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Behind the Screen: How Eugene detectives catch online sex offenders

"Within hours of opening our decoy profiles, someone was contacting us."

Posted: Oct 14, 2021 2:38 PM
Updated: Oct 15, 2021 10:12 AM

EUGENE, Ore. -- After learning about sting operations at a training, Eugene Police detectives decided to begin their own undercover profiles online to find predators in the area.

KEZI 9 News was granted exclusive access to the unit where they shared their techniques and the toll it takes on their psyche. We agreed to hide their identities to ensure confidentiality of any pending investigations.

Detective J and Detective C are in the violent crimes unit, which means typically they're handling cases like murders and shootings. But ever since they began their sting operations, it's been nonstop contact.

"One of the trainers discussed how prevalent offenders were in attempting to reach out to underage children," said Detective J. "Within hours of opening our decoy profiles, someone was contacting us."

Detectives said it was also just a matter a time when they could receive unrequested, explicit pictures.

"Within a couple messages back and forth, you will get an unrequested picture of their genitalia," said Detective C.

Detectives have to get "into character" in order to pose as a young female teenager. They said they are not currently undergoing any formal training.

"Through the course of our routine duties, we do have regular contact with teens, especially at-risk youth," said Detective C. "So we're engaging in conversation with them on a regular basis."

In 2020, Eugene Police reported 10 online child predator cases leading to 4 arrests. So far in 2021, that number has jumped to 26 cases with 24 arrests.

RELATED: FOUR MEN TRIED TO MEET TEENS FOR SEX IN POLICE STING, OFFICIALS SAY

Detectives said that number is directly related to the increase in sting operations this year.

"I think the numbers are directly related to EPD command allowing us the time and effort to investigate these cases," said Detective J. "In the past, we haven't had the support we had now so we are encouraged to follow up on these cases."

Detectives said they were hesitant at first about revealing sting operations because they believed it might make it more difficult to find predators. Despite openly going undercover, detectives said the number of people contacting them on their decoy profiles has only increased.

"After the first couple press releases, we saw zero drop in the people that were contacting us," said Detective J. "There is a constant draw for some people to go after underage children and we feel this could be on the news every night, it could be on the front page of the newspaper every day, and we would still be arresting people at the same rate."

Detectives said they also noticed similar traits from many of the criminals.

"Many of them had methamphetamine, and in some cases they even offered it to us, " said Detective J. "They've also offered marijuana, alcohol and other party drugs. Some of the people we've also noticed had firearms, Tasers, knives, large cutting instruments and so forth."

Many of those they arrest are also already registered sex offenders or have history of committing violent crimes, according to the detectives.

But some of those arrested also had no criminal history and were even prominent members of the community. This includes Eugene financial advisor Nate Oeming and former 4J school district teacher William Hamann.

Despite some common traits detectives see among online sex offenders, some experts believe it's hard to profile offenders.

"One of the things you should know with police stings is that people who get caught are usually the less competent criminals," said Dr. David Finkelhor, director of Crimes Against Children Research Center based in New Hampshire. 

Finkelhor said the everchanging technology has changed the types of crimes happening online as well.

"The big increase we've seen is the posession of child pornography or child sexual abuse images," Finkelhor said. 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation doesn't specifically track online child sex crimes. Therefore, data is unavailable through their database.

However, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children operates CyberTipline, a reporting system for online exploitation of children. According to their data, 34% of offenders engage the child in sexual conversation as a grooming method, 33% ask the child for sexually explicit images, 29% offer praise and/or compliments to the child and 23% send explicit pictures of themselves.

These are all traits detectives at the Eugene Police Department have seen.

In terms of reoffense, Finkelhor said rates are not as high as people would think.

"On the whole, the reoffense rates for internet abusers is somewhat less and overall rates for adult sex abusers are not as high as some people think," Finkelhor said. "We have good treatment available and the likelihood of them reoffending is much lower than other violent crimes."

This is illustrated in a study by the Department of Justice. However, according to the data, rates of recidivism are hard to calculate because research indicates many sex offenses are never reported to authorities. 

Furthermore, the study shows that rates highly depend on the follow-up period of the first offense. They concluded that rates of reoffense are at about 5% in a follow-up period shorter than five years, while it jumps to more than 20% in a 10 to 15-year follow-up period.

Detectives believe treatment is often not effective.

"There's a reason why so many people have reappeared on our cases loads as their third or fourth sex offense," said Detective J. "It's because they choose this lifestyle. How do you change someone who is wired to want to have sex with a child?"

Detectives said this work takes up a lot of their time because it's on top of their other day-to-day duties. But they said they're able to separate the disturbing things they see from their personal lives.

"I think both of us do a good job of compartmentalizing what we have to deal with," said Detective J. "The horrible things we see at our job, we're able to separate that from our regular life."

Currently, detectives are not required to seek mental health professionals in order to keep in check while performing sting operations.

Eugene Police Department also hopes to add an internet sex crimes unit in the near future so a department can focus solely on this type of crime.

Detective are also warning the public against attempting to perform their own sting operations. They said Oregon law prevents law enforcement officers from taking action if a private citizen decided to go undercover.

"The online sexual corruption laws we're enforcing and the crimes we're investigating, they're only allowing police officers to pose as juveniles," said Detective C.

Detectives also advise parents to start having conversations about the dangers of the internet with their children from a young age. They hope their work is preventing a predator from getting in contact with an actual teenager.

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