Anne Stanton 2/9/09
Todd Heller doesnt seem like a scary guy when you first meet him, but this affable detective with a Colombo-style of speaking softly, carries a powerful stick. Its called software.
Detective Heller is a computer cop and the bane of child pornographers, white collar criminals, e-Bay cheats, credit card thievespretty much anyone who commits a crime and has left bytes of evidence on their computer.
Heller is the only full-time computer copor whats technically known as a computer forensics specialistin Northern Michigan. On the job since 2003, he painstakingly collects evidence from hard drives and passes it onto Noelle Moeggenberg to prosecute.
Working together, this duo has put hundreds of people in prison; a large percentage of whom possessed Internet child pornography. Last week alone, he had three new child porn cases. (Heller investigates all of the child exploitation cases in Northern Michigan.)
Before Detective Heller was certified and could take on all these computer cases, we couldnt prosecute them, said Moeggenberg, an assistant Grand Traverse County prosecutor.
Theyd go to federal investigators or the Michigan State Police lab, and wed wait months and months and monthsoften it was too late when we got the results back.
The efforts of Heller, Moeggenberg, and Lowell Johnson, a retired Leelanau County detective who works on contract, has meant close to a 100 percent conviction rate in Grand Traverse County for child porn crimes.
The work is very difficult. Heller, who works on a shoestring budget, gets a new child porn case about every 10 days.
Ive seen the worst of the worst, Heller said. You name it. Children as young as six months old, babies being molested. Oral sex, sodomy. The hard ones are the videos. Kids are screaming and cryingthese kids are three or four, and they dont understand. Its hard, but I do this job to get pedophiles in prison.
It all seems pretty clear-cut. People look at child pornography, and they go to prison. But area mental health professionals, alarmed by lengthy prison sentences for even one computer download, say its time policy makers take a closer look at whats going on.
Back in the olden days, a teen-age boy might buy a Playboy and show it to his friends. In fact, it wasnt until 1976 that laws went on the books outlawing the production of child pornography.
Now theres the Internet, and teenage boys best beware. Possessing a picture of a topless teenage girl whos 17 or younger is a state felony. Taking the photo and emailing it to a friend can mean up to 20 years in prison.
In fact, looking at a semi-nude photo of a 17-year-old will get you in more trouble than having actual sex with a 16-year-old.
Heller admits the law has its vagaries.
Sixteen is the legal consent age to have sex. Some 20, 30 or 40-year-olds can legally have sex with a 16-year-old. But if you take pictures, now you are manufacturing child pornography and thats a state crime.
There was a 24-year-old Traverse City man who had sex with a 16-year-old and they took 80 pictures of their sexual encounter. Now hes in prison for three to seven years. If he had just had sex with her, hed be fine, Heller said.
But there was a complicating issue; Heller found child pornography of much younger children on the mans computer. He took a plea, but could have gone to prison for up to 20 years for manufacture. (The mans attorney, Mike Stein, said his client would have been prosecuted whether or not theyd found any additional images.)
The issue of child porn is a big one for teen-age boys who might take photos of their girlfriends. Should that be a felony? I dont know if its between two consenting individuals and between their phone and computers, said attorney Clarence Gomery. All it takes is one second to think theyre doing something funny, and it can get them on a sexual predator list and convicted of a felony.
Moeggenberg said she rarely prosecutes this kind of case unless theres something deeper thats amiss. One such case was a 48-year-old uncle having sex and taking photos of his 16-year-old niece, newly adopted from a different country.
Mike Nunn, who has counselled sex offenders, questions the wisdom of a law that punishes you more harshly for looking at sexy pictures than actually having sex. Thats absolutely crazy, he said.
Nunn became concerned about child pornography laws after a friend was convicted for possession of child pornography. His friend was deeply depressed at the time and drinking heavily. He needed an assessment and treatment; I dont think his year in prison did anyone any good.
He believes the law should make a distinction between young victims and older teenagers, who can be held responsible for their actions.
John Ulrich, a Traverse City psychologist, who treats sex offenders, agrees.
What we really need to do is routinely assess for pedophilia, and there are ways to do that. Most normal males will have some degree of arousal for post-pubescent girls15, 16, 17 year old girls, but once a person figures out their age, most will kick themselves, and say, Whoa and back up. But it isnt abnormal. Theres a natural orientation toward youth and healthy bodies. But the pre-pubescent children is where we get the real, deep area of concern. In that sense, that doesnt show up by accident, theres something there and it needs to be prosecuted.
Ulrich said the real issue is this: its unknown what percentage of people who do look at child pornography ever go on to commit an offense involving children.
He believes its a much smaller percentage, given that we know millions of people order child pornography online, but the same number do not commit sex abuse crimes. We are prosecuting as if they had sexually abused the child; they have by supporting that industry, but they get larger sentences than people who have had hands-on offenses.
And thats a real problem. At this point, if the feds pick it up, theres a mandatory minimum of five years in prison for one single purchase. I have a client who made two downloads. He just went into prison for five years. Locally, we have a man who took a picture of a womans breast; he was in his early 20s, she was 17. Legally, he could have sex with her, but he couldnt take a picture of her. They prosecuted that case and he landed in jail.
My complaint is Todds doing his job, but we need to have more careful review of the prosecution and the charging. That needs to be thought through on a case-by-case-basis.
One attorney, who didnt want his name associated with this issue, accepts the notion that a goal of these laws is to reduce demand and its manufacture. But it hasnt worked.
There are still millions and millions of users. Why pick up the stray consumer and nail them with five years of prison at a taxpayer cost of $35,000 a year?
In other areas of crimes, the law goes much more heavily against the dealerthe drug smuggler or the prostitute, for example. But with a recent Michigan Court of Appeals decision, a person can get the same punishment as a manufacturerup to 20 yearsfor simply copying a child porn image onto a CD.
Ulrichs final complaint is that people mistakenly believe that sex abusers are untreatable. In fact, thats not truethat misconception came from an early study of an unrepresentative group of sex offenders who had been clinically diagnosed with lacking any kind of conscience.
Sex offenders have one of the lowest recidivism rates of any group incarcerated. Weve got lots of feel good legislation out there, but 75% never go back to prison on a new conviction based on recent state statistics, Ulrich said.
Ulrich said this erroneous belief causes people to think treatment is hopeless. It is not. Treatment is routinely offered at the state prison level, but in federal prisons its spotty to nonexistent.
Heller said those accused of possession are entitled to jury trials; the prosecution must show an *intentional* search of child pornography and a preponderance of images.
An easy way of explaining it is, Lets say I see 1,000 porn images, two of them are child porn. The excuse is, Yeah I do porn, but I dont look for child porn. Now lets say he has 999 images that are child porn and one is adult porn; we know we have a guy whos looking for it.
Still, its not always easy to say. Case in point: In November, a 22-year-old Traverse City man, Brandon Smith, reached his hand under the mini-skirt to touch the bottom of a 14-year-old girl at a Target store.
When Heller heard about the incident the next morning, he immediately obtained a search warrant to seize Smiths computer.
I thought, if he had a computer, I guarantee hes doing illegal stuff on the Internet. So I brought in the computer for analysis. Come to find out, he had images of 269 minors, 13 and 14 year olds, with some as young as 10 years old.
The children were all wearing clothes; most of the images were from their MySpace pagessome of with whom Heller was having sex chats. He told them he was looking to have sex with girls under the age of 15 and bragged about having sex with his little sister (he doesnt really have a sister). Two teen girls emailed a total of four pictures of themselvesone posed nude and the other was topless.
Moeggenberg explained that chatting online with under-age girls is not a crime, no matter how graphic. Settting up a meeting with them with the intention of having sex is, but Smith didnt do that.
As it turns out, Smith pled guilty to a CSC-4, a misdemeanor, punishable by up to two years in prison. If hed been found guilty of possession, his prison term would have been up to four years.
He did have some pornography on his computer, but he didnt have a large quantity. Wed have to prove he intended to get it, and it would have been a really tough case. But the images were good evidence for the sexual assault, Moeggenberg said.
Heller hasnt given up though. He shipped Smiths computer to other authorities, hoping they could better access the entire computer. He also contacted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the FBIs Innocent Images Unit, along with Smiths name and email address.
He routinely does this. Hes a man on a mission.
Perhaps the most powerful use of Hellers computer evidence is to support a questionable case of abuse. Moeggenberg said there is a huge correlation with people who sexually abuse children and also view the stuff on line. (To clarifythats different than the unknown correlation of people who view porn and then abuse a child.)
Heller said he had a case with a 40-year-old arrested for molesting his seven-year-old daughter.
He said that he was lying on the couch at the time, drunk and didnt know what he was doing. But I examined his computer, and discovered that he looks for incest stories and does searches for Lolita and nude girls. At the trial, when he said, Im not interested in kids, I was able to prove, that, in fact, he was very interested in kids.
Child pornography is a painful topic most people wish to avoid. Bottom line, a prosecutor can and should use his best judgment for those cases tried in circuit court, said Gomery, a former prosecutor himself.
The law has to be tempered to consider the circumstances and whats fair, he said.
When it comes to federal law, though, a single purchase of child porn means a mandatory sentence of five years, no questions asked. And despite overcrowded prisons and trillions of dollars of national debt not too many people are actually asking any questions.
On the job
Detective Todd Hellers mission? Find digital evidence of guilt to put criminals behind bars. Hes the analyst behind the areas most high profile cases. Here are a few of them:
In November of 2006, federal investigators called the sheriffs department to report that Thomas Jalovec, a live-in residence hall counselor at Interlochen Arts Academy, had used his credit card to buy child pornography from a website.
A search of Jalovecs room revealed that he had a profound problem. There were huge piles of CDs, DVDs, VHS tapes, and a zip disk, all of which contained pornography involving young children and very young children having sexsometimes with other children, other times with adults. Nearly 200 child porn images were deleted on Jalovecs computer, but Heller easily recovered them. Nothing you delete is truly deleted. Theres always a crumb trail, he said.
Heller learned that Jalovec had no criminal record, but had been forced to resign from a teaching position at a Swartz Creek charter school, according to his former roommate.
Jalovec had taken numerous photos of Interlochen students, but none of the kids were undressed. There were, however, sexually suggestive letters and photos of several students.
The couple of kids I was very interested in speaking with left nearly immediately. Those kids were gone within a day, Heller said. I should add that people at Interlochen were very, very cooperative.
Parents ultimately told officials that if there were any issues with Jalovec, they had been taken care of.
Jalovec was convicted in April of 2007 on four counts of possessing sexually abusive material of children. He could be released as early as this month.
In July of 2004, the father of a 16-year-old girl was looking over her shoulder while she was chatting on AIM. Someone with the screen name of PPTraffic sent her an extremely graphic sexual comment.
Heller decided to pose undercover as a 15-year-old girl and set up an AOL Instant Messenger account with the screen name of ShyKelly 608. He sent a message to PPTraffic, who started asking ShyKelly if shed ever had a boyfriend, how much sex shed had and if shed ever had oral sex. PPTraffic said he was 21-years-old and would like to meet her. His messages included the sound of a woman moaning erotically, and he suggested that ShyKelly perform oral sex.
Things came to a head the next day when PPTraffic and the girl, arranged to meet at the Grand Traverse Mall. Rob borrowed his sisters black Grand Prix, which he parked at the mall. He was immediately surrounded by cops.
The mans name was Robert Haas, and he was 29, not 21. At the time, he was also chatting with another 15-year-old girl, first via instant messaging and then by phone. He had also invited her to the mall. She declined, but did send a semi-nude photo of herself to him.
In fact, still another girl, age 15, told police that a few months before, in April of 2004, Haas had chatted with her on the Internet and they met twiceonce in the rear parking lot of the former library on Sixth Street and later at the Sierra Motel, where he attempted to have sex with her. She escaped the motel by using the back stairs. Haas served 19 months in prison, and has since been released.
Last summer, Heller helped the FBI bust a major credit card ring. Criminals in Arizona had hacked into the computer database of Red Mesa Grille in Traverse City, and stolen 50 customers credit card numbers. The case is still going through the federal courts system.
(Look for Part 2 of sex crimes where youll read how Detective Heller nearly lost his life at the hands of a violent sex offender.)