Andrew Salazar logged into a Yahoo chat forum with a fake name. From his suburban Tacoma, WA, home, he messaged a woman an ocean away, in the Philippines.
Salazar saw her on his computer screen, via a webcam. Then the 65-year-old convicted child rapist glimpsed what he wanted: a girl, perhaps 8, lying on a bed.
“She ready to give you a good show as promised,” the woman typed.
The woman told the girl to follow Salazar’s instructions. The girl obeyed: She took off her clothes and posed as he demanded.
(Illustrations courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
That scenario emerged in the case against Salazar, who later copped a plea to child pornography charges. Court papers show he inhabited a dark corner of the internet where adult men pay to live-stream child sex. Webcams and digital payment methods offer a twist on pedophilia that is quickly growing and difficult to police, according to law enforcement officials.
After his 2014 online encounter with the Filipino girl and other incidents, Salazar would become one of at least several dozen people globally who have faced criminal charges for predatory live-camera child sex.
But far more get away with this crime, according to prosecutors, police and activists on four continents. The United Nations and FBI estimate that 750,000 child predators are online at any given time. Numbers on those engaged in live-streaming child sex acts are difficult to gauge, but law enforcement officials portray the predator population as vast – and proliferating far faster than they can catch perpetrators.
A review of hundreds of pages of court records and other documents underscores disturbing patterns: Predators come largely from wealthier nations. The children live in abject poverty, and in many cases are put on view by their own families, who are desperate for money.
Another factor: technology. The children live in developing nations with internet connections, mainly Southeast Asia, but the practice also has expanded to West Africa, experts say. In the Philippines alone, tens of thousands of children are estimated by researchers to be victims of webcam child sex.
INVESTIGATIONS POINT TO ‘HUGE’ CRISIS
To get a sense of how live-stream sex abuse has increased, look at Operation Endeavor.
In 2012, an international consortium of law enforcement probed webcam child sex abuse in what is perhaps the first documented instance of police investigating this type of crime. Operation Endeavor was led by the National Crime Agency in the United Kingdom, and joined by the Australian Federal Police, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and others.
The result: 29 arrests in 12 countries. Perpetrators were so bold they used credit cards in their own names, and did not bother shielding their identities with prepaid accounts or other more secretive means of moving money.
Later came another international joint probe, Operation Toric. The inquiry found 138 individuals from around the world were making payments to a group in the Philippines set up as middlemen for those seeking children. Not all were arrested.
Those cases represent just a small fraction of the number of perpetrators who lurk online, according to law enforcement officials.
“We are dealing with absolutely huge numbers of people who are doing this, and we’re seeing that from investigations we are doing now,” said Kelvin Lay, lead investigator for the National Crime Agency in the UK. He said the number of incidents involving webcam child sex cases reported to the NCA has steadily increased.
As part of his investigations, Lay visited Angeles City in the Philippines, and saw where children went to engage in sex acts before web cameras. He recalled lines of barefoot children in shorts with no tops standing outside gated buildings.
Children would queue up three particular times a day, Lay said. That was because they were being victimized primarily by pedophiles in three different time zones spanning the globe.
For the most part, according to Lay, mothers and fathers were involved in the abuse and took the money.
Glen McEwen, manager of Cyber Crime Operations for the Australian Federal Police, put it bluntly: “We are dealing with people who are capitalizing on poverty.”
“You never know who has an appetite in this type of activity,” he said. “It could be an attraction for a registered sex offender – not to say that a person who is not identified as being an offender would not do it. You can’t tell by a person’s lifestyle choice.”
A PREDATOR’S SECRET PAST
To the outside world, Andrew Salazar was a military veteran who ran his own janitorial service.
But he was a king of fake names.
When he was first convicted for raping a child, he was known as Terrence Leonard De La Garza. It was 1975 in Texas. His victim was a 13-year-old girl he dragged into bushes and attacked. He was caught and convicted.
Throughout the years, he repeatedly changed his name. He went by about a dozen aliases.
One cover was the name of the child he had with his third wife. She left Salazar around 2002 after discovering a briefcase full of sexually explicit images of her daughter and other children, she told police more than a decade later, when he was being prosecuted for live-streaming pedophilia.
He began live-streaming child sex acts in February 2013. At least that’s the first instance documented by police.
A year later, Salazar made the mistake that led to his arrest, records show. He walked into a Sprint shop and asked technicians to move the files on his phone to a new mobile device. He said he would go to a nearby movie theater and return after the film was done.
Sprint workers noticed apparent child pornography among his stored images. They alerted police.
But local authorities did not have the technical expertise to comb Salazar’s computers and devices, and pursue the case. Many police department lack in-house skills for this type of analysis.
“It surprises me that not all of our police departments have forensics,” said Cecelia Gregson, the senior King County prosecutor specially designated to child exploitation cases. “Washington state’s economy is pretty good.”
Local authorities called in the U.S. Secret Service, which sometimes handles child sex cyber crimes, to do the work. A warrant was issued. Salazar’s computers were confiscated. He was arrested on May 28, 2014.
Salazar kept more than 1,000 photos and videos of naked children in various sexual poses, including a toddler who appeared to be bleeding from sexual abuse.
Prosecutors portrayed Salazar as a loner who spent his time and money to developing relationships with women in poor countries who were prostituting their children via webcams.
The defense countered that Salazar was sexually abused as a child by his father who would take him to underground bars in San Antonio, Texas, assault him and let other men molest him in exchange for money.
Further evidence suggested Salazar may have been planning to do more than just live-stream child sex.
Salazar made clear in chats that he hoped to travel to the Philippines and become a sex tourist.
“So if I come stay with you next year you will let me [have sex with] both of you,” he wrote in one chat.
“Maybe yes, maybe when she is 14 yrs old u can [have sex with] her,” the woman responded.
“I want her at age of 10, I find girl in other country and she is 7,” Salazar said.
That will never happen. Salazar was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison.
In some ways, police were lucky that Salazar made mistakes that led to his arrest. If he had not saved the images, and if he had not gone to the Sprint store, he might not have been caught.
Gregson believes it is more difficult to nab online predators than those who molest children in person.
“When you’re physically abusing the kid in your backyard or another place that kid can probably talk to other people about it,” she said. “It’s easier to catch them that way than if you’re dealing with a virtual stranger.”
FLAWED LAWS EXPOSED
One stunning aspect of Salazar’s prosecution: He was not convicted of sexually assaulting a child.
His public defender, Jesse Cantor, argued that “sexual assault requires physical contact with a victim.”
Instead, Cantor contended, Salazar could only face pornography charges, because that crime “involves only the possession of documents.”
If there were credits to his live-streaming films, Salazar would be the director. He dictated the action. The events then took place before a web camera far away, and with real children.
But Salazar was not convicted for directing the actual abuse inflicted on the girls. Rather, he pleaded guilty on April 13, 2015, to charges of possessing and receiving images of child pornography.
Gregson, who prosecuted Salazar, said laws already on the books are sufficient. She said perpetrators like Salazar are abusing children, even though there is no physical contact.
Some are convicted on other charges.
Take the case of Jeffrey Herschell. He had been convicted for molesting his girlfriend’s child in 1998. In February 2010, he sent money from his Pennsylvania home to the Philippines for an online sex show with a 12-year-old girl, according to court papers. He was sentenced in May 2013 to 12 years in prison for coercing and enticing a minor to engage in illegal sexual activity after three of his victims spoke to CNN for a documentary.
Mitali Thakor, who teaches about human trafficking at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and worked for a year at the Microsoft Research Social Media Collective, examining online sex trafficking, said U.S. law enforcement doesn’t have a strategy for dealing with these types of cases.
“One of the challenges for American law enforcement is that there isn’t a system for prosecuting these digital live-streaming crimes,” she said. “My impression is that it’s very case-by-case. There is no standard for how this should go forward.”
Thakor said new laws would be useful in prosecuting similar cases. But she predicted that any new laws would prove difficult to enforce and probably would require more surveillance.
“I’m very torn on whether it’s a good idea to criminalize the act of live-streaming abuse of boys and girls,” she said. “It would be useful, but I think that it would be so hard to monitor people’s online activities.”
A central problem, she believes, is how these cases would be policed – and whether privacy concerns would be sacrificed for electronic surveillance.
“It has tricky implications for surveillance and needs to be thought through,” she said. “Surveillance doesn’t necessarily prevent perpetrators from preying on children online. So I don’t think the answer is more surveillance.”
PEDOPHILES GET STUNG
But going undercover can shed light on the world of live-streaming pedophilia.
In 2013, a 10-year-old girl named Sweetie logged into a chat forum. As soon as she identified herself as Filipino, men started approaching her online. They wanted her to undress and touch herself.
What they did not know was that Sweetie wasn’t a real girl. The international children’s advocacy organization Terre des Hommes, headquartered in the Netherlands, created a virtual girl who looks real. Four researchers logged into 20 different chat forums and posed as Sweetie.
The activists said they identified 1,000 potential molesters from 71 different countries. A quarter of them were Americans – the highest number from any nation.
“All chat rooms focusing on children or teenagers are hunting grounds for pedophiles who love to get in contact with kids,” said Hans Guyt, the director of special projects for Terre des Hommes and leader of the Sweetie experiment. “They contact kids on dating sites, social networks and public chat rooms. It’s a huge phenomena and only increasing because of internet coverage spreading to other parts in the world.”
Children’s advocates estimated at the time that there were well over 40,000 similar public chat rooms.
The NGO had been working in the Philippines for 15 years by 2011, but then discovered a shift. Young prostitutes told them that they moved to internet cafes to chat with men in other countries who paid for sex shows. They would typically charge $5 to $10 per show, said Guyt.
Around the same time they discovered a much more ominous development that Guyt calls “a cottage industry.” Parents force their young children – sometimes as young as 4 – to perform sexual acts in front of a webcam in exchange for money from people in foreign countries.
The molesters pay about $10 to $20, but prices can soar to about $500 for extreme sex acts, including bestiality. “We see rape scenes and torture scenes,” said Guyt.
Encryption and other internet tools for shielding users make it increasingly difficult to identify perpetrators, said Guyt, and it’s not always possible to follow the money. Some perpetrators try to cover their tracks using bitcoins or prepaid credit cards that are difficult to trace.
Others don’t make direct payments: A perpetrator in the U.S. can transfer the money to a
Filipino national who lives in the U.S., who then sends the money to co-conspirators in the Philippines.
“The predators feel safe and anonymous,” said Guyt. “They use fake names and live far away.”
“IT’S WORSE THAN INCEST”
Among the reasons this type of child abuse is common in the Philippines is that English is an official language, and high-speed internet is widespread and cheap. A few dimes can but a few hours of online access. Family bonds in the Philippines are strong and it’s not uncommon for one member to sacrifice for the benefit of the family, said Guyt.
“In so many cases with victims of cyber sex, mothers and fathers… put a lot of pressure on these kids to do a lot of things they don’t want to do,” he said.
Some of the children turn to drugs or alcohol to try to cope with their sexual traumas. Many are afraid the images of them will pop up later in their lives. Relationships with family become strained.
“When their own parents forced them to do this kind of thing… it’s worse than incest,” said Guyt. “The children are really seriously damaged. Some of the parents say, ‘What are you talking about, this is just cyber sex, no real abuse is going on.’ But we found out that this cottage industry is much more sinister and extreme.”
He estimates that tens of thousands of children are victims of this type of abuse in the Philippines alone. The crime will only become more common, he predicted.
“Webcam child sex tourism is spreading like a disease,” he said. “There are perpetrators in almost all countries. As long as there is demand it will happen.”
The problem is so widespread that it is impossible to fix by arresting all the perpetrators, said Guyt. He favors more policing of internet chatrooms and more undercover work like his group did with the avatar Sweetie.
But he knows that is unlikely to happen soon.
“I’m a big advocate of undercover operations, but in Western Europe only few countries like the UK allow it,” he said.
RECORDS REVEAL DETAILS OF U.S. CASES
Few cases have been prosecuted in the United States, despite Terre des Hommes spotting hundreds of American men seeking to prey on Sweetie. But court filings show Salazar is far from alone.
In December 2012, inspectors from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and a special agent from Homeland Security boarded a Navy ship that had just returned from overseas to Norfolk, Va. They sought out David Tallman, records show.
During questioning, an agent asked if Tallman had viewed child pornography online. Tallman said that years earlier, while watching adult pornography, he was redirected to a child porn site, but that he left as soon as he realized it involved youngsters.
The agent told Tallman that the inspectors were going to look through his computer and asked if they would find any child pornography.
Tallman put his head down.
Agents found more than 4,000 images and nine videos of child pornography involving Asian girls and boys on his computer.
In emails, Tallman sought photos depicting particular sexual acts. He specifically requested young girls.
Tallman estimated he paid around $4,000 to the women he chatted with online for the images and live-streaming child sex, records show.
Tallman said he never engaged in sex with an underage girl and would never hurt a child. He said that he did not know why he looked at child pornography. He described feeling overwhelmed with attention online from Filipino women and was “guilted” into sending money.
In July 2013, Tallman, then 53, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for transporting child pornography.
CAUSING ‘REAL HARM’
More recently, Jerry Powers was caught having paid to watch and direct live cyber sex shows involving children in the Philippines since at least 2011, according to authorities. In one show, he told a mother to place her prepubescent daughter in a chair and pose for him. In another, he watched an adult woman perform a sex act on a 5-year-old boy.
Powers was in the process of recording another live sex show on April 15, 2015, the morning his Bellingham, WA, home was searched. He pleaded guilty to receipt and possession of child pornography and was sentenced on May 12, 2016, to 10 years in prison and 10 years of supervised release.
From his bedroom in Union City, CA, Donald Snyder repeatedly chatted with a woman in the Philippines to arrange webcam sex shows of young girls.
Snyder did not refer to the girls by their names but by their ages: “7,” “10” and “14.”
He sent money to the woman so that she could buy a digital camera. He encouraged her to take more photos of the girls and sell them: “u send pic’s to men like me and they pay u,” he messaged the woman.
Snyder’s defense attorneys portrayed him as a decent man. He got an honorable discharge for his time in the Army. He took care of his widowed mother. He worked several jobs and volunteered at a hospital and church.
He was divorced twice and had a daughter. After his last divorce, Snyder moved in with his older sister. According to his sister, Snyder became depressed and lonely, and started to spend time in online chat rooms “which led him to the wrong people.” She said Snyder attended meetings with a support group for sex addicted.
Snyder pleaded guilty to conspiring to produce child pornography. On January 25, 2011, Snyder, then 47, was sentenced to 20 years in prison with lifetime supervised release.
Snyder, in a letter to the judge, apologized.
“I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I did,” he wrote. “Both why I would do something like this and how much harm it did to the victims and my family. I am ashamed of what I did.”
Near the end of his letter he wrote, “Sometimes you can forget that even when you are on the computer in your own room, you can cause real harm to people.”