Detective Tim Ball's office phone rang as he browsed through a list of upcoming episodes on Oprah.com. It was a man whom Ball had tried to reach all morning.
Ball offered the caller, a college-educated man in his thirties, no details about why he had been calling.
He didn't tell him about the boy, who had once lived with the man and told counselors and social workers the man had touched him in the shower. Or that the 5-year-old boy says the man asked him to touch him back.
Ball and the man chatted, then he hung up the receiver.
"He did it," Ball said. A guiltless person would have immediately asked Ball why he needed to come into the station, the detective explained. The suspect only asked what time would be convenient to come in for an interview.
The suspect called back a couple of hours later as Ball looked up the man's profile on Facebook. Anxiety was getting the best of the suspect. The man wanted to know if he should bring a lawyer.
The cases of Lexington police's Crimes Against Children unit often begin with a phone call. It could come from a counselor, a doctor or a teacher, among others. And then it gets to police.
But the job of Ball and the other detectives is not like what you see on TV police dramas, such as NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Facts that emerge from the cases the Lexington police detectives handle are more complicated. The evidence is often disturbing and shocking, even to the most seasoned officers.
The unit handles rapes, runaways, Internet predators, incest, molestation and murder. Most of the cases they handle involve sexual abuse.
The detectives listen to the details no one wants to hear. They interview children who have been raped and abused. They interview the adults who rape and abuse them.
The detectives talk to abused children who clam up in interviews because they don't want to remember. They hear the disclosures of pedophiles but always wonder whether they've hurt any other children. And when the evidence isn't strong enough or a victim shuts down, they have had to watch abusers walk away.
The detectives do the job and take it home with them. The bad cases haunt them. The good cases, when an abuser is convicted and a child is saved, keep them going.
"My victims here are innocent, very innocent victims," said Detective Albert Johnson, a former homicide detective. "They have no choice. There's a bigger reward in catching these guys than a drug dealer killing a drug dealer."
The man who called Detective Ball arrived at the station the next day, a half hour early and without an attorney.
He kept his hands folded in the lap of his track pants as Ball wrote down his information.
"Why do you think you're here?" Ball asked.
The man said he didn't know.
"What I do is try to gather information," Ball explained. "I realize that there are two sides to every story ...
"People come to me and lie. I can't help somebody that doesn't want to tell the truth. I understand that people do things in moments, in spurts. Sometimes people make bad decisions."
The man reiterated that he didn't know why he was being interviewed in police headquarters. But he acknowledged that he knew the boy.
A few minutes later, the man paused. Then he told Ball he needed an attorney.
Ball stepped out of the room and walked into his sergeant's office, where a social worker was also watching on a monitor.
"He lawyered up," Ball said.
About 10 minutes later, the detective slumped into his chair, pulled up his Internet browser and began looking up sports Web sites.
There was nothing else he could do with the case that day.
"Are the (victim's) statements good enough to make a charge?" Detective Albert Johnson asked Ball.
"No," he replied.
Johnson: "That sucks."
The eight men in the unit have formed a family in their corner of the fourth floor of police headquarters. By coincidence, they are all male. All of the detectives have been with the unit for at least five years.
They sit just a few feet away from one another in a small cluster of cubicles that they will soon abandon for a more spacious area a floor below. On busy days, it's hard to hear over the phone conversations detectives have with witnesses and suspects.
They often pair up on cases, using each other's strengths and weaknesses to gather enough evidence and interviews to present a strong case against an alleged abuser. Officers visit schools, homes and crime scenes to interview potential witnesses and collect evidence.
On the long, slow days between cases, they spend time plotting practical jokes.
Once, the men plastered Ball's cubicle with his business cards. Another time, they wrapped everything from the rolling chair to the stapler in aluminum foil.
The humor keeps their minds from dwelling on the crimes they see.
Behind a box of Thin Mints, there's a black binder on a shelf over Johnson's head that contains the ongoing case of a murdered toddler named Katelynn Stinnett. Brian Crabtree, 18, is accused of rape, sexual abuse and murder in Katelynn's death. He has pleaded not guilty.
Investigators say that on Nov. 25, Crabtree gave the 2-year-old girl a bath, scooped her up then dropped her from a height about level with his shoulders. She struck her head on the floor, and then Crabtree raped her, Sgt. Jesse Harris, a detective in the unit, told a judge in December.
Crabtree, a friend of the child's father, admitted the crimes during a taped interview with the unit. His case is pending.
The detectives say it's not uncommon for a suspect to confess.
"Sometimes, they want help," Johnson said. "Sometimes I think they tell you things because they hope you will understand."
A solid confession can be a slam dunk for the detectives. Confessions corroborate witness statements, hold up well in the court system and often help convict a person who has abused a child. It also keeps the child from having to testify in court, which can be intimidating and traumatic, the detectives say.
But that comes with a mental price tag. The detectives must reason, rationalize and sympathize with the suspects in a psychological game that wears on everyone.
"You kind of have to develop the skill to befriend someone who's despicable, to be honest," said Lt. John Gensheimer.
That means no yelling and screaming like the detectives on TV.
"You want to, but you can't," Johnson said. "If you want somebody to talk to you, the best way to have them talk to you is to be nice."
Lies become routine in the interrogation room. It's up to the detectives to make suspects feel comfortable by minimizing what they've done, Johnson said.
They rationalize: She did dress older than she looked. I could see how you would be attracted to her. I understand how you feel.
"Sometimes I feel dirty when I walk out of there," he said. "But I keep telling myself it's for the right reason."
"I'm here to help kids. That's my job."
The children and abusers at the center of the unit's sexual abuse investigations tend to follow the same pattern.
Perpetrators usually go after children with problems at home and bad reputations, the detectives say, because they are easier to discredit than honor-roll students.
The abusers aren't the "stranger danger" assailants adults warn their kids about. They are guardians, family friends, relatives and caregivers whom parents and their children come into contact with every day.
Sexual abuse, especially when it involves children, is one of the only crimes people wait to report, the detectives say. Years can pass before a victim is ready to disclose a sexual assault.
The gap between the crime and the disclosure cripples efforts to collect physical evidence, which can weaken a case in the eyes of CSI-era juries. Jurors often "want something clear cut," which is difficult in abuse cases, Gensheimer said.
"It's never like a puzzle. It never fits quite right together," he said.
There usually aren't witnesses in sexual abuse cases. It's an offense that happens in private, behind closed doors and in dark rooms, the detectives say. And as a case gets older, physical evidence disappears
"A lot of time you just can't ever know," Gensheimer said. "The truth is we very rarely find out what the truth is."
Without physical evidence and witnesses, the detectives have to rely heavily on a suspect's confession. This makes suspect interrogations a critical part of the detectives' work.
"If you can't get the perpetrator to talk, the child suffers," Johnson said.
The job impacts all aspects of the detectives' lives.
"You encounter some trauma in people's lives over and over again," Gensheimer said. "It can be emotionally draining."
Johnson, for example, clings to his private life. He commutes 30 minutes from his house in Lawrenceburg instead of living in Fayette County. He keeps his gun in a holster wrapped around his ankle instead of on his hip so the children he interviews don't get scared or distracted.
"I live out of the county because I don't want to be a police officer off duty," he said.
Johnson, like all of his colleagues in the unit, is a typical dad.
He is the only man in a house full of women — his wife of 18 years and three daughters, ages 11, 15 and 17. He has attended dozens of youth soccer games and keeps the pictures on his computer at work.
"I love being a dad, and I think that's how I've managed to survive," Johnson said.
Still, the work manages to trickle into family life.
This was the first year Johnson let his oldest daughter sign up on Facebook and get her own e-mail. But Johnson and his wife have the passwords, and they check the accounts daily. Johnson sits one desk away from the detective who investigates Internet crimes against children. He began to talk to his kids about "good touches and bad touches" when they were about 8 years old. He'd occasionally quiz them: What's the safety rule about getting in a car? What's the safety rule about where you aren't allowed to be touched?
"Sometimes I feel like it's unfair that my kids have to know all this," Johnson said. "But it's unfair that I have to know all this."
Johnson has told his wife about only one case on which he was working. She can't listen to any more.
"It really upset her," Johnson said.
The children are why Johnson and the other detectives came to the unit and have stayed on for so many years.
"I have real victims," Johnson said.
A white piece of paper with a child's unsteady script hangs beneath the pages of subpoenas and paperwork tacked to the walls of Johnson's cubicle.
A 7-year-old girl scrawled the note in green marker during an interview with Johnson. He talked to the girl at her elementary school about reports that her mother's boyfriend touched her inappropriately. The girl kept her head down during the interview, raising it only to draw on the paper.
She didn't answer many of Johnson's questions. But when he was about to leave, she handed him the note.
"To Detective Johnson," she wrote. "Thank you for helping me!"