By MICHAEL REZENDES and HELEN WIEFFERING | Associated Press
The video of a man raping his 9-year-old daughter was discovered in New Zealand in 2016 and triggered a global search for the little girl.
Investigators contacted Interpol and the pursuit eventually included the FBI, the U.S. State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Months later, investigators raided the Bisbee, Arizona, home of Paul Adams, arrested him and rescued the girl in the video along with her five siblings.
While Adams can no longer physically hurt his daughter — he died by suicide in custody — the videos live on, downloaded and uploaded by child pornographers across the U.S. and around the globe, growing ever more popular even as as police, prosecutors and internet companies chase behind in a futile effort to remove the images.
The number of times the Adams video has been seen soared from fewer than 100 in 2017 to 4,500 in 2021, according to data provided to The Associated Press with the permission of the girl and her adoptive mother, Nancy Salminen. The tally was produced by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit that tracks child pornography on the internet and works with law enforcement agencies throughout the world.
“That’s the horrendous part about it,” Salminen said. “You can’t just say that’s in the past and shut the door and move on. She will never be able to turn her back on what’s happened.”
The ongoing victimization of the child could have been avoided.
Six years before the video surfaced in Auckland, Adams, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon church, confessed to his bishop that he abused his daughter, identified by the AP as MJ.
But a prominent church lawyer told the bishop to keep the abuse secret. And as a result, MJ was brutalized for seven more years. Today, she continues to be victimized almost daily in a different way, as the video, and others Adams took, circulate on the internet. Details of the Mormon officials’ cover-up of the Adams rapes were reported in an AP investigation in August.
The data provided to the AP also shows that police in the U.S. referred the Adams video, or portions of it, to NCMEC for identification 1,850 times since it was discovered, contributing to nearly 800 arrests on federal child pornography charges last year alone.
Those arrested comprise a coast-to-coast catalog of men — women rarely traffic in child pornography, the data shows — that defies economic or geographic boundaries. A random sampling includes:
— Kurt Sheldon, 31, a librarian in Putnam County, Florida, was arrested in September 2020 for possession of child pornography and using Snapchat to solicit pornography from a 12-year-oid girl. Sheldon was sentenced to nearly 22 years in federal prison.
— Joseph Mollick, 58, a physician affiliated with the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center was arrested in October 2021. Federal officials charged him with using the social media application Kik to upload 2,000 child pornography videos and images. Mollick pleaded not guilty.
— Jared Faircloth, 24, a U.S. Air Force airman, was arrested in October 2021 in Cream Ridge, New Jersey, for downloading more than 2,800 child sex abuse videos and images through the BitTorrent network. Faircloth pleaded guilty to federal charges and is awaiting sentencing.
— Harold “HL” Moody, Jr., 39, a former communications director for the Arkansas Democratic party, was arrested in November 2018 for distributing child pornography in online chatrooms. The Little Rock resident pleaded guilty to federal charges and is awaiting sentencing.
LIMITS OF COMPUTER SLEUTHING
The seeming immortality of the Adams video underscores the limits of computer sleuthing by a global network of investigators racing to stop internet child pornography, and it reveals how advances in data storage and video technology have outpaced efforts to stop it.
Permanently removing the images from the open internet is nearly impossible, child sex abuse experts say, because pornographers throughout the world are constantly downloading the images, storing them and reposting them.
“That’s what makes the whole crime type so abhorrent,” said Simon Peterson, the New Zealand customs agent who discovered the Adams video, during an interview with the AP. Victims of online child pornography, he said, “have to wake up every morning knowing that there’s imagery of those terrible times in their lives still out there, and that people are accessing it for their own gratification.”
The Adams case has also highlighted a glaring loophole in state child sex abuse reporting laws. Adams, a member of the Mormon church, confessed he was abusing his daughter to his Bishop, John Herrod, in 2010. In Arizona, clergy are among the professionals required to report child sexual abuse to police or child welfare officials.
But when the bishop called the church’s “help line” for advice, Merrill Nelson, a lawyer representing the church, directed him to withhold the information from police and child welfare officials.
According to legal documents, Nelson, who was also a Utah legislator, pointed to an exception in the state’s mandatory child sex abuse reporting law that allows clergy to keep information revealed during a confession to themselves. The so-called clergy-penitent privilege is on the books in 33 states, the AP found.
Behind this veil of church secrecy, Adams continued molesting MJ and, five years later, started raping her younger sister as well, beginning when she was just 6 weeks old. He was also taking videos and photographs of the abuse and posting them to the internet, including the nine-minute video that was eventually his undoing.
A WORLDWIDE QUEST
It was November 2016 when Peterson and his team of agents in Auckland raided the home of a 47-year-old farm worker whom they’d been watching online for months.
“He knew what we were there for,” Peterson recalled. “And by the end of the morning we’d arrested him, interviewed him and charged him for exporting and possessing child sexual abuse material.”
For weeks the investigators pored over the computers and cell phones they had seized in the raid, and shortly before Christmas, Peterson found the Adams video, which the farmworker had downloaded from an internet site based in Russia.
Agents who chase child pornographers often see the same images over and over. But Peterson said the Adams video was different. After running it through a New Zealand database of seized child pornography, and a second database maintained by Interpol, the organization that helps law enforcement agencies work across countries, Peterson suspected the video might be new, and the child depicted might still be in danger.
He could also see obvious clues that could help identify the rapist and his victim.
“We could see both their faces for a start,” Peterson said. “And they were talking throughout it, as well. We could tell from the accent if it wasn’t Canadian, it was American. So we could narrow it down pretty quickly.”
Interpol sent the video to NCMEC, which acts as a clearinghouse for agencies investigating child pornography throughout the world. Computer analysts there isolated several images of Adams’ face and sent them to Homeland Security Investigations, which in turn sent them to the FBI, where analysts tried unsuccessfully to identify them with facial recognition technology, according to summaries of the case compiled by the U.S. Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security.
The FBI’s Operation Rescue Me then turned to the State Department to compare the images to those in a database of visa and passport photos and found eight potential matches. Investigators finally zeroed in on Adams and his daughter through his wife’s Facebook page. They were also able to determine that the video was made on June 20, 2015, and that Adams was a U.S. Border Patrol employee who had that day off, so he was free to create the video at home.
On Feb. 8, 2017, about six weeks after Peterson discovered the video in New Zealand, Homeland Security agents arrested Adams on the job at the Naco, Arizona, border crossing while federal agents raided his home, seized electronic devices and rescued his six children.
“It was quite emotional,” Peterson said. “We don’t get success often.”
A GLOBAL GLUT OF CHILD PORN
Over the last several years, sightings of child sexual abuse material on the internet have skyrocketed.
Under federal law, every internet platform based in the United States is required to report discoveries of child pornography on their social media pages to NCMEC’s Cyber Tipline. Last year, the organization received 29 million reports, up from 21 million in 2020, and 18 million in 2019 — a 61% increase over just two years.
The vast majority of these reports stem from child pornography posted on the open internet and do not account for additional child porn posted to the dark web, where producers and consumers of child sexual abuse material — or CSAM — operate with near complete anonymity.
“It’s nearly impossible to fully estimate and scope how much CSAM is on the internet, whether that’s open web, P2P (peer-to-peer) file sharing or the dark net,” said John Shehan, vice president of NCMEC’s Exploited Children Division.
But investigators agree that the surge in reports by companies with open internet platforms such as Facebook indicates an enormous increase in the volume of child sexual abuse material on the internet. These investigators attribute the increase to advances in technology that have made it easier and less expensive for amateurs to take pornographic videos with their cellphones and to store vast amounts child pornography at minimal cost on remote servers or external hard drives.
Erin Burke, the Homeland Security section chief for the agency’s Cyber Crimes Center, said it’s common for investigators to find child pornographers with “terabytes of files.” A single terabyte is enough space to hold hundreds of hours of video and can be stored on a remote server for as little as $25 a month, or on an external hard drive that can cost less than $100.
Investigators also attribute the sharp rise in internet child pornography to the worldwide travel restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic.
Unable to visit countries where child prostitution proliferates, some pornographers resorted to a practice known as “sextortion,” in which an online perpetrator lures a child into sending compromising selfies. If the child later refuses to produce more explicit images, the perpetrator threatens to post the selfies the child initially created to the child’s social media contacts, which typically include family members.
“That’s one of the bad outcomes of COVID,” Burke said. “It was bound to happen anyway but it just kind of sped up that process.”
On Monday, the U.S. Justice Department issued an alert on a related scheme in which young sextortion victims are also extorted for money, citing more than 3,000 victims and multiple suicides this year.
Another chilling outcome of the pandemic, Burke said, is the advent of live streaming of child sexual abuse for audiences ranging from a handful to thousands. On platforms that offer live video chats and end-to-end encryption, viewers who pay minimal, untraceable fees may choose from a menu of child victims of varying ages, including infants, and request to see specific sex acts.
Burke said Homeland Security investigators have found that much of the live streaming originates in the Philippines and is performed for U.S. and Western European audiences. English is commonly spoken in the Southeast Asian nation and high-quality internet service is available, she said. At the same time, harsh economic conditions provide an incentive for families to participate.
“They’re mostly abusing family members,” Burke said. “It’s not grabbing kids off the street.”
As the volume of internet child sexual abuse material has soared, so too have the number of agencies working to stop it. Homeland Security and the FBI both have special units dedicated to tracking down child pornographers. Along with NCMEC, they work closely with more than 60 local branches of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Program, with units spread throughout the U.S.
Internationally, Homeland Security and NCMEC work with investigators at Interpol and law enforcement agencies throughout the world, including those in the other “Five Eyes” countries — Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand — which cooperate in a range of intelligence activities.
In the six years following the discovery of the nine-minute Adams video, law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have seized thousands of images of MJ’s abuse and have referred the material to NCMEC for positive identification. In turn, NCMEC has cataloged the identities of those arrested who may have possessed or trafficked the images and given the information to MJ’s lawyers, who can sue each perpetrator for up to $150,000 in restitution under federal civil law, in addition to restitution that may be available through criminal proceedings.
Lynne Cadigan, one of several attorneys representing three of the Adams children, said MJ will seek compensation from the child pornographers.
But she and Salminen, the girl’s adoptive mother, lay most of the blame for the sexual abuse on officials of the Mormon church, who knew Adams molested MJ as early as 2010 and did nothing to stop it.
“She went to church with people who didn’t help her and as a result thousands of people are looking at the video and there’s nothing she can do about it,” Cadigan said.
Two years ago, the three Adams children filed a lawsuit that accuses the church, two bishops and a third Mormon official of conspiring to keep the years of abuse by their father out of the hands of civil authorities.
As part of the lawsuit, the Arizona Court of Appeals on Dec. 15 ruled that the church does not have to turn over disciplinary records for Adams, who was excommunicated in 2013. The court also ruled that a church official who attended a disciplinary hearing could refuse to answer questions from the plaintiffs’ attorneys during pretrial testimony, based on the clergy-penitent privilege. Lawyers for the three Adams children said they plan to appeal.
Attorneys for the church say the bishops who knew that Adams abused his daughter — John Herrod and Robert “Kim” Mauzy — did nothing wrong by taking a lawyer’s advice and withholding the information because Adams told Herrod about the abuse during a spiritual confession, triggering the privilege.
In a statement to the AP, the church said it had no knowledge Adams was recording himself abusing his two daughters and posting the material on the internet until 2017. “The Church had no idea that these videos were being created or circulated until after Paul Adams was arrested,” the statement read. “The church supports all efforts to prosecute anyone who possesses or distributes these heinous and disturbing videos.”
Adams might never have stopped raping his two daughters if Peterson hadn’t discovered the nine-minute video in New Zealand. But unlike Adams, the video may never be stopped.
“They’re living with it for the rest of their lives,” Peterson said. “It’s on the internet. It’s not going anywhere.”
AP investigative reporter Jason Dearen, video journalist Jesse Wardarski and data journalist Justin Myers contributed to this story.
To contact AP’s investigations team, email firstname.lastname@example.org