HAMILTON, N.J. (AP) — "Operation Safety Net," the results of which were announced in December, netted 79 people suspected of exploiting children.

Most were accused of owning and sharing child pornography, or material that shows children being sexually abused. Ten people actively used the internet to actively solicit children for sexual activity, authorities said.

The high-profile police campaign engendered tremendous public interest, as New Jerseyans pored over the list of names and accompanying photographs — among them a youth minister, piano teacher, engineer and Trenton police officer — for people they, or perhaps their children, might know.

Left unanswered at the time: Who's winning the war against online child abuse in New Jersey? Was it law enforcement? Or those who trade or engage in child exploitation?

New Jersey State Police Lt. John Pizzuro, the commander of New Jersey's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force — abbreviated to ICAC and pronounced eye-kack — told The Asbury Park Press that law enforcement has ever-sophisticated tools and technology to engage those who exploit children, as evidenced by last fall's arrests.

The challenge for investigators: Their adversaries have an array of tools as well, and their young targets, more and more, are as accessible as ever by mobile devices.

Making matters worse, the pursuers and their targets often meet on an ever-changing menu of social media platforms, investigators say.

"The more individuals have technology — the more individuals rely on technology — the more predators will be out there," said Pizzuro, a 22-year employee of the State Police.

Pizzuro, confronting a reality that did not exist a generation ago, said he sees more younger children with their own mobile phones, along with their own internet connections.

At a recent presentation on internet safety, he said, 22 students polled had smartphones — and just two students did not.

The audience: a classroom of first-graders.

Factor in a lack of adult supervision, Pizzuro said, or a child simply exercising their curiosity — and there is ample opportunity for a predator to attempt to find an avenue for forging a relationship with a child.

At State Police's Digital Technology Investigations Unit — part of State Police headquarters in Hamilton — wall posters showcase recent major child exploitation operation.

Operation Safety Net and another investigation, called Operation Statewide, are among them.

There are rows of mugshots.

Hundreds of pairs of eyes bear down, frozen in glossy ink.

The arrests are the work of the State Police and the state's Division of Criminal Justice, along with prosecutor's offices and municipal police departments in each of New Jersey's 21 counties.

"One of the things we have found today is that wherever children are, predators go," Pizzuro said.

In 2017, ICAC detectives investigated and arrested 230 people from all around New Jersey, Pizzuro said.

In 2016, that number was around 200, he said. In 2015, approximately 170 people were apprehended.

In other words — investigators on the state's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force are kept busy.

The pace of work is unlikely to slow.

Starting in February, in compliance with a state law enacted in July, investigators began looking for people who possess child erotica — or what the state defines as "images that depict nearly naked, suggestively posed, and inappropriately sexualized children."

Under the law, such images are part and parcel to child pornography and exploitation.

On a slightly drizzly, overcast Friday morning, weeks before the law went into effect, investigators permitted The Asbury Park Press to gain a glimpse into the mechanics of their job — and what lies ahead in a struggle that pits abusers against children.

With their backs to a wall, two men hunch over a small, clunky-looking laptop in an annex at State Police headquarters.

The pair are mostly silent; their mouths are set in straight lines. When they talk, they do so quietly — at least in the presence of strangers.

Sitting on a table before the computer, a black case lined with foam is open.

The people at work are detectives pulling contents from a mobile phone as part of a standard investigation into child exploitation, Pizzuro said.

The computer and the case's contents are part of a setup from Cellebrite, or a program that specializes in mobile phone data extraction.

"I got a big heart for kids," said New Jersey State Police Detective Joseph Santamaria. "Unfortunately, someone's gotta do it. The content we've got to see ..."

His voice trails off.

"It's rewarding to get those guys," Santamaria continued.

Cellebrite wasn't cheap. It cost the New Jersey State Police around $20,000, Pizzuro said.

There are only a few companies that sell programs capable of mobile phone data extraction, Pizzuro said, so the ones that do charge a handsome fee.

Members of Pizzuro's unit also receive a "couple hundred thousand dollars" a year in specialized training. It costs a lot to keep up with rapidly changing technology — used by both law enforcement and child predators.

Investigators will target one predator-favored software program one day, only to have them switch to another program, Pizzuro said. It's on detectives to move quickly enough to keep up with the onslaught of new mobile applications and websites frequented by child exploiters.

"Technology advances," Pizzuro said. "What we know today is different tomorrow."

For the moment, with the near ubiquity of cellphones, mobile forensics is "the new wave," Pizzuro said, adding that more predators are also using the surface web — or the "regular" internet — instead of the dark web, which is not easily accessible, or indexed by search engines.

For a minority of users, mobile devices are just another way to look at explicit material of kids, he said. They also use computers.

"This is normal," Pizzuro said. "Everything I'm telling you — this (using devices to target children) happens on any app that you can get off iOS or an Android. This happens every day."

Currently, Pizzuro said investigators conduct at least one on-location search around the state each week, utilizing a van that doubles as a mobile cyber forensics work station.

The van, Pizzuro said, is a new resource for law enforcement, as is Mega, a German Shepherd that can detect hidden electronics by sniffing for triphenylphosphine oxide — TPPO, for short.

TPPO, a compound, is a substance that coats most electronics to prevent overheating.

"The dog's imprinted on that chemical," said New Jersey State Police Trooper Slawek Stepien.

Mega, who graduated from training in June and started working the same month, can detect anything with TPPO, Stepien said — "from laptops, computer hard drives, thumb drives, SD cards, micro SD cards."

If it sounds like a gimmick — it's not, authorities say.

New Jersey State Police troopers recalled a TPPO-sniffing dog in Indiana helped find a thumb drive that investigators had initially missed while searching the home of Jared Fogle, the former spokesman for the Subway sandwich chain.

In 2015, Fogle pleaded guilty to federal charges of child pornography possession and traveling to pay for sex with minors. Fogle, 40, is serving a maximum of 15 years, 8 months at Federal Correctional Institution, Englewood, in Colorado.

In Hamilton, New Jersey State Police's own TPPO-detecting dog, Mega — a nickname of his full name, Megabyte — bounded into the Digital Technology Investigations Unit.

Eyes alert and tail wagging, the 2-year-old canine, who is the eighth TPPO-sniffing dog in the country, barked excitedly.

"He's ready to go to work," Stepien said.

Outside State Police headquarters, the cyber forensics van — immaculately clean, with space to set up computers and view seized material on a flat-screen television — provides investigators with a relatively quiet, less hectic environment to quickly review what they find in a home and charge the suspect on the spot.

The van is used for various types of criminal investigations, authorities say, and not just for those concerning child exploitation.

"It's not easy to look at (child pornography)," said Scott Donlan, who has been a detective with the state's Division of Criminal Justice for 17 years. "But the job satisfaction of catching the people who are looking at this is very high. It's a tradeoff."

Of the children who come under the influence of a predator, Pizzuro said it's sometimes not their first time being a victim.

"Predators are going to search up children specifically with low self-esteem," Pizzuro said. He noted school bullying often manifests in feelings of poor self-worth among victims.

Add in the internet, and bullying follows school kids home in the form of disparaging texts and posts, Pizzuro said. That takes a toll on children already struggling with self-esteem.

"Today, because of the way things are, and especially in schools with bullying, there is no end to the school day," Pizzuro said. "It doesn't end at 3:30. It continues all the way through."

Online, children turn to social media or games, Pizzuro said. There, they might meet a seemingly kind companion who befriends them and begins to forge an intimate connection.

That is often when "grooming" begins — or the process of a predator coercing a child online, Pizzuro said.

Predators commonly start seeking children on Facebook or Instagram, Pizzuro said, and then move the interaction toward other platforms, such as the mobile app, Kik, which allows its users to anonymously message others and exchange photo and video.

Other popular platforms Pizzuro noted were Yellow, or a Tinder-like setup for kids that arranges friend meet-ups instead of dates; musical.ly, a lip-synching app, and Xbox games.

Until it shut down in April, Yik Yak — a social media app that organized conversations into threads — also had a large following among youth.

Like thousands of other apps, the platforms that are popular among children will constantly change. But what law enforcement consistently sees now is that there is more predatory behavior on apps than on websites, Pizzuro said.

In Operation Safety Net — the massive roundup of alleged predators announced in December — several of the accused had chatted with children, detectives posing as children or both, according to investigators.

None of the men could be reached by the Press. It was unknown how the defendants pleaded to their pending charges.

"The individuals in those cases — they actively looked for children to target," Pizzuro said, standing in a small, computer-lined room he calls the "undercover" room.

The computers in the undercover room are used to seek out people "lurking for children," Pizzuro said, and to find users who own and share child pornography using file-sharing software.

"The subject matter is difficult," Pizzuro said. "What we do is very difficult. However, we keep in mind the impact that we're making, and that's what's making a difference."

How does a detective deal with regularly looking at child pornography as part of the job?

For one — they take breaks, Pizzuro said.

They also don't keep personal photos next to the forensic machines, he said, or look at explicit material at the end of the day shortly before they go home to their families.

Investigators use software that can detect potential child pornography, depending on elements like skin, faces and nudity, but Pizzuro said much of the work must still be done manually.

"There's a lot of things that we institute to make sure that we keep the well-being of the people involved," Pizzuro said.

But the nature of the job is, fundamentally, a challenging one.

Sometimes, children are in the home as suspects download and share child pornography, Pizzuro said.

He recalled a case where a perpetrator stated he wanted to sexually assault a 4-year-old and make the child cry.

Gracing the walls in the Digital Technology Investigations Unit is a large sign for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's cyber tipline.

All the cyber tips from the center are received electronically and the tips are then triaged, or prioritized, often depending on the ages of victims, he said.

A victim's age, the level of child endangerment and risk of child suicide all contribute to how law enforcement prioritizes tips.

"Ninety-nine percent of the cases that we get here are all 12-year-olds, 11-year-olds," Pizzuro said. ". In some of these cases, we've had infants as young as 18 months."

Around 10 percent of the tips from the National Center are credible, Pizzuro said, but detectives investigate every tip they receive.

In 2016, investigators received 2,500 tips from the National Center, Pizzuro said. In 2017, the number of tips spiked to around 4,000, but he attributed the increase to more internet providers divulging explicit content involving minors to investigators.

"There's a lot of people here that are parents," Pizzuro said. " . We look at our own children, and we're trying to help as many children as we can, and eradicate this behavior that's out there."

Child predatory behavior falls on a continuum, authorities say.

Viewing child erotica is a stepping stone that can lead to viewing child pornography, Pizzuro said, noting that the worst offenders can progress to committing "hands-on" sexual offenses against youth.

"We were hearing more and more that there were people who possessed child erotica but not child pornography," said former New Jersey Attorney General Christopher Porrino. "We decided there was more that needed to be done."

Enter S-3219 — the law that expanded the definition of child pornography in New Jersey to include child erotica.

New Jersey now joins several other states that criminalize child erotica, said state Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex. Those states include Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Vermont and Virginia, she said.

"...We (at the Office of the New Jersey Attorney General and the New Jersey State Police) had a very active role with drafting 3219, so we're quite happy with it," Porrino said. "It didn't get watered down."

While Porrino — then the highest-ranking law enforcement official in the state — and legislators lauded the law they helped to create, two criminal defense attorneys said trial courts would struggle to interpret the state's amended definition of child pornography.

"Undoubtedly, this will result in an increase in arrests, complaints and criminal convictions," said criminal defense lawyer Tara Breslow-Testa, who owns her own law office in Red Bank.

The new law holds violators culpable for being the "leader of a child pornography network" if they create or maintain a digital presence and distribute child pornography files to an "organized group."

The law additionally established a gradient to child porn possession.

People convicted of owning at least 100,000 items of child porn could be charged with first-degree possession. Less than 100,000 items but more than 1,000 could warrant a second-degree child porn possession charge. Owning at least 1,000 files could be a third-degree crime. Each child porn video, or segment of a video, would count as 10 separate items.

The law would also label people with at least 1,000 items of child porn as "super-possessors."

Under former law, people who shared 25 or 10,000 files of child porn faced a charge of second-degree distribution of child pornography, despite the wide disparity in file volume.

Under the new law, a person who distributed more than 1,000 items would be convicted of a first-degree crime. Distributing less than 1,000 items would still be a second-degree crime.

Those convicted of owning at least 1,000 files of child pornography could be held to lifelong parole supervision, be subject to commitment at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center in Woodbridge, and be required to register as a sex offender in New Jersey.

In the Operation Safety Net arrests, 11 of the accused possessed at least 1,000 files of child sexual abuse; one possessed some 10,000 files, and one possibly possessed more than 1 million files, according to the officials.

The law, criminal defense attorney Matthew W. Reisig said, presents "dramatic changes" to charges of possession and distribution of child porn, and "demonstrates an effort" to change the law in tune with technological advancement.

"Here, the notion of what constitutes 'child erotica,' or not, will be vigorously contested," said Reisig, who works at the Freehold-based firm, Reisig Criminal Defense & DWI Law.

Reisig said it is "certain" that defense lawyers will argue that child erotica is not sexual, but art.

"Ultimately, what 'child erotica' is, or is not, will be determined by the Appellate Division and the New Jersey Supreme Court," Reisig said. "That is as certain as the sunrise tomorrow."

Reducing the amount of online child exploitation largely starts with parents, Pizzuro said.

With more and more children being allowed to roam the internet on mobile devices, the onus is on parents — or those who care for children — to monitor online activity, he said.

But more than that, Pizzuro said, the people who have kids' welfare at heart must communicate with the youngest members of society — meaningfully.

"More than anything, I think we've lost communication," Pizzuro said.

His theory: when technology supplants genuine human connection and conversation, children can pay a price through exploitation, Pizzuro said.

The trauma doesn't end for a child once a predator is arrested or convicted.

Sexual exploitation can leave lasting scars — both physical and mental.

"If they've been traumatized once, we don't want to do that again," Pizzuro said. "We have to get the information, which is really difficult for a child to talk about how they've been taken advantage of and sexually assaulted."

Minors are forensically interviewed at child advocacy centers, Pizzuro said, adding that his office employs two interviewers.

Pizzuro noted, however, that images or videos of child sexual abuse don't always disappear once a person has been convicted.

Some images continue to be shared online, passed from one predator to another.

"I've seen those images," Pizzuro said. "They're devastating."


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Information from: Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, http://www.app.com