A computer aficionado tapped into an unusual X-rated electronic "bulletin board" one recent afternoon and scrolled through explicit messages detailing sexual contact between men and boys.
Overcome by curiosity, he sent his own message:
"Hi! My name is Billy. I'm 13 and I wonder if I can find a friend to tell me more about the life style."
Within hours, Billy had several dozen messages from adult men wanting to meet him. Unfortunately for them, "Billy" is an undercover policeman.
In a bizarre, and apparently legal, computer game, thousands of pedophiles nationwide are using home computers to discuss ways to woo children, advertise their preferences, exchange lists of "available" victims and arrange meetings to trade pornography and even youngsters.
Authorities in Chicago have seized computer printouts and discovered other evidence of computer use in arrests of nearly 100 child molesters in the last two years. Among those arrested and convicted were the chief computer analyst for the Chicago Board of Options Exchange and a computer whiz who designed the scoreboard at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
"Large groups of pedophiles are in daily contact through computers, seeking to validate their own personal beliefs, meet children and meet other pedophiles," said Chicago Police Youth Officer Brian Killacky, a nationally known expert in child exploitation.
The practice is not limited to Chicago. Police investigating cases of child molestation and child pornography from New York to Minneapolis to Los Angeles report similar evidence of computer use by pedophiles.
A recent article in a pedophile newsletter suggested that the speed and flexibility of computer bulletin boards are important to pedophiles, "given the fact that many of the positions we take are at or near the borderline of the law."
The use of home computers to further the interest of child molesters has just begun to be uncovered by authorities, and the lack of clear laws dealing with electronic mail has prompted Congress to consider legislation that would prohibit the use of computers to transmit information that encourages child pornography or molestation.
"It is a problem of growing national concern," said Jack Smith, general counsel to the Federal Communications Commission. "And we're looking at the tip of the iceberg."
Although federal law prohibits transmitting obscene or indecent material across state lines, a list of names that ends up on an electronic bulletin board does not fall into that category, even if they are names and descriptions of potential victims of child molestation. An attempt to restrict such uses of computer telephone linkups would probably raise constitutional questions. "You really have to be very careful in this area" of law, Smith said.
The technology may make the message writers, who usually use pseudonyms, virtually untraceable. Some investigators are reluctant to urge a crackdown on computer talk because it offers a valuable undercover tool.
The undercover officer who posed as Billy on the computer bulletin board has arrested a dozen pedophiles in the Western United States from information gathered initially by computer. He described his practice in detail for The Times on the condition that he not be identified so as not to alert the people he is investigating.
Posing as a pedophile or potential young victim, the police officer uses his own portable computer to place messages on the computer bulletin board and thus make contact with people seeking to molest children.
An initial contact between two pedophiles typically leads to private messages, sent back and forth through the same computer system but not posted on the bulletin board. In time, the men exchange phone numbers and addresses or arrange to meet and trade photographs of children or pornographic literature.
"You never know who you're dealing with, but you try to learn more about them as you go along, and eventually they offer to exchange a boy or pictures," the officer said.
Law enforcement experts say most pedophiles exhibit certain traits that make the computer an especially attractive device to them.
The pedophile tends to be a collector--of diaries, erotic fantasy writings, ledgers and mementos of his time with a child. Lifelong pedophiles amass enormous collections, and the computer is a logical choice for storage and quick access. In one Chicago home, police found computer printouts with descriptions of 110 boys under age 12.
Pedophiles also tend to have a need for "validation." They need "to be told that what they are doing and spending all their time on is good, worthwhile and valuable," according to FBI Special Agent Kenneth Lanning, of the agency's behavioral science unit in Quantico, Va.
Such "validation" is made easier for a child molester if he has a computer, which allows him to talk electronically--at any time of the day or night--with others who share his interest.
"That's one of many problems with the (electronic) bulletin boards," said Sgt. James McMahon, who investigates child sex crimes for the San Jose Police Department. "They give pedophiles the feeling that there are many others in the country like them. That knowledge may make them braver and more willing to act on their urges."
'Tougher for Us'
Computer mail can also be used instead of postal mail to arrange the sale or exchange of child pornography, which is a crime. "Computers don't eliminate the need for an actual physical exchange, but if they can make their contacts through a computer, it's going to make it a little tougher for us," said Jack O'Malley, a Customs Service agent in Chicago.
Only a handful of the thousands of computer bulletin boards across the country are X-rated, and only some of those cater to pedophiles. Telephone numbers of sexually explicit boards can, however, be obtained from a variety of sources.
The X-rated boards generally carry warnings that the material is sexually explicit and should only be viewed by users 18 or older, but they make no further attempt to screen out youngsters.
Many police departments lack the expertise to use computers or to recognize that a computer at the home of a suspected child molester may contain names, birth dates, descriptions and ages of victims.
"If a guy knows computers, he's way ahead of us," said Sgt. James J. Martin of the Minneapolis Police Department.
Last December, Minneapolis police caught a suspected child molester but were unable to break the code on his computer. "We didn't have any resources," Martin said. "We went to a Radio Shack store downtown that let us use their computers."
'Hacker' Helped Police
Still unable to break the code, the police brought in a 15-year-old computer "hacker" who had been caught breaking into a bank's computer. The boy was successful, finding diaries, the names of victims and correspondence with other child molesters. The pedophile was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison.
In Indianapolis, Police Lt. Thomas R. Rodgers said law enforcement investigators sometimes unwittingly destroy evidence "because they are unaware that this kind of thing even exists. They may seize a computer, unplug it and erase everything on it without realizing."
The information discovered in an accused child molester's home computer can make a prosecutor's case. After arresting Allen Wiegmink, 69, a few months ago in Chicago, police found computer listings of the names, birth dates, physical descriptions and astrological charts of dozens of children from Michigan, New York and Illinois. He has been charged with 44 counts of child molestation involving seven children.
Allan J. Kapusta, 40, the chief computer analyst for the Chicago Board of Options, was convicted last December of molesting five children. Authorities had found lists of children in Kapusta's home computer; police said he had also used the computer and computer games as toys to lure children to his house.
Technology Not Blamed
Similar lists of children were found at the home of Jan Synak, 44, a computer expert who designed electronic scoreboards for baseball stadiums. He was convicted of molesting four boys, ages 7 to 11, last year but fled the country before the sentence could be imposed.
Most experts agree that technology is not to blame.
"The things these people are doing with computers they did before computers. It's just a lot easier for them now," Lanning said at a recent congressional hearing.
"What is happening is that technology is outstripping us and we have a dearth of organized social protocols to deal with it," said Frank Howell, an assistant professor of sociology at North Carolina State and the creator of an international computer network for sociologists.