In the parking lot of the Clackamas Town Center last fall, 22-year-old Colby Greer sat in his Toyota pickup expecting to meet his 13-year-old girlfriend.
Greer had been messaging online with the Clatsop County girl for about a month. They met in person twice. He prodded her for “sexy pics,” and they eventually exchanged nude photos.
The girl’s parents caught on to the inappropriate relationship and had two officers take over her online accounts. For almost a week, Clatsop County Sheriff’s Office Detective Ryan Humphrey and Deputy Seann Luedke replied to messages as the girl and even sent a random scandalous photo from the internet to keep Greer on the hook.
When the officers approached Greer in the mall parking lot, he was confused and asked what they were doing there. Humphrey then sent him a message as the girl that read, “Hi Colby.”
The Molalla man was arrested for online and physical sex abuse. He told the officers he knew his activities with the girl were wrong. “I just didn’t think it through,” he said.
Clatsop County law enforcement are using new technology and training to uncover more online sex abuse cases. Officers are finding more crimes occurring online, and in the past few years investigators have made huge leaps in their use of technology.
Astoria Police partnered with local agencies last fall to purchase Cellebrite software that pulls data off cellphones and other mobile devices smaller than a laptop.
Astoria Police Detective Thomas Litwin estimates the county’s agencies have already used the software in about 100 cases, with the majority being sex abuse cases.
Officers are not just finding evidence through texts or Facebook messages. Local cases have involved little-known applications such as Kik Messenger, MeetMe and Whisper. All criminal activity on those applications can be used as evidence in a criminal case.
Greer met the 13-year-old girl on the dating application, Badoo. They also communicated on Kik Messenger, Snapchat and Skype. The girl used TextNow, allowing her to send messages to Greer without using her cellphone.
“That’s how people are communicating,” Litwin said. “It’s not calling on a phone or meeting in person. Everyone is doing things online through messaging.”
‘Suspect is shocked’
Most online sex abuse cases are brought forward by a parent, friend or school teacher.
Officers do not troll the internet for predators, but rather rely on someone’s report or a referral from a group such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
In Greer’s case, it was a friend of the victim who told the girl’s parents.
By searching the victim’s cellphone and social media accounts, Humphrey said, he can develop a case before contacting the suspect.
The Cellebrite software allows officers to review all text messages, photos and other data on a device, including deleted files. Law enforcement also has a special portal to analyze Facebook accounts by providing a search warrant to the social media company.
“Most of the time, if I have done my job correctly, the suspect is shocked when they meet me for the first time,” Humphrey said.
When searching a suspect’s cellphone or electronic device, officers must apply for a search warrant as if they were searching a house. Officers must act fast to preserve digital evidence.
The total process takes time, Humphrey said, which is hard to explain to concerned family or friends. Downloading data from a cellphone using Cellebrite can take up to six hours.
Before the software was available locally, officers had to spend a day driving to a forensics lab in Portland. Analyzing a Facebook account can produce more than 30,000 pages to sift through for evidence.
“It’s frustrating, especially for parents to see their child has been abused, and they don’t always understand how come I’m not running out of the door to arrest somebody,” Humphrey said. “Often times with these kind of cases, I only have one chance to do it right. If I blow that chance, it’s game over.”
Officers encourage parents to allow no online privacy for children, and believe cellphones and tablets do not belong in the bathroom with the child or in their bed at night. Officers suggest every parent have access to their children’s electronic devices.
Even if a parent takes a cellphone away, children can download messaging applications such as TextNow on any iPod, iPad, Kindle or Nook.
“Unfortunately, I’ve seen cases where parents are doing the right thing and took the cellphone, but didn’t take the Kindle,” Humphrey said.
While more online sex abuse suspects are being convicted in Clatsop County, advocates are noticing impacts on victims. It is difficult for victims to overcome the thought of intimate photos or messages being sent or often shared in the community.
Clatsop County Deputy District Attorney Dawn Buzzard said many of the victims in her cases are dropping out of school and not returning.
“Most of the cases I can think of have kids deciding not to go to school,” Buzzard said.
The Harbor, the domestic and sexual violence resource center for Clatsop County, recently hired a teen intimate partner violence specialist.
Erin Hofseth, who joined the Harbor in April, works with local schools to prevent dating violence and does outreach to offer resources and education for teens to shed light on what abuse can look like. She hopes to develop a support group for teens.
Online and texting harassment, stalking and the pressure to send nude photos are intense for teens in this generation, Hofseth said.
“It does look different for teens than it would in a domestic partnership or marriage,” she said. “Teens are facing issues that adults don’t face.”
A key to catching online sex abuse is having well-trained detectives in the county, Buzzard said.
Detectives regularly attended trainings around the Northwest.
Humphrey went to a training this year about cellphone mapping technology. He learned how to use a computer program that tells where a cellphone call is made.
“You really need a detective willing to dive in,” Buzzard said.
In addition, detectives and officers must learn what to look for to charge a suspect with online sexual corruption, using a child in display of sexually explicit conduct or luring a minor.
Greer was charged with each type of online sex abuse. Through a plea agreement this spring, he pleaded guilty to attempted unlawful sexual penetration and was sentenced to three years probation. He will face four years in prison if he violates the probation.
Getting online sex abuse cases to a conviction is progress for the county, Humphrey said. A decade ago, he said, nothing would happen for victims abused online.
“That was then, this is now,” he said. “We are showing people there is a consequence and something will happen if you report it.”