A tale of unsavory Justice

A teenager brought his horrific story of online sexual abuse to Congress this week, and the Bush Justice Department barely showed. Even GOP congressmen were outraged.

By Michael Scherer
April 8, 2006 3:52AM (UTC)
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Justin Berry, a gangly teenager from Bakersfield, Calif., succeeded this week in doing what Democrats have failed to accomplish for five years. He persuaded a group of Republicans in Congress to condemn the incompetence and secrecy of the Bush administration -- in this case, the Justice Department.

"I've got to tell you, my confidence is pretty shaken," said Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon during Thursday morning's hearing of the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas announced that he believes criminals are laughing at American law enforcement. Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee said she found the Justice Department's behavior "incomprehensible."


The sharpest condemnation came from the most powerful member of the panel, Joe Barton of Texas, who is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and a well-known defender of the Bush administration's policies. "We are questioning the judgment of the Justice Department of the United States of America, which seems to think it can thumb its nose at the Congress of the United States," Barton said. "And that will not happen. I am going to tell the attorney general straight."

As the criticism rained down, Berry, a 19-year-old victim of Internet sex predators, watched quietly from the gallery, dressed in an ill-fitting pinstriped suit. He had first come to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to share his startling and horrifying story, which was first chronicled in December by the New York Times. At the age of 13, Berry had been lured by online sex predators into removing his shirt in front of a Web camera in his bedroom. "The seduction was slow," Berry testified on Tuesday, as he sat next to Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald, who had originally told Berry's story. "Each new request went only a bit further than the last."

Before long, Berry was regularly performing online for adult clients who paid him in cash and gifts and met him in person. Some of the predators molested him, he said. One man even rented him an apartment so he could perform for the camera away from his mother's supervision. "My experience is not as isolated as you might hope," Berry told Congress on Tuesday in what can only be described as a heroic act, his voice only occasionally breaking with emotion. "There are hundreds of kids in the United States alone who are right now wrapped up in this horror."


No one knows the full scope of online child exploitation, but authorities unanimously agree that the problem has exploded in the past decade. A recent study found that 20 percent of American minors between the ages of 10 and 17 who used the Internet regularly received a sexual solicitation online within the past year. Experts say that predators frequent popular Web sites like MySpace and Facebook, seeking prey. In one method of coercion, predators encourage the minors to perform sexual acts online in exchange for gifts sent through wish lists on Amazon.com or the Web site of American Eagle Outfitters. Other predators use the Internet as a way to arrange meetings with children for molestation.

In a disturbing twist, just this week the deputy press secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, one of the agencies that testified in the hearings, was accused of an online sex crime. Brian J. Doyle was arrested Tuesday for attempting to seduce a 14-year-old girl over the Internet.

The trade in illegal images of child molestation has also exploded online, experts say. A federal law enforcement task force recently discovered that online peer-to-peer file-sharing systems had been used by more than 1 million U.S.-based Internet protocol addresses over a two-year period to trade movies or images of young children being sexually abused. More than 80 percent of offenders cataloged by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were caught with images of children younger than 12 years old. One in five offenders had images of children younger than 3 years old.


The FBI and Justice Department have responded by launching new task forces, with Justice increasing its caseload more than fourfold in the past four years. But federal prosecutions still number in the thousands. In one recent child pornography bust, computer records identified 20,000 suspected child sex offenders in America, according to Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee. But prosecutors have so far convicted fewer than 2 percent of the suspects. "In Wyoming, our small team has over 250 search warrants we could request if manpower were not an issue," testified Flint Waters, a special agent with the Wyoming Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

Berry testified about his loss of faith in the ability of law enforcement officials to catch his tormentors. "Based on my case, efforts to prosecute these people are riddled with mistakes and bureaucracy," Berry said on Tuesday. "Unless something changes, hundreds, or even thousands, of children will be lost forever."


After waiting weeks, prosecutors mistakenly released Berry's name in a legal filing, tipping off his victimizers that he was cooperating with authorities. Then the investigation apparently went silent. Nearly seven months after the teenager approached the Justice Department with evidence of his abuse, prosecutors have not taken action against the bulk of his alleged molesters, according to testimony from Eichenwald. Berry's attorney, Stephen Ryan, said the department has not yet taken action on the nearly 1,500 Internet protocol addresses matched with credit card numbers of predators who visited Berry's online performances. Likewise, there has been no action taken against credit card processors that facilitated the business, including one company that is alleged to have repeatedly served the child pornography business.

"I have never seen a case in my experience move slower than this one," said the Times' Eichenwald on Tuesday, reflecting on his 20-year career as a crime reporter. "You ask if this is an active investigation. What more can be done? The better question is, what less could be done?"

After hearing Berry's story on Tuesday, members of Congress vowed to take up his case later in the week, when officials from the Justice Department are scheduled to testify. At the time, chairman Barton still counted himself a defender of the Justice Department and its leader, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. "The attorney general has been very cooperative and we are getting cooperation," Barton said.


But by Thursday, Congress experienced firsthand the incompetence that had caused Berry to lose faith. Rather than address concerns authoritatively, the Justice Department refused to send to the hearing any of the officials whom Congress had requested, including those with a supervisory role in Berry's case. Instead, the administration sent William W. Mercer, a pink-faced deputy to a deputy attorney general -- a staffer armed with little more than upbeat crime statistics and generic statements of concern. Two other high-ranking child crime officials, one from the Department of Homeland Security and one from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, were not permitted to give their testimony, according to Stupak.

Both Democrats and Republicans expressed outrage. "We're going to hold another hearing and these people will be here," Barton announced. To prove its point, the panel dismissed Mercer just 15 minutes into his testimony, denying him the privilege of spinning a case that the Justice Department was on the job. As Stupak told an FBI witness later in the day, "You got a very big black eye here on Tuesday, and it is getting bigger every day."

As the members of Congress lambasted the Justice Department in one room of the Rayburn House Office Building, Attorney General Gonzales was giving testimony before the Judiciary Committee two floors down in the same building. Gonzales devoted four paragraphs of his prepared testimony to his "Project Safe Childhood" initiative.


"The Internet must be safe for all Americans, especially children," Gonzales' statement reads.

But as his agency's track record on fighting online predators now stands, such noble sentiments offer little consolation to Justin Berry and other children who continue to be targeted and exploited.

This story has been corrected since it was first published.

Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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