While Freida Curry was watching To Catch a Predator on television one night in 2007, her 14-year-old daughter was on the computer down the hall, chatting with one.
Curry eventually discovered the relationship that her daughter had formed with a 38-year-old youth pastor, and she has a simple message for parents: "You need to start being nosy."
The number of child-exploitation cases being prosecuted has not gone up dramatically in the past several years, but law enforcement officers and prosecutors say there has been a change in the methods predators use to commit such crimes.
Ten years ago, parents might have worried about the chat rooms their children visited on a desktop computer. These days, "it's a lot easier (to contact children) now that everybody has the Internet in their pocket," said Det. David Flannery of the Lexington police.
Technology has complicated things a bit for police.
"Every day that we think of a way to combat it, people are thinking of a way to get around us," he said. "It changes every day, and you have to keep up with it."
Using the Internet to entice children for sexual acts is a crime that appears to have exploded since 1998, when the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children began taking tips on such crimes from the public via its CyberTipline.
In 1998, the center received 707 reports of people trying to entice children online for sex. In 2008, the most recent year for which data was available, there were 8,787 reports.
Aside from social media sites such as Facebook and MySpace, there are a multitude of chat rooms and online game sites where child predators go to interact with children, Flannery said.
Computers and cell phones remain the primary means of communication, but game systems including Xbox 360, Nintendo DS and Wii also can be connected to the Internet, giving predators another way to gain access to children electronically, said Erin May Roth, an assistant U.S. attorney and the Project Safe Childhood coordinator for the Eastern District of Kentucky.
Roth said most parents have become more careful about some basics, including keeping the computer in the family room, but more education needs to be done.
"What they don't really think about is the fact that their kids are going to sleep with their phone," she said.
In years past, an adult who had ill intentions toward a child had to have access to the child and build trust in person or on the phone. Now, "there's no barrier between the predator and the children," said Kellie Kozee Warren, program coordinator for Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky.
A frantic mom
Curry, 38, of Richmond, said she discovered the text messages and computer chat logs between her daughter and the pastor, Timothy Scott Richerson, relatively early in the relationship, but not before harm had been done.
Curry said her daughter, who was 14 in 2007, met Richerson on MySpace, when he was posing as a 16-year-old boy.
Eventually, he told her daughter the truth — that he was 38 — but by then, he had gained her trust.
Curry contacted the Richmond Police Department after she found more than 40 text messages between the two on her daughter's cell phone.
"I was frantic," she said. "I was in the worst state I've ever been in. I said, 'I've got to have help. He's touched her. He's seen her.'"
Curry said she soon found more evidence — more than 10,000 pages of messages and videos on the computer.
"I thought for a while I was going to lose my mind," she said.
In 2008, Richerson pleaded guilty and was sentenced in U.S. District Court to 10 years in prison for using a computer to entice the girl to engage in sexual activity.
Curry's daughter is now a successful college student, but Curry said her daughter does not talk about what happened that summer.
Curry does. She has told the story in numerous venues through a relationship she has built with the U.S. Attorney's office in Lexington, and she will soon complete a degree in computer information systems, which she hopes to use to help educate parents about how to protect their children.
"Letting them have all of these gadgets, all of these toys, is not necessarily what's best," she said.
Police are reluctant to share details about the methods they use to track down online predators like Richerson, but the premise is simple, Flannery said: "Anything that a kid can do, we can do."
Flannery is the only Lexington police officer who is assigned full-time to investigate Internet crimes against children. He tackles any cases that involve electronic devices and children, and he gets assistance from The Division of Police's computer forensics unit.
Flannery said his days are varied: When he's not searching for material that involves child exploitation, visiting social networking sites and chatting online, he's busy typing search warrants, corresponding with social services workers and making educational presentations. But it's mostly about protecting children from predators.
In a case last summer, Flannery hopped on the computer and posed as a 14-year-old girl in an Internet chat room, according to court documents. The detective began chatting with Gary Lynn Johnson, 40, of Louisville.
Johnson masturbated in front of a webcam on more than one occasion, according to a police affidavit in support of a search warrant.
On July 6, 2010, he gave the undercover detective his cellphone number. A female detective called and talked to Johnson while he masturbated, according to the records.
"Mr. Johnson on several occasions during the chats requested nude photos of the 14-year-old female juvenile," the affidavit says.
After obtaining a search warrant, police seized a computer and a thumb drive from Johnson's home and a cell phone from the box truck he drove to Lexington when he was arrested on July 19, 2010. Police said Johnson drove to a prearranged location in Lexington, thinking he was going to meet the 14-year-old girl for sex.
Johnson has pleaded not guilty to four counts of prohibited use of an electronic communications system to procure a minor in a sex offense.
In a motion to reduce his bond, Johnson's attorney, J. Gregg Clendenin, argued that Johnson had not planned to have sex with the hypothetical 14-year-old.
Clendenin said that a transcript of Johnson's communications with the undercover detective just minutes before his arrest shows Johnson saying, "We are just meeting, not having sex ... you are too young to have sex, especially with a 38 year old man."
Johnson is scheduled to face trial in February.
A team approach
Sometimes, officers from multiple departments target the same person.
"A lot of people don't know how many of us there are," Flannery said.
Once police officers become aware of such cases, whole teams of officials might examine them.
The Kentucky State Police administer an Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
Police, prosecutors and other interested parties also have joined forces through the U.S. Department of Justice's Project Safe Childhood initiative, launched in 2006, to try to combat the growing problem of child sexual exploitation cases in which technology plays a key role.
"It really emphasizes partnerships," said Roth, the assistant U.S. attorney.
The goal of that effort is to improve investigations and prosecutions.
The Federal Bureau of Investigations, the U.S. Postal Service, the Secret Service and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement are sometimes involved, too.
Roth said the group is so diverse because the cases often involve multiple jurisdictions: Technology allows people to contact victims in other states or share pornographic materials with people anywhere.
"It's generally not going to be something that's targeted to one state," Roth said.
Participants in the task force meet monthly to discuss current and potential cases.
Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn said that in cases in which someone is accused of sexually assaulting a child and producing pornography, the Commonwealth's Attorney and the U.S. attorney might both prosecute.
The federal prosecutor can get stiffer penalties for possession and production, while the state handles the sexual assault component.
Roth said the other goal of the cooperative effort among Project Safe Childhood participants is community awareness to prevent victimization.
Thinking about and talking about such crimes can be difficult, but "only by shining a light on the problem will we ever hope to find a solution for it," she said.