Every day, millions of kids spend time in Internet chat rooms, talking to strangers. But what many children don't realize is that some of the surfers chatting with them may be sexual predators. Correspondent Peter Van Sant reports on a police unit aiming to track down these predators.
One predator is Ray Cannup, who calls himself "Dr. Evil." Cannup was arrested after traveling to Virginia, expecting to have sex with a 13-year-old girl whom he met and seduced online. Investigators believe there could be hundreds of thousands of predators like Dr. Evil searching the Internet for victims.
The Internet has become a favorite place for pedophiles. Millions of children visit every day, and pedophiles can hide under the anonymous cloak of a chat name.
Over the past few years, police have mounted a counterattack against cyber-predators.
Members of the unit spend hours each day online, in chat rooms. "When we're online in undercover capacity, we will pose as anything," says Deputy Jamie Watson, who is part of the unit. "We'll pose as children, either sex," he says. "We will pose as adults; we will pose as people who are interested in trading child pornography."
Take the case of Dr. Evil. He thought he was emailing a 13-year-old girl. In fact, his correspondent was a 21-year-old Blue Ridge Thunder officer.
"We can stay on the Internet 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and communicate with people that we know are surfing the Web for children," Brown says.
Investigators say that Dr. Evil was a significant case. "This is definitely te worst case that any of us as investigators have ever seen," says the officer who portrayed the 13-year-old girl. Dr. Evil may have had more than just sex on his mind. In his car, police found an ax handle and a knife. Brown thinks that Dr. Evil may have planned to murder the "girl." Cannup has been sentenced to three years in prison.
When Watson goes online posing as a young girl, he is immediately besieged with messages. "If I go into a chat room, without saying a word, within one or two minutes, it's nothing for me to have 15, 16 people well over 18 trying to talk to me," he says. "Not all of them want to talk about sex, but the vast majority do."
On one particular day, he went online at 48 Hours's request as "Tina," a 13-year-old who likes to ride horses and ice skate. He had hundreds of sexually oriented chat rooms to choose from. Within a few seconds of entering a chat room, "Tina" was besieged with messages. Someone asks if she likes older guys. Another asks if she wants to have sex. Still another asks if she likes phone sex. Many want pictures of her.
"I wish I could reach through the screen and lay hands on these people," Watson says.
In many cases, making the connection with targets can be all too easy. For example, Diana Strickland from Opelika, Ala., was 15 when she started an Internet friendship with Larry Stackhouse, a 43-year-old man living outside Philadelphia.
At first it was just, "'Hey how you doing? What's up?' basic conversation like I would have with any of my friends," Diana says. "And then it gradually got sexual."
Diana's parents, Mike and Teresa Strickland, say that their daughter was never much trouble. But one month into her online relationship with Stackhouse, she disappeared.
Stackhouse had traveled more than 800 miles to pick up Diana and a friend in Opelika. He drove them back to Philadelphia where he kept them for three days. They thought it would be an adventure. But Stackhouse sexually assaulted Diana.
Diana's friend eventually got to a phone and called her parents for help. Stackhouse is now imprisoned in Pennsylvania. The Stricklands now keep a much closer eye on Diana's Internet ativities.
Continue to Catching A 'Traveler' to learn how investigators made an arrest.
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