NEW YORK—Kevin Tillman doesn’t consider himself a hero. But to many young girls and boys, he is their champion, an unsung hero in a dark world. His work takes pedophiles and child pornographers off the streets. And he helps save kids from nightmare scenarios.
Tillman is a computer forensics expert working for ICE (Immigrations and Custom Enforcement) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in New York. He is a 29-year military veteran who retrained as a Human Exploitation and Rescue Operative (HERO) after retiring in 2015. The HERO program gives veterans, especially those who are wounded, a chance to retrain and fight crime in a different way.
Tillman is the first HERO in the New York HSI office, and he brings his special operations experience to his new role.
“It was very humbling to get involved in this and see that there’s this hidden society of people that’s so massive. I was unaware that pedophilia was such a large society,” Tillman said on April 28.
“I mean, who can question [cracking down on] child pornography or human trafficking—those are things most people want to see diminished, or at least depleted.”
A recent successful case involved an individual who visited a website that was being monitored. During a subsequent search at his home, child pornography was found on one of his computer systems. Tillman’s job was to meticulously sort through all of the evidence on the hard drive.
He discovered compromising photos between a young girl and her grandfather, who lived at the home with the father.
“The granddaughter was removed from the home,” Tillman said. “And it appears that the father didn’t know that the grandfather was involved with the child.”
The Internet Effect
The internet and social media have thrown open the door to exploitation on a whole new level.
The days of plonking a child in front of the television to passively watch are gone.
“Now you’re talking about a computer and the internet, you sit them down in front of that, and that’s interactive,” Tillman said.
“If it’s not closely supervised, it’s an insurgency of evil,” he said. And it’s taking the time that people used to spend watching “Three’s Company” or “Howdy Doody,” he said.
Perverts operate in the shadows of the so-called darknet—often using the Tor network, which is an open network on the internet where users can communicate anonymously through “hidden service” websites, according to the FBI.
“Most of these guys don’t have any criminal history, and no one has any idea of what they were doing until we catch them,” said Special Agent Eric Campbell, who investigates violent crimes against children in the FBI’s Phoenix Division, in a statement.
Perpetrators are most often white, middle-aged men, and it’s very common that the victim is known to the perpetrator, said Tillman.
A quick scan through the FBI’s list of most wanted for crimes against children elicits average-sounding names like Gregory Whitehead, Bruce Sawhill, and Roger Parham.
As with rapes and sexual assaults—of which only about 30 percent are reported to police—child exploitation and child pornography are vastly underreported.
A Growing Threat
New York college student Robert Garneau, 22, was arrested last May, the day before his graduation, in an alleged “sextortion” scheme. He had allegedly chatted to three boys aged between 12 and 16, through the apps Instagram and Kik. According to court records, Garneau pretended to be a young girl and enticed the victims to send him a sexually explicit photo of themselves.
Once Garneau received the compromising photos, he allegedly threatened the victims that if they didn’t send a video of a more explicit sexual activity, he would go to the police with the photos or blast them out to the victims’ Instagram followers.
According to an HSI forensic search of the text messages, one of the victims alluded to suicide if Garneau sent the video out, writing, “Why I’m killing myself” and “Goodbye I’m blaming you.”
An FBI analysis in 2015 of 43 sextortion cases involving child victims revealed at least two victims committed suicide and at least 10 more attempted suicide.
Garneau was charged with three counts of sexual exploitation of a minor, each carrying a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison and a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.
“Robert Garneau’s alleged crimes are the nightmare of every modern parent,” said Preet Bharara, then-U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. “Using everyday social media websites, Garneau allegedly exploited minors for his own sexual gratification.”
Timothy McCullouch Jr., a juvenile probation officer, is arrested by FBI and HSI special agents on federal sex trafficking charges in
Sextortion is “by far the most significantly growing threat to children,” a 2016 DOJ report stated, and sextortion cases tend to have more victims per offender than all other child sexual exploitation offenses.
“Offenders create and share ‘how-to’ guides that discuss how to groom children to be sexually exploited,” the report stated.
Sextortion offenders typically threaten minors aged 10 to 17, the report said, but increasingly the threat is extending to even younger and more vulnerable victims, as the offender manipulates the victim to abuse younger siblings or friends.
Tillman said parents should not underestimate their child’s knowledge of technology. The first line of defense is for parents to have better control over what their kids are doing online and who they are talking to.
Tillman recommends that parents and children learn how to combat child sexual exploitation through the information on ICE’s iGuardian website. He also educates groups of children about the pitfalls of the internet and messaging apps, and the danger of lurking predators.
“I start off the iGuardian brief by saying, ‘My name is Jessica and I’m 12 years old and have blonde hair,'” said Tillman.
Then he asks the kids, “Do I look 12 and do I have blonde hair?”
“And all the kids go, ‘Nooo!’ and I say, ‘But you don’t know that.'”
Tillman said his fun introduction is to get children to understand that the person on the other side isn’t always who they say they are.
“I tell the students: ‘Never communicate with anybody you haven’t met in person; never give your phone number out to anybody; never enter into a chat or communicate with anybody that you haven’t already met in person.'”
Pedophiles can be crafty and methodical, and Tillman described an example.
“So you have a 12-year-old daughter who plays on a soccer team, and she’s got a Kayak chat Facebook account and she gets a message from another 12-year-old girl, who says, ‘Hey, I play for the opposite team, but I’m new in town and I don’t have any friends. Can we just chat online?'”
They develop a friendship.
Eventually, up to a year after they’ve been chatting, the other “girl” says, “Hey, I was up in the stands and I saw you at your game—you weren’t playing my team, but I came to watch you play. You were wearing number 7, you were wearing a blue shirt, you looked great.”
This person’s watching her. A year later, they want to meet in real life and want to meet at the pizza place. The other “girl” says “her” father is going to be there, and so the daughter’s parent says, “Well, as long as there’s going to be an adult there, I’ll drop you off.”
“That’s how meticulous pedophiles are in grooming,” Tillman said.
Tillman said the cooperation between local law enforcement, HSI, and the FBI is very effective and the agencies share information through the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). The cooperation extends internationally, especially as so much exploitation happens on the internet, which is essentially cross-border.
If HSI in New York finds a child pornography site and a credit card used on the site traces back to London, the agency calls the HSI attache agent in London, who can then pass the information to Scotland Yard to make an arrest.
Steven Chase, 58, of Florida, was just sentenced for creating a website called “Playpen” in August 2014 on the Tor network, the FBI said in a statement on May 5.
Members used the website to upload and view tens of thousands of postings of young victims, “indexed by age, sex, and the type of sexual activity involved,” the FBI said.
The takedown of Playpen resulted in the arrest of almost 900 suspected pedophiles globally, and almost 300 children were identified or rescued from their abusers, the FBI said.
FBI Special Agent Dan Alfin said the investigation is ongoing.
“It’s the same with any criminal violation: As they get smarter, we adapt, we find them,” he said, in the statement. “It’s a cat-and-mouse game, except it’s not a game. Kids are being abused, and it’s our job to stop that.”
Most child pornography and pedophile cases don’t go to trial because the perpetrator pleads guilty due to overwhelming evidence—but in the ones that do, Tillman’s work is critical.
The images and videos that Tillman has to ferret out of suspects’ computers are disturbing, and it takes a special person to be able to handle it. Part of special ops training is learning how to compartmentalize, and Tillman said it helps him.
“You can get to the end of the day seeing horrific things that can’t be unseen,” he said. “I may not try to put it out of my head, I just try to focus on what’s next or what’s present.”
Tillman plays the saxophone, does some catering on the side, and leans hard on his faith to help keep balance in his life.
“Every time a new case comes through, it’s [even] more horrifying. I can’t believe it.”
What Parents and Children Need to Know
73 percent of teenagers aged 13 to 17 have access to a smartphone, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center study.
46 percent of 10- to 17-year-olds admit to having given out their personal information to someone they did not know, according to a NCMEC survey.
Social networking websites often ask users to post a profile with their age, gender, hobbies, and interests. While these profiles help kids connect and share common interests, individuals who want to victimize kids can use profiles to search for potential victims.
Sextortion and livestreaming of child sexual abuse are evolving threats, according to the Justice Department’s 2016 national strategy on child exploitation. Apps can be used to target, recruit, groom, or coerce children to engage in sexual activity.
Netsmartz.org has an array of information for parents and children about internet and smartphone safety, including videos about real-life stories.
SOURCES: National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), FBI, Department of Justice
Report a Crime
If you think you have seen a missing child or have information regarding possible child sexual exploitation, contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children anytime.