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Crime & Courts

Wounded warriors take on child porn in HERO program

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Published:   |   Updated: February 22, 2014 at 08:50 AM

TAMPA — Men who have seen and suffered the horrors of combat steel themselves each day for a job some find just as wrenching: fighting child sex crimes back home.

“I am just dealing with a different kind of terrorist,” said retired Marine Cpl. Justin Gaertner, a 25-year-old native of New Port Richey who lost both legs above the knees three years ago while sweeping for mines in Afghanistan.

Gaertner is an unpaid intern in a new program that provides training in high-tech computer forensics to wounded, injured and ill special operations forces members to help federal agents investigating online child sexual exploitation.

The program is called HERO, for Human Exploitation Rescue Operative Child-Rescue Corps.

Those who fight child exploitation welcome the help because they say they are outmanned by pornographers.

“There are special agents who refuse to do these investigations,” said Kevin Power, a computer forensics special agent with Homeland Security Investigations in Tampa who is helping to train Gaertner. “And those who do it get burned out on it. But you can't let these people go. Someone has to put them in jail.”

Power has investigated child exploitation since 1997.

Gaertner joined the military at 18 because he “didn't want another man protecting my family's freedom.”

He feared his injury would keep him from serving. But he has learned to walk again with the help of prosthetics, and, like other HERO interns, he is confident he is the man for this new mission.

“We have a special mindset,” said 31-year-old David Blau, a former Marine sergeant who interns alongside Gaertner at Homeland Security Investigations in Tampa.

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Blau, a Fort Lauderdale native, served two tours in Iraq before head trauma from a blast in Fallujah forced him into civilian life.

“I have three sons — 10, 8 and 6 — but I have been brainwashed to move on from whatever it is, to put anything ugly behind me and keep fighting,” Blau said. “I can keep going with my life without letting it affect me.”

As computer forensics agents, the two Marines find, retrieve and catalog electronic evidence on computers, flash drives and hard drives and other devices, using meticulous procedures that ensure a court it has not been altered. Gaertner compared the work to the retrieval of blood, DNA and other evidence by crime scene investigators.

Since 2003, Homeland Security Investigations has arrested more than 10,000 people for crimes against children, including the production and distribution of online child pornography, traveling overseas for sex with minors, and sex trafficking of children. In 2013, more than 2,000 people were arrested by special agents and more than 900 children were rescued.

Homeland Security Investigations could do even more with more assistance, said Grier Weeks, executive director in Knoxville, Tenn., with the anti-crime lobby National Association to Protect Children. The association provides private money for the training, equipment and other needs that make the HERO program possible.

Nationwide, 17 veterans are working as interns in the program. Weeks hopes to have 200 HERO graduates battling child exploitation as computer forensics agents within the next five years.

“Law enforcement is completely overwhelmed in trying to stop child exploitation,” Weeks said. “The average backlog of child exploitation cases for a law enforcement agency is nine months.”

“The bulk of the problem is in the forensics,” said Carissa Cutrell, a spokeswoman in Tampa for Homeland Security Investigations. “We have a limited number of computer forensics agents, and that's where the issue begins. Our case agents can investigate child exploitation cases all day, but the electronic media has to be analyzed to present a case for federal prosecution.”

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Weeks said the story of Somer Thompson is an example of what happens when law enforcement can't keep up.

Thompson was a 7-year-old girl from Orange Park, near Jacksonville, who was abducted and murdered by Jarred Harrell in 2009.

Harrell was already on the radar of law enforcement because his roommates reported him for having child pornography. But lacking computer forensics experts, investigators were still determining how to proceed on the case when the girl was killed.

“That man should not have been walking around,” Weeks said. “HERO hopes to prevent more stories like this.”

Homeland Security Investigations has no money to hire more forensics agents. The HERO internships provide the agency free help.

Since Gaertner and Blau joined the Tampa staff in November, the child exploitation case backlog has been cut in half.

When the yearlong internship is up on July 31, Weeks hopes the federal government sees the value of the program and funds it.

If not, Gaertner and Blau will leave with the knowledge, skills and experience to apply for careers with federal, state and local police agencies or other employers in the field of computer forensics.

“They help us battle child exploitation, and we provide them training for a new career,” Weeks said. “It is a great partnership. Every law enforcement agency will want to hire these interns.”

Weeks said HERO was the idea of brothers John and James Melia. John founded the Wounded Warrior Project. James is an FBI agent who specializes in child exploitation. When James lamented how outnumbered he was, John suggested approaching wounded veterans to help.

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The HERO program was developed by Homeland Security Investigations, the Tampa-based U.S. Special Operations Command and the National Association to Protect Children.

It involves 10 weeks of intensive computer forensics training followed by 10 months of practical training experience helping agents with Homeland Security Investigations on criminal investigations and prosecutions.

Previous computer skills are not necessary.

“My knowledge was how to post on Facebook,” Gaertner said.

Homeland Security Investigations handles crimes that cross the U.S. border. Its work in child exploitation dates to pedophiles mailing child pornography to one another. With evolving technology, the crime — like many forms of communication — has become mostly Internet-based.

With a click of a button, a pedophile can share and receive child pornography with anyone in the world.

Gaertner and Blau said other law enforcement agencies already have expressed interest in hiring them, but they hope to remain with Homeland Security Investigations because they see the work as defending their country.

“My service was cut short,” Gaertner said. “This has allowed me to transfer what I did in the military to the civilian world. I have the knowledge and skill set to track down these individuals.”

Blau was working for a cable company in Oklahoma when he learned of the internship. He believed so deeply in the cause that he relocated to Tampa for the yearlong internship while his family remained at home. Like all HERO interns, he gets no pay beyond any veterans benefits he may be already be eligible for.

“I'm out here trying to make this happen,” he said. “I miss my kids, but by doing this I can protect them and countless others.”

 

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

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