The cyber tip came in December 2006 — three days after Christmas.
Computer analysts with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children had received credible evidence that someone in the Medford area had downloaded images of child pornography. They forwarded the tip to the Southern Oregon High-Tech Crimes Task Force, based in Central Point.
Task force supervisor Sgt. Josh Moulin, who serves with the Central Point Police Department, had worked closely with the missing children center. He knew the nonprofit advocacy group gathered solid evidence. "We get 10 to 15 cyber tips a year from them," Moulin said. "So far, every tip except for one has resulted in an arrest and/or conviction."
Moulin acquired the suspect's e-mail and Internet protocol, or IP, address but soon ran into a wall. The suspect was using a laptop to poach wireless Internet from homes and businesses around Medford. Because there was a lag between when the center for missing children received the tip and when it was forwarded to the task force, the suspect was long gone by the time police arrived.
The IP address was linked to several locations across Medford. Each of those "hits" had to be investigated.
Residents and business owners were surprised when police officers arrived asking them about possible child exploitation occurring at their address. No one they spoke to during the initial investigation had any knowledge of child porn appearing on their computers.
It became apparent the suspect was jumping from wireless hot spot to hot spot, hoping to keep police off his trail.
"We were running around the city chasing this suspect around," Moulin said. "It makes our job a little harder when they move around, but we eventually get them."
The suspect was leaving a digital footprint throughout town and keeping one step ahead of the authorities. The most disturbing aspect of this cat-and-mouse game was the possibility the suspect might take his online fantasies into the real world.
"The fear is people who download child pornography are also molesting local children," Moulin said. "We want to get these guys off the street."
Some studies have reported that 45 percent of people who possess child porn have molested children at some point in their lives. Some studies say this is as high as 60 percent, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Eventually, the trail went cold. Moulin and his team were swamped with other cases such as murders, arsons, drug deals and identity thefts. It was impossible to focus on one case as others piled up.
"It was frustrating," Moulin said.
Moulin was a computer geek before he was a cop. He began his police career nearly 10 years ago with the Ashland Police Department. He transferred to Central Point in 2003 and shortly thereafter began brainstorming ways he could combine his computer interests with his work.
In 2005, he began working computer crimes out of a small room on the lower floor of the Central Point police headquarters. He had minimal equipment but made the most of it. His computer investigations were frequently interrupted by domestic violence calls, driving-while-intoxicated cases and car crashes.
"I was still an active patrol officer working graveyard shift at the time," Moulin said. "I tried to fit the computer work between calls."
Eventually, federal grant money started rolling in and the task force started to take shape.
The money allowed Moulin to purchase better equipment, and he received a much-needed partner in 2007 when the Medford Police Department dedicated Detective Brandon Bloomfield to the task force. The team was rounded out by an evidence specialist.
As the task force grew, so did the caseload. The task force probably will work close to 140 cases this year, Moulin said.
"These are often very time-consuming, very complex investigations," Moulin said.
It is not uncommon for task force officers to seize home computers loaded with 800,000 files. Each of these files has to be combed through during forensic examinations because officers never know where a suspect will try to hide child porn or evidence of financial theft.
The task force's recently remodeled headquarters has a server housing 28 terabytes of digital information. To understand the scope of the evidence confronting the task force, consider that the contents of the Library of Congress are equivalent to roughly 10 terabytes.
Moulin hopes to win a grant in the near future to buy a 40-terabyte server.
The task force has expanded its jurisdiction from south of Eugene down to the California border and from the coast to Idaho. In all, the team serves nearly 550,000 Oregonians.
The headquarters contains close to 40 computers and two Macintosh machines. There is a folder stuffed with data cords that can fit any cell phone brought in for examination.
Cell phone forensics keeps the team busy these days. Criminals who think they can avoid prosecution by damaging their phones are in for a rude awakening.
"We had a murder case in which the cell phone was buried for a long time next to the body," Moulin said. "We were still able to get useful info off that cell phone."
Moulin declined to go into the nuts and bolts of computer forensics. He doesn't want criminals to learn tips that could hurt cases.
The team has grown to include officers from Ashland and Grants Pass, an FBI agent and an attorney and legal assistant from the Jackson County District Attorney's Office.
"It will help tremendously to have a prosecutor who is trained to understand computer issues," Jackson County District Attorney Mark Huddleston said. "He will be able to explain these complex cases to a jury, which is a huge benefit."
Medford police Lt. Tim Doney, who supervises the Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement Team, said the high-tech task force is a valuable asset in narcotics cases.
"MADGE benefits from the task force in that drug ledgers and records including photographs can all be stored on these electronic devices," Doney said.
Prior to the local task force, digital evidence had to be shipped to Portland and the Oregon State Police crime lab. The backlogs became so thick it could take months, even a year, for processed evidence to be returned to the originating agency.
Until this year, the task force's major source of funding was the city of Central Point. At the beginning of 2010, the task force partnered with the FBI and now receives the bulk of its money from federal grants, Moulin said.
Right now each officer has a queue of about 30 cases in neat folders sitting beside his computer. There is never a day when a team member has to search for something to work on.
The primary caseload is heavy with child exploitation cases, followed by narcotics work, arson, homicide, identity theft and animal abuse.
In the past 12 months the team has investigated 45 cases of child exploitation, sex abuse and pornography. Crimes against children constitute 30 percent of the task force cases.
"We only see our caseload getting bigger in the future," Moulin said. "We are going to have to keep expanding to keep up."
It is cases such as the 2006 Wi-Fi porn poacher that prove the importance of having a high-tech crimes unit in the Rogue Valley, Moulin said.
On Aug. 29, 2007, the task force received a second tip connected to the Wi-Fi poaching suspect. It was a transcript of an explicit chat between a 21-year-old man and a 13-year-old Texas girl.
The man's information was traced to a home on Front Street in Medford. In November, task force investigators had collected enough evidence through cyber investigation and physical surveillance to serve a search warrant at the home.
They confronted 61-year-old Eric Van Benthuysen, a haggard former transient who posed as a young man online to lure young girls. Inside Van Benthuysen's house, investigators found a laptop he used to pirate Wi-Fi signals all over Medford. They compared the information in the laptop to the previous year's investigation and found it matched.
They also discovered framed photographs depicting child pornography beside Van Benthuysen's computer.
They seized nine pieces of digital evidence to prepare for a detailed forensic investigation — despite having the tangible evidence sitting on their suspect's desk.
"We wanted those computers," Moulin said. "Digital evidence makes for some of the best cases."
Along with downloaded images of child porn, investigators found evidence suggesting Van Benthuysen had attempted to make contact with several young girls online.
Van Benthuysen was arrested on 10 counts of first-degree encouraging child sexual abuse and eventually pleaded guilty to the charges.
"All told, we spent 16 months on this investigation," Moulin said. "Before this task force was started, this case would have been hard to make."
Van Benthuysen never saw the inside of a prison cell for his crimes. He died of natural causes prior to his sentence.
Moulin said he uses this case to teach parents and teenagers about online predators. You never know who is on the other side of the keyboard, he tells the classes he hosts at the task force headquarters.
Moulin sees computer cases growing more intricate in the coming years as iPhones, iPods and iPads become ubiquitous.
"Everybody is carrying around a powerful computer," Moulin said. "But the thing we have to remember is the best cases are made through careful forensics and good, old-fashioned police work."
Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.