats with arrests made in stings where agents were allegedly pushing for sexually explicit conversations when ICAC standards say the suspect should set the tone and pace of the interaction.
West said his agents work with attorneys while setting up a sting operation, and if someone wants to claim entrapment, that’s a case for the courts to handle.
There’s plenty of other work to be done, he said, especially when it comes to educating teenagers about the realities of the Internet. Anyone possessing a nude photo of someone under the age of 18 is possessing child pornography, Parker said, and teenagers don’t seem to comprehend that.
In fact, they don’t typically like knowing law enforcement is on their favorite sites.
“They’re not all big fans of being monitored,” West said. “They don’t realize on the Internet, it’s all public.”
Major companies on the Internet are constantly scanning for such photos, such as Microsoft’s PhotoDNA program, and when one pings in Montana, it is sent to West. He’s had to knock on doors in small towns and tell parents there are nude photos of their children on the Internet.
“We’re not going to prosecute these young men and women because if that’s all we would be doing we’d be constantly prosecuting juveniles for this crime,” he said “It’s better to use it as an educational tool.”
Parker looks forward to spending more time educating kids and parents about the threats online – she favors a free app called “Send This Instead” which provides kids snappy replies they can send to someone asking for nude photos – and working with law enforcement across the state to be a proactive voice in the community.
“I’m not here to judge,” Parker said. “I’m here to protect children.”