A 15-year-old boy, a resident of Daytona North, or the Mondex in western Flagler, faces five felony counts of possession and one felony count of manufacturing child pornography after a tip sent to the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office led to a raid on the child’s residence. Detectives uncovered the alleged evidence in the child’s computer and phone, which had been used to upload, disseminate and in some cases sell the materials.
The boy had used a PayPal account allegedly to sell images, and had used Facebook and Instagram, along with a Gmail account, for “trading, sharing and selling child images,” according to his arrest report. The boy knew what he was doing was wrong, he told authorities, he knew he’d get caught, but he said he did it anyway. The motivation? Money: he made “a couple of hundred dollars,” a sheriff’s spokesperson said. One of the victims exploited in material he manufactured is known familiarly to him.
“He is not enrolled in any of our schools,” a Flagler County district spokesman said. “He was last enrolled in 2016.” (If an enrolled student faces a similar set of charges or allegations, the student would be prohibited from using any school-issued computers, and would not be allowed to be in any school location alone with other students, without adult supervision.)
The initial tip was sent to the sheriff’s detective Dennis Lashbrook, who’s in charge of the agency’s relatively new cyber crimes unit focused on child sexual abuse, which has been growing exponentially online. “Technology companies reported a record 45 million online photos and videos of the abuse last year,” The New York Times reported last September at the beginning of the paper’s ongoing investigation of what it terms a crisis “at a breaking point,” with tech companies, government and police no match for the online trade.
Earlier this month, the paper reported that the number of photos and videos had grown 50 percent in the past year, with 70 million images and videos reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an agency that works with governments. Videos now outnumber images, with Facebook reporting almost 85 percent of the total, among 164 companies reporting findings (including Snapchat, Twitter, Google and Yahoo). Cloaking mechanisms online are enabling users and manufacturers of child sexual abuse imagery to be almost immune to detection, enabling them to operate with impunity, the investigation found.
Lashbrook got the tip about the allegations involving the 15 year old boy from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, according to the boy’s arrest report. The center had itself gotten a report from Google, which had detected child pornography uploaded to Google Photos, its powerful image database and repository available to individual users for storage and classification. Google’s tip connected the user’s account to a phone number, an IP address and several names, two of them the child’s parents, one of them the child himself, who also spends time in Jacksonville. Google was further able to link the images to the type of camera that snapped them–in this case, a Motorola Moto E5 Play that was found among the boy’s possessions.
None of this should have been a surprise to the boy: Google Photos’ user content and conduct policy explicitly states: “Do not upload or share content that exploits or abuses children. This includes all child sexual abuse imagery (even cartoon images) and all content that presents children in a sexual manner. We will remove such content and take appropriate action, which may include disabling accounts and reporting to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and law enforcement.”
Lashbrook got the tip on Jan. 14. He subpoenaed phone records, obtaining search warrants to search the records along the way, then got a search warrant, which was served on Jan. 23 in the Mondex with other detectives and assistance from the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office. The child’s mother was at the house, as was the boy and at least one other adult. The other adult told authorities that he looks at legal “teen porn,” using apps on his phone. That was not what the detectives were concerned with. The detective sought to speak with the boy.
His mother granted permission, and at one point the boy requested to speak with the detective without his mother present, which his mother also allowed. Based on the numerous statements redacted from the arrest report–the sheriff’s office routinely redacts self-incriminating confessions–he then proceeded to explain much of what he had done online.
All the images and videos collected depicted pre-pubescent children, some of them in sexually explicit poses, some of them in the act of being sexually abused, one of them in a sexual act with an animal. The youngest children were 2 to 4 years old, the oldest was 9. Because of the redactions, it is not clear what the boy had manufactured or how–it is not clear whose children were abused–but he is charged with one count of manufacturing.
“For victims of child sexual abuse,” The Times reported two weeks ago, “the recirculating imagery can cause lasting trauma. Online offenders are known to seek out children in the photos and videos, even into adulthood. Victims, or the parents of abused minors, also receive legal notices when their images are found during investigations, serving as constant reminders of their pain.”
The Sheriff’s Office began participating with the North Florida Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force in 2018. The task force consists of state and local law enforcement who are dedicated to developing effective responses to the online enticement of children by sexual predators, child exploitation, and child obscenity and pornography cases. Sheriff Rick Staly directed the assignment of a full-time cybercrime unit last November.
“Our Major Case Unit, and especially with our new proactive Cybercrimes Unit, are not going to let up,” Staly was quoted as saying in a release. “If you are engaged in this behavior we are going to get you because these types of operations are only going to increase.”
The boy was turned over to the Department of Juvenile Justice in Daytona Beach, which declined to take him. “It’s a point system, he has to score enough points to be accepted, to be housed there,” a sheriff’s spokesperson said. “They consider the crime he’s being charged with non-violent, which caused him to score low, so they said to release him to his guardian.”