A Locker, a Chirp: How Tiny Clues Help Solve Child Sex Cases

It was the odd-looking locker handles that caught their eye.
Investigators spent hours poring over graphic images of little boys changing in and out of their swimsuits at what looked like a YMCA. They were hunting for any clue to help them identify the location — and ultimately, the victims and the person who exploited them.
Then they noticed that the locker handles had unusual plastic hooks. They scrubbed the photos to remove the images of children, then sent the pictures to locker manufacturers. One of them recognized the lockers and said they had been installed at YMCAs. Eventually, investigators matched the photos to a YMCA in Sandusky, Ohio. That led to the suspect, a former Boy Scout leader.
These weren’t FBI or local police, but investigators from the agency that’s the poster child for President Donald Trump’s polarizing immigration policies: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations section, tasked with investigating crime, has a Child Exploitation Investigations lab where agents scour disturbing photos and videos of child sexual abuse.
They look for unlikely clues that help them identify the children and bring their abusers to justice. In one case, it was the loud, persistent chirping of a bird. Another time, it was unusual playground equipment.

Erin Burke, Section Chief of the Child Exploitation Investigations Unit at Homeland Security, poses inside the Victim Identification Lab, part of Homeland Security’s Child Exploitation Investigations Unit, in Fairfax, Va., Nov. 22, 2019.“We are looking at the hidden details, the things people aren’t looking at,” said Special Agent Erin Burke, the section chief.
The work of Homeland Security Investigations agents has led to thousands of child exploitation-related arrests. But being part of ICE has taken a toll. Funding for HSI has fallen as a greater share of ICE’s budget is devoted to removing immigrants. And the association with ICE has created friction.
Some cities and police departments refuse to comply with ICE on immigration matters, like alerting them to criminal suspects wanted for crossing the border illegally. Sometimes that bleeds into the HSI investigators’ work, too. Just having the email end in “ice.dhs.gov” can cause problems.
“Ninety-nine percent of what we do here has no immigration nexus,” Burke said. “But people have a hard time understanding this.”
ICE’s involvement in child pornography investigations dates back to when hard-copy images were traded over borders. Now it’s all online. The internet has made it so investigators around the globe can’t keep pace with the tens of millions of graphic materials available today. It’s exploded in part thanks to cheaper online storage and easier encryption tools. The dark web gives additional cover to perpetrators. It has made them bolder, their abuse more graphic and disturbing, the work of the investigators more difficult.
The lab was created in 2011 to look for clues within images to help find child victims. It has three analysts and one special agent. They work in a small windowless room in a nondescript office building in the Virginia suburbs outside Washington. A sign on the door says in red bold letters: “Examination of graphic material in progress.”
Inside, new technology meets old: Fluorescent office lights are turned down and specialized blue lights glow. Giant, state-of-the-art computers with high-definition screens are set up alongside old police sketches of faces.
The cases come to them from local police, or international investigators who notice American victims. It can take two weeks, two days, two years to identify the children. Some they can’t find. Those children haunt them.
In many cases, graphic images are accompanied by everyday shots of the child.
“They want to show they have access to a child,” Burke said. “So the ‘before’ images become a part of the story for them almost as much as the graphic images.”

A computer forensic analyst reviews a case inside the Victim Identification Lab, part of Homeland Security’s Child Exploitation Investigations Unit, in Fairfax, Va., Nov. 22, 2019. TIn one case, an analyst examined images he received from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a clearinghouse and reporting center for issues on the prevention of child victimization.
 One photo showed, a girl, maybe 4 years old, from the back. She was scrambling atop a rock, her curly blonde hair in pig tails. The analyst photoshopped the victim out and sent the photo of the rock and the surrounding foliage to a horticulture expert at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, who narrowed the location down to the southern U.S.
Next, the analyst looked at playground equipment in another “clean” image. He sent the photo to playground manufacturing companies and safety experts who could pinpoint where the equipment was installed, smack in the middle of a Houston neighborhood.
They sent their research to Texas field agents, who went door-to-door, asking schools, neighbors, businesses, anyone, if they’d seen the little girl, and eventually found the victim — and the suspect.
The girl’s father pleaded guilty last June and was sentenced to 35 years for exploitation. But by then, images of the girl had been widely circulated. They were found in at least 222 collections, officials said.
In another case, analysts heard strange bird chirping in an abuse video. They isolated the sound and send it to an ornithologist who identified the bird and its migratory patterns. That led them to three suspects, the last of whom pleaded guilty last month. They are expected to be sentenced to a minimum of 15 years.
In the locker room case, a 39-year-old man pleaded guilty last month to sexual exploitation of a children and will be sentenced in January.
“The bad guys will always be smarter,” Burke said. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t have the tools, the expertise and the boots-on-the-ground hard work to make a dent.”
The lab is a small part part of HSI, which has 7,000 agents tasked with workplace enforcement, human trafficking investigations, child exploitation investigations, plus drugs and financial crime.
 In the budget year that ended Sept. 30, HSI agents and investigators initiated 4,224 child exploitation cases that resulted in 3,771 arrests and identification of 1,066 victims from. Some of those cases came from information gleaned through the victim identification lab.
The previous two budget years each saw about 4,000 investigations but lower arrests and fewer victims identified, according to the data.
The president’s budget requests for HSI have declined over the past few years while requests for ICE’s for immigration enforcement and removal operations money has increased, a reflection of Trump’s intense focus on reducing immigration. For the new 2020 budget year, it’s up about to around $1.7 billion — but in 2018 it was $2.1 billion. Meanwhile, ICE’s removal operations requests have increased from $4 billion to $5.1 billion for this budget year.
Burke notes that working in the lab is “not for everyone.” Coping can be tough. 
Some of the team members have children and have become wary of babysitters. They don’t want to leave their kids with anyone in a room, especially men.
But they all feel a sense of duty, drawn to the job for the simple fact of saving a child from harm.
“If I don’t do it, who will? If not me, who will find these children?” said the analyst who uncovered the locker room link. He didn’t want his name publicized out of concern for his investigative work.
The agency has therapists available to help lab staff. Analysts tell each other to step away if something is particularly horrifying. There’s no maximum amount of time someone can work in the lab, but when someone suddenly realizes they’ve had enough, they can transfer quickly to another department.
“It takes a special kind of person to do this work,” Burke said. “But when you save a child, when you get the call that a victim has been rescued, it makes everything worth it.”

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Disappearing Frontier: Alaska’s Glaciers Retreating at Record Pace

Alaska will soon close a year that is shaping up as its hottest on record, with glaciers in the “Frontier State” melting at record or near-record levels, pouring waters into rising global seas, scientists said after taking fall measurements.
Lemon Creek Glacier in Juneau, where records go back to the 1940s, had its second consecutive year of record mass loss, with 3 meters erased from the surface, U.S. Geological Survey glaciologist Louis Sass told Reuters.
Melt went all the way up to the summit, said Sass, one of the experts who travel to benchmark glaciers to take measurements in the fall.
“That’s a really bad sign for a glacier,” he said, noting that high-altitude melt means there is no accumulation of snow to compact into ice and help offset lower-elevation losses.
At Wolverine Glacier on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage, loss was the second highest in a record that goes back to the 1960s. Sass said it failed to match the record set in 2004 only because so much of the glacier had already melted.
“The lower part’s completely gone now,” he said.

FILE – U.S. President Barack Obama views Bear Glacier on a boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park in Seward, Alaska, Sept. 1, 2015.Drastic melting was also reported at Kenai Fjords National Park, which former President Barack Obama once visited to call attention to climate change. There, Bear Glacier, a popular tourist spot, retreated by nearly a kilometer in just 11 months, according to August measurements by the National Park Service.
“It’s almost like you popped it and it started to deflate,” said Nate Lewis, a Seward-based wilderness guide who takes travelers into the new lake that has formed at the foot of the shrinking glacier.
Even one of the few Alaska glaciers that had been advancing, Taku just southeast of the city of Juneau, is now losing ice at a fast clip.
Particularly ominous is the high altitude at which Taku is melting, said Mauri Pelto, who heads the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project. This year, the summer melt reached as high as 1,450 meters, 25 meters above the previous high-altitude record set just last year, he said.
Casting off chunks
Now that it is retreating, Taku is expected to start casting off big ice chunks, increasing Alaska’s already significant contribution to rising sea levels, according to a study co-authored by Sass and Shad O’Neel, a glaciologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. The study is scheduled to be presented at the annual conference of the American Geologic Union next week in San Francisco.

FILE – Chugach National Forest ranger Megan Parsley holds photos showing this summer’s ice loss at the face of Portage Glacier, Alaska, Aug. 17, 2019.Alaska recorded its warmest month ever in July and the trend has continued.
“Alaska is on pace to break their record for warmest year unless December is dramatically cooler than forecasted,” Brian Brettschneider, a climatologist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ International Arctic Research Center, said in a Dec. 1 tweet.
Alaska’s glaciers account for far less than 1 percent of the world’s land ice. But their melt contributes roughly 7 percent of the water that is raising the world’s sea levels, according a 2018 study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters and co-authored by O’Neel.
There are also local impacts. Scientists say glacial melt affects salmon-spawning streams and harms marine fish and animal habitats. It is creating new lakes in the voids where ice used to be, and outburst floods from those lakes are happening more frequently, scientists say.
Changes in the glaciers and the ecosystems they feed has been so fast that they are hard to track, said O’Neel at USGS, who measured the melt at Wolverine Glacier in September.
“Everything’s been pretty haywire lately.”

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Attorney Suggests $190 Million Damages in Elon Musk Lawsuit

An attorney told a Los Angeles federal jury Friday it would be reasonable to award $190 million in damages to a British cave explorer who is suing Elon Musk for allegedly branding him as a pedophile during a Twitter spat.
Attorney Lin Wood said the suggested sum includes $150 million in punitive damages.
Musk, who testified his stock in Tesla and SpaceX is worth about $20 billion, contends that he was not being literal when he referred to Vernon Unsworth as a “pedo guy.”

FILE- British cave expert Vernon Unsworth talks with guests at an event in Bangkok, Thailand, Sept. 6, 2018.The case was expected to go to the jury later in the day after closing arguments end.
The spat happened as Unsworth was involved in the rescue of a youth soccer team and its coach from a flooded cave in Thailand.
Unsworth had ridiculed Musk’s effort to help in the rescue by having engineers at his companies, including Space X and The Boring Co., develop a mini-submarine to transport the boys. Despite working around the clock to build the sub, Musk arrived in Thailand late in the rescue effort and the craft was never used.
Unsworth called it nothing more than a “PR stunt” and said Musk could stick the sub “where it hurts.”
In his closing argument, Wood called Musk a “billionaire bully” who lied when he claimed “pedo guy” only means “creepy old man” and when he apologized to Unsworth.
The biggest lie, Wood said, was when Musk accused Unsworth of being a pedophile.
“When Elon Musk tweets something it goes around the world,” Wood said.
He added: “It can never be deleted.”
Unsworth testified that he had to sue Musk for defamation because if he didn’t, the allegation would seem true.
In his testimony, Musk insisted that the phrase he tweeted off-the-cuff “was obviously a flippant insult, and no one interpreted it to mean pedophile.”

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Learning Environments

VOA Connect Episode 99 – We look at different educational settings, from Native American studies to training veterans about beekeeping to kids learning how to code.  

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Native American Arts School

The Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico is a school designed for Native Americans.  We talk to students and professors about a learning environment that specifically addresses tribal cultures and values.  
Reporter:  Julie Taboh, Camera: Adam Greenbaum, Adapted by: Zdenko Novacki

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Veterans Beekeeping

We go to an apiary in New Hampshire where US veterans have turned to beekeeping for post-traumatic stress relief.  Find out how taking care of bees is helping these former fighters use stay grounded and lessen their trauma.  
Reporter/Camera: Deborah Block; Adapted by: Martin Secrest

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