CopStories: 28,492 = Five (Part 1: Let’s Go A’vestigatin’)

It was such a simple beginning.

We got a call of a registered sex offender playing basketball at a local school.  I arrived and found the offender doing exactly that.  Ultimately I arrested him and it was during the jail interview that things got interesting.

From another deputy, I’d heard there was an underage girl who not only knew the 20-year old offender, but who the offender had been texting.  During the interview about playing ball, I casually asked if he knew this particular 15-year old girl.

He grinned.  “Oh, yeah, I text her all the time.”

Quickly, I moved on.  Damn sure didn’t want him realizing that he’d just admitted violating a major part of his particular set of sex offender restrictions.

No contact, in any way, with anyone under 18-years old.

But he knew immediately.  While we talked, while he futzed with his Miranda rights form and tried to justify being on the school grounds, he got less cooperative.  Every answer, even to basic questions about his job and car, became vague and pissy.

The fact that he’d realized it annoyed me.  I’d wanted to be smooth and casual, as though it was a random question.  Sometimes, in investigations, I want the subject to know I’m hunting them.  I want them to hear my footsteps.  I want them nervous and scared and filling their head with thoughts of prison and boyfriends named Bubba and Tyrone and Hector.

But sometimes, I have to dance with more subtlety, more delicacy.  This seemed to be one of those cases.  I wouldn’t know until weeks later that everything he would go to prison for had already happened and the proof was safely locked away by a telecomm company.

So I began with that one girl.  Her interview led me to another girl, which led me to another and another.  Each of them, and the list grew exponentially in a matter of days, had been pressured for sex via text.

Eventually, I subpeonaed my offender’s texts.  They covered mid-December, when he got out of jail on his first sex offense conviction, to the day I arrested him for being on the school grounds three months later.

Twenty-eight thousand, four hundred, and ninety-two.

Scores of conversations.  Some with Mom, some with friends.

Most with women.

Nearly all underage women.

Reading those conversations was when I realized what a predator he actually was.  It wasn’t just about the girl he’d previously been convicted of molesting, who’d been four years younger than him at the time of that conviction.  It wasn’t just about having sex with a Special Olympics athlete (which was a theme I’d find again and again in this investigation).  It wasn’t just about sex (which was his ultimate excuse…that he was a sex addict).

It was about manipulation.  It was about exploitation.  It was about self-gratification, the consequences be damned.

The problem with the texts was that they were in chronological order.  In other words, if he was carrying on eight or ten different conversations at once, those texts came in the order he sent and received them.  It made following the through-lines of each conversation incredibly difficult…at least for a Luddite like me.

So I asked a programmer friend to write a program which would separate those conversations.  I figured it’d take him a few days, maybe a week.  Yeah, it was like a half hour.  Write a few lines of code, run the thing, write a few more lines to tweak, done.

His program blew me away.  It separated out a file for each individual conversation, still in time order, so I could easily follow any conversation I wanted.  But it also gave me a total file that color-coded the conversations, each recipient with a different color.  Seeing those colors piled on top of each other in a such frenzy reminded me of one of Pollock’s drip paintings.

I read those messages for weeks.  Built white board displays so I could cross reference them.  Made lists of names and numbers that appeared randomly, tried to hook those to known names and numbers.  Compared messages sent on a particular date to a  particular friend with others sent at a different time to a different friend, but referencing the same incident.

What I found, ultimately, was a man with a desperate need for sex, but one that he was unable to consummate with adult women.  Therefore, he went after girls who hadn’t the tools to put him off.  These girls were Special Olympics athletes, they were from broken homes, they were victims of previous sexual abuse.

One victim, a 14-year old, had been victimized, in fact, by her father and stepfather.  I believe she also had been by one of her mother’s boyfriends, though I could never prove it.  This girl, so fragile and yet one of the toughest people I’ve ever met, told me over and over and over again that they loved each other.

He seduced her with marriage plans and even bought her a ring.  He texted her hundreds of times a day, spinning out a fantasy world where she would never get hurt again.

Of course she responded to that. Of course it was exactly what she wanted to hear.  She’d grown up in a sordid world, one filled with depravity and darkness and painful, stolen sex masked as love and when she had a chance at love that didn’t hurt, she jumped at it.

Of course she refused to tell me.  She refused to lay out what he’d done because even though she knew it was probably wrong, it was the only love she’d ever been shown that didn’t come with pain automatically attached.

So I kept digging and interviewing and asking and talking and thinking and then…in the midst of those 28,492 texts, I found a short conversation between the 14-year old and my offender.  She mentioned stomach pain.  He asked why she hurt.  She said he knew exactly why.

And he answered that it couldn’t be his fault because he hadn’t gotten it all the way in.

Sometimes I’m not a particularly smart cop, but that is what we in the trade call a clue.  Hell, that is what we in the trade call a fucking smoking gun.

The investigation wrapped pretty quickly after that.  I interviewed him a last time (on video tape).  He denied.  I showed him the series of texts.  He rationalized, justified, obfuscated.

Then a grand jury, some negotiations back and forth, and a plea agreement that will leave him in prison for five years.

So this case that was about manipulation and exploitation was, for me, about self-control.  Because I never throttled him, nor did I put a double tap behind his ear and dump him in a ditch for the vultures to dine upon.

That would have just made him a victim of cannibalism.