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Stalking the Web Predator

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

By day, Julie Posey is a 37-year-old homemaker, tidying the family’s trailer at the foot of the Rocky Mountains and home-schooling her daughter. But at night, Posey logs on to the Internet as Kendra--a gum-snapping 14-year-old looking for trouble.

This evening, she finds it in the form of an ad soliciting young girls for sex. Sipping a cherry Coke in the blue glare of her computer screen, Posey e-mails the man who posted the ad and awaits a reply. It doesn’t take long.

“Do you like older men?” the stranger asks. “An older man is more experienced, and let’s face it, we’ve got the bucks.”

The exchange marks the start of another night’s work for Posey, a self-styled online crusader who scrolls through chat rooms and news groups in search of sexual predators.

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Masquerading as Kendra, Posey spent two weeks exchanging graphic e-mails with the stranger. Eventually, they arranged a rendezvous at a local fast-food joint. When a 36-year-old computer consultant arrived looking for Kendra, an undercover detective greeted him with handcuffs.

His arrest on suspicion of attempted sexual assault on a child was one of nearly two dozen busts Posey has helped arrange over five years.

As well as posing as an underage girl, Posey collects e-mail tips on child pornography that she passes on to local police. Most recently, she sent Irvine detectives a tip that led federal prosecutors to charge an Orange County judge with felony possession of child pornography.

As the reach of the Internet grows, Posey counts herself among a handful of private citizens who have assumed the role of online crime fighters, hoping to smoke out sexual predators and traders in kiddie porn. They say they fill the gap that many local police departments leave because of meager resources.

Some, like Posey, work solo. Others belong to larger volunteer bands with bellicose names such as Predator-Hunter, Soc-Um and Cyberarmy Pedophilia Fighters. Another group, Cyberangels, an offshoot of the vigilante Guardian Angels in New York, claims 10,000 members who send tips to police.

Critics, however, describe their work as cyber-vigilantism that threatens Internet privacy. The medium’s promise of anonymity encourages users to confess their secret fantasies. And privacy rights advocates worry that crusaders entice people into fantasy play only to report them to police.

Law enforcement, for the most part, views the Internet activists as attention-seeking busybodies. The FBI has ordered a handful of “vigilantes” to stop. And police have arrested others for downloading illegal pornography, which is against the law whatever the motive.

“We really want the public’s help, but not to do this,” FBI Special Agent Peter A. Gulotta said. “After all, we certainly don’t expect people to go out on the street and do drug buys for us.”

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Posey appears to be the exception--winning praise from once-suspicious cops who view her as cyperspace’s answer to Nancy Drew.

One initial doubter was Herb Crosby, a Riley County, Kan., police lieutenant. When Posey called him about a sting she had set up a few years ago, he telephoned other investigators she had worked with and ran a background check on her.

“The other agencies that had dealt with her spoke highly of her,” Crosby said.

At seminars taught by Posey, police officers line up to learn about computers and chat rooms.

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“She’s like a bulldog,” said Mike Harris, a child abuse investigator with the district attorney’s office in Jefferson County, Colo.

Harris’ office has presented an award to Posey. The glass prize now sits on a shelf in her office, a tiny room in her home in Lafayette, Colo., west of Denver.

It’s there that Posey spends about 40 hours a week trolling the Net. When the chat rooms are silent, she turns to her Web site, www.pedowatch.org, a one-woman watchdog operation that has passed hundreds of tips to police. She finances her detective work through banner ads on the site, which have brought in as much as $1,000 a month.

On a typical day, Posey gets up and logs on, opening a deluge of e-mails. Most are pleas from worried parents, asking what they should do about their children chatting with strangers on the Internet. Posey replies to each one, suggesting ways to monitor what kids are up to online.

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As she types, her daughter, Kristyn, 12, sits behind her, thumbing through a textbook. Every half-hour or so, Posey interrupts her computer work to check on Kristyn’s progress or answer a chemistry question.

Posey makes lunch, cleans up and returns to her computer. She deletes the daily bag of critical e-mails and rare anonymous threats. “May the next plane land on you,” said a recent one. She takes none of them seriously; no one she has busted ever tried to contact her afterward.

Evening comes, and Posey prepares plates of spaghetti for her husband and daughter and grills some chicken for herself. Then, it’s off to Kristyn’s karate class before putting her daughter to bed. About 10 p.m., after Kristyn is asleep, Posey logs on again, this time as Kendra.

As Posey’s husband, a computer consultant, watches late-night talk shows in their bedroom, his wife cruises sex chat rooms in search of what police call “travelers"--men seeking kids online. Her husband goes to sleep about 11 p.m., but Posey is at the computer until well past midnight. Sometimes--"if things get really exciting"--she doesn’t log off until 3 or 4 a.m.

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“About any time I talk to her, she’s talking about one of her convictions,” Posey’s father, Clint Hickman, said. “I guess it’s a kind of obsession.”

Posey hardly had the background for Internet sleuthing. She knew little about the law before she started, and had no experience with investigations. Her last job before motherhood was cooking meals at a Methodist church.

Then an ordeal that Posey had long tried to forget resurfaced.

In 1981, when Posey was 16, she was raped by a man driving a truck who spotted her at a Denver bus stop. Posey identified a local airman as her attacker, and he was charged with sexual assault. As part of a deal with prosecutors, the man pleaded no contest to third-degree assault and served 90 days in jail, according to the Jefferson County district attorney’s office.

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Five years ago, a local prosecutor contacted Posey. Her attacker was again accused of raping a teenage girl. The prosecutor asked if Posey would testify at the upcoming trial. She agreed, and watched with satisfaction as a judge sentenced the rapist to 16 years in prison.

The courtroom experience inspired a fascination with the justice system. Posey volunteered to work at the Jefferson County district attorney’s office, and there she met Harris, the child abuse investigator.

Harris told her he was planning a sting operation against online sexual predators. He asked if she knew anything about the Internet. Posey had learned about computers from watching her husband at work, and she agreed to help.

She logged into chat rooms and pretended to be a 14-year-old girl. Harris was shocked at how quickly strangers asked her about sex. One sent a cell phone number to call.

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At home, Posey logged into rooms with names such as “dadanddaughtersex” and “littlgrls.”

Many of her correspondents wanted only to fantasize, which is not against the law. But some wanted to arrange meetings for sex, which can result in prosecution for attempted child molestation in California and similar charges in other states.

One was Thomas Ormsby, the Denver computer consultant. Posey ran across Ormsby two years ago after spotting Web ads he had posted. “Early teens wanted,” said one. “I’ll molest you by e-mail,” said another.

Posey drafted a response, posing as a troubled teen. For authenticity, she sprinkled her e-mail with punctuation errors.

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“my name is Kendra and I’m 14,” she wrote. “if you want you can write to me . . . but you might not want to talk to me because my friends say that i am a geek and i am dumb.”

Ormsby replied, starting what became a daily e-mail exchange. It took some time before the subject turned to sex. But when it did, Ormsby engaged in some violent fantasies. In one, Ormsby described a sex session he claimed to have had with an 11-year-old.

As their correspondence continued, a pile of candy bar wrappers grew beside Posey’s computer. Next to the heap lay a list of Kendra’s personal details to help Posey sustain the charade: the teenager’s hometown (Golden, Colo.); her favorite sport (soccer); her favorite subject (science).

Finally, Ormsby arranged to meet Kendra at a McDonald’s restaurant, asking her to wear black spandex tights and high heels. Undercover officers sat in wait.

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In October 1999, Ormsby pleaded guilty to attempted sexual assault of a child. Last year he was sentenced to three years in prison.

But to hear defense attorney Seth Temin explain the case, Ormsby was the true victim.

During his e-mail correspondence with Posey, Ormsby was encouraged to discuss sex at every turn, Temin said. When Ormsby wasn’t forward enough, Posey kept pushing. And it took two weeks of e-mails to persuade him to meet.

Ormsby pleaded guilty, his lawyer said, only because he was terrified that if prosecutors took the case to trial, he risked a sentence that, when served, would require him to remain on parole for the rest of his life.

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To Temin, his client’s downfall illustrates how easily Internet crusaders like Posey can encourage others to believe they can fulfill fantasies they would otherwise keep locked away.

“It’s common for people on the Internet to fake personas,” Temin said. “Should we be peeking into people’s bedrooms like that?”

Posey makes no apologies for her work, which she said has brought her life a sense of purpose. For years, she had felt that no one understood the ordeal she went through as a teenager.

“You talk about therapy--watching these guys cuffed and taken away,” she said. “You think, ‘They’re not going to hurt a child. This is great.’ ”

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Still, the idea of Posey chatting with sexual predators online at first troubled some of her closest friends. Dolores Aaron worried that Posey would quickly find the work too disturbing.

Instead, Aaron watched her friend change for the better, she said. Once shy, she has become more outgoing, even outspoken at times.

“She’s no longer standing in the background seeing what was going on. She took a big step forward,” Aaron said. “I think she was made for this. I really do.”

Despite Posey’s success, other online activists have found themselves on the receiving end of police attention.

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In one case, FBI agents believed an online activist was unwittingly disrupting an undercover sting by targeting the same suspect.

Two months ago, sheriff’s deputies in Maine seized an activist’s computer after he told them he was sent child porn over the Internet while monitoring suspected pedophiles. Prosecutors have charged the man with possessing illegal pornography.

Under state and federal laws, possessing photographs of a child engaged in a sex act is illegal, as is sending such photos over the Internet or downloading them onto a computer.

FBI agents in Los Angeles turn away about a dozen people a year who offer help with online sex stings, suspicious that some might be closet pedophiles.

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“You talk to them for a bit and you get a gut feeling that something’s not quite right,” Supervisory Special Agent Randy Aden said.

Posey distances herself from such activists, but even she has run into trouble.

Three people who volunteered to work for Posey’s Web site were arrested in separate busts for possessing illegal pictures. All claimed they downloaded the images as part of their volunteer work, despite her repeated warnings never to view pornography online. Frustrated and embarrassed, Posey quit using volunteers.

Posey insists that her No. 1 rule is to never download pornography, which involves transferring images from the Internet onto a personal computer or disk. And she seeks frequent advice from detectives to ensure that she does nothing illegal.

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After Ormsby, there was the 34-year-old drug addict who rented a room for himself and Kendra, only to find a dozen officers waiting at his motel. There was the Colorado Springs airman who contacted Kendra on a Monday and was driving to meet her by Friday. And there was the Ohio jailer arrested for downloading kiddie porn on his home computer.

But Posey’s latest case--one that led to the arrest of a prominent Orange County judge--may be the one most fiercely contested.

In July, Posey passed authorities an anonymous tip from someone who claimed that Judge Ronald C. Kline was stocking up on illegal porn downloaded from the Web. The unsigned e-mail also alleged that the Irvine jurist was keeping a secret diary about his attraction to teenage boys.

Posey tried to find out who sent the tip. Each computer on the Internet has a unique return address, but Posey discovered that the e-mail’s address had been forged. The tipster had covered his tracks well.

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She did a quick check online and found that Kline did live in Irvine, and alerted California authorities.

Federal prosecutors allege that a search of Kline’s computers unearthed more than 100 illegal images of young boys engaging in sex and lewd behavior. Further investigation led to child molestation charges after a man told Irvine police that Kline sexually abused him a quarter-century ago when the accuser was 12.

Kline’s lawyers, however, condemn the way the government obtained its evidence. Court records show that Posey’s tipster was a hacker who communicated with Kline online about the judge’s interest in boys and exchanged photos of youngsters kissing.

As they corresponded, the hacker infected Kline’s computer with a virus that allowed him to copy the entire contents of the judge’s hard drive. The hacker, whom prosecutors have not named, then messaged Posey about what he had found.

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Kline has pleaded not guilty to all charges. His case, scheduled for trial later this year, could test how far authorities can go in relying on the work of Internet crusaders who might themselves have broken the law.

Posey’s involvement in the Kline case ended late last summer. But her hunt for pedophiles continues.

“I can see me doing this all my life,” Posey said. “I’ll be sitting at a computer--80 years old--telling an assistant, ‘Well, tell the little pervert to do this . . . .’ ”


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