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  • Writer's pictureJim Cole

In the Trenches of Digital Darkness: My Watershed Moment, Transforming CSAM Investigations – Part 1



In early 2003, I embarked on a journey as a Special Agent with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) that would fundamentally transform my approach to investigating Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM). With my background in military and local law enforcement, combined with a knack for technology, I was soon thrust into the world of child exploitation cases. However, it wasn't until the “V” case that my entire perspective on these investigations would shift dramatically and set me on a course with far-reaching impacts on both my life and career.


The Traditional Approach

Early Days: A Focused but Limited Methodology

In my early days with HSI, our approach to CSAM mirrored the standard procedures of the time. Investigations primarily centered around offenders – identifying, capturing, and prosecuting individuals involved in the possession, distribution, and receipt of CSAM. This methodology heavily relied on cryptographic hashing techniques like MD5 and SHA-1 to identify known CSAM, enabling us to charge suspects with federal crimes associated with these materials.

However, this approach had a significant limitation: it primarily targeted CSAM already known to law enforcement, using hash lists of previously identified material. This meant that while we were effective in capturing repeat offenders and preventing the circulation of known CSAM, we were potentially missing new victims – those whose plights had not yet been documented or discovered.


The Process: A Systematic but Limited Methodology

The process began with a lead, which would eventually lead to obtaining and executing a search warrant. The consequent seizure of digital devices marked the onset of a lengthy forensic process. We would then look at common folders where we would likely find CSAM based on the modality that the offender was using to collect, trade and possess CSAM. However, this method primarily focused on quantifying known CSAM for prosecution, often overlooking the qualitative aspect of identifying new victims.


The Evidence Room Analogy

Reflecting on this approach, I liken it to leaving new victims buried in the data and shoved into the evidence room, not to be found and not to receive the critical support and services that they deserve. This analogy starkly illustrates the limitations of the traditional approach, where the emphasis on known CSAM inadvertently neglected the discovery of new victims.


A Watershed Experience

The "V" Case: A Turning Point in CSAM Investigations

In the realm of Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) investigations, certain cases serve as critical turning points. The case involving K.F., known as the "V" Case, is one such landmark. As a Special Agent with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), I was deeply involved in this case, which not only reshaped my professional approach but also had far-reaching impacts on the field of CSAM investigations.


The Beginning of the "V" Case

The case began in the early 2000s when the victim, then a preteen, suffered horrific abuse at the hands of her father, K.F. This abuse was not only perpetrated but also recorded and distributed online, becoming one of the most traded sets of CSAM. The offender engaged in systematic grooming of the child victim.   Toronto Police Service’s Detectives Warren Bulmer and William McGarry were pioneers in North America and one of the first units to adopt a victim-centered approach. They reviewed the series of material and asked the question, “Is anyone looking for this child?”  They analyzed the material deeply and noted that one video had clues in it leading to Portland, Oregon.  It was forwarded to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), and then referred to the Oregon Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and us in Portland, Oregon.


Collaboration and Challenges

Partnered with Special Agent Josh Findley, we worked closely with our ICAC colleagues facing several unique challenges. We searched for her using several non-traditional methods.  We had images of her face and used that to develop flyers which were shown to teachers and school administrators throughout the area.  We gathered school yearbooks and meticulously scoured them for any child who resembled her.  We visited numerous runaway shelters and group homes hoping to find her.  All without results.


The Victim’s Watershed Moment

We would later learn that the victim had come to the realization that what her father was doing to her was wrong and stopped the abuse herself by confronting him.  He begged her not to tell and at that time she agreed.  Sometime later, while watching the movie 'Forest Gump' with her mother, she gained the courage to confide in her about the abuse she had suffered.  This disclosure led to a police investigation, and an interview of her father who denied the allegations.  The police at the time were unaware that the abuse had been filmed and distributed online.  They were not able to take him into custody at the time of his interview due to a lack of evidence, but he knew it was only a matter of time before the videos were discovered.  When the police learned of the material and had unequivocal proof of the abuse, they sought an arrest warrant and went to take him into custody only to learn that he had fled the country into Canada.


Putting the Puzzle Pieces Together

Meanwhile, Josh, our ICAC colleagues and I continued to try and find her.  We continued for over a year and half attempting to leave no stone unturned.  Unfortunately, after finding the videos of the abuse, the police agency filed them away in the case file but did not submit them to the NCMEC Child Victim Identification Program (CVIP).  NCMEC CVIP serves as the national clearinghouse for CSAM and provides identified victim deconfliction.  Although the victim in this case had been identified and was safe, NCMEC was unaware and still considered her to be an unidentified victim and still in harm’s way. 

Once it was learned that K.F., had fled the country and was now an international fugitive, the local police sought assistance from the United States Marshals Service.  Due to the egregious nature of the case and the international aspect of the search, the case was featured on the America’s Most Wanted television show hosted by John Walsh.  As part of the feature story, they interviewed the victim.  An analyst at Toronto Police Service who had worked on the case saw the show and immediately recognized the victim.  I was in Washington DC attending a child exploitation conference walking along side my colleague and friend who helped start the NCMEC CVIP program when she received a call from Warren congratulating her on finding “V.”  She turned to me and said, “Jim, did we find “V?”  I was certain that we had not and after putting Warren on speaker learned about the AMW episode that had aired the previous evening.  We grabbed my laptop and went to the show’s website, where we found the story and the interview.  We immediately recognized her, and I was flooded by shock and emotion.  I called Josh and had him look at the site.  Within an hour we positively confirmed with the local detective that it was indeed her.  The search was over, but there was still a lot of work to do.


The International Manhunt

A task force, jointly led by the US Marshals Service and HSI, was assembled to find and bring K.F. to justice.  It was learned that K.F had fled to China to avoid prosecution.  He was eventually taken into custody by Chinese authorities for fraudulently entering China.  He was deported from China into Hong Kong where he was taken into custody, after attempting to escape injuring several Hong Kong police severely. His capture was the culmination of a meticulous international operation, reflecting the cross-border collaboration essential in such cases.


The Legal Proceedings

Eventually he waived extradition and was brought back to the US to face multiple charges, including producing CSAM, possessing CSAM and interstate transportation of a minor for unlawful sexual activities.  He pled guilty to all charges.

In an incredible and heart-wrenching moment, the victim faced her abuser and gave her victim impact statement to the court.  She expressed the immense trauma inflicted by her father, the betrayal of trust and it’s effects known to her at the time. 


The Sentence and Its Impact

K.F. was sentenced to 50 years imprisonment, with a concurrent 20-year sentence for the charges locally. The judge emphasized the severity of his crimes, noting that K.F. would be in his mid-80s if ever released from prison.


Reflections and Lessons Learned

The "V" Case was more than just an investigation; it was a stark revelation about the critical need for a victim-focused approach in CSAM cases. This case led to a profound shift in my perspective and methodology, underscoring the importance of prioritizing the identification and safeguarding of victims.

The journey through the "V" Case was arduous, filled with challenges, emotional tolls, and ultimately, the satisfaction of bringing a perpetrator to justice and providing some measure of justice to the victim. It also marked a significant milestone in the evolution of CSAM investigations, emphasizing the necessity of global collaboration, advanced digital forensics, and most importantly, a relentless commitment to the victims at the heart of these cases.

The lessons learned from this case would be the catalyst that would later lead to changing the way an entire federal agency approached and investigated child sexual exploitation investigations.  Part II to come. 


About the Author 

Jim Cole is a seasoned veteran in the realm of law enforcement and a staunch advocate for children's rights, with nearly 35 years of dedicated service. His career began in the United States Army, transitioning through roles of increasing responsibility, from a patrol officer to the Chief of Detectives, and culminating in his position as a Supervisory Special Agent with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). Jim's relentless pursuit of justice led him to specialize in combatting child sexual exploitation, making significant strides in victim identification and digital forensics. His innovative, victim-centric methodologies have reshaped investigative protocols, emphasizing the human aspect in a field often overshadowed by the digital footprint of crime.

Jim founded and supervised HSI's Victim Identification Program and its state-of-the-art Laboratory, propelling forward the capabilities for identifying and rescuing victims of the most heinous crimes. Under his leadership, these entities have honed a victim-centric approach that prioritizes the rescue of children over solely bringing perpetrators to justice, blending humanity with the science of digital forensics.

Jim's expertise are globally recognized. He has served as the Chair of the INTERPOL Specialists Group on Crimes Against Children and has contributed to groundbreaking initiatives as a co-founder of Project VIC. His work transcends borders, as he collaborates with international law enforcement agencies, NGOs, and tech providers to fortify the global response to child exploitation.

Currently, Jim channels his extensive experience into his roles at Operation Light Shine and Onemi-Global Solutions, focusing on technological advancements, law enforcement collaboration, and victim support in the fight against child exploitation. His commitment to safeguarding children's futures is unwavering, as he continues to educate, innovate, and inspire in a battle that knows no borders.

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