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For FBI agent, luck and dedication cracked child porn case

Published June 24, 2012 8:56 pm

Pedophile, caught with the help of a victim's mother, will serve 35 years in prison.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Jeff Ross was stumped.

Somewhere in Utah a child was being repeatedly abused, as shown in photographs and videos that had spread around the world via the Internet. But try as he might, Ross was no closer to finding that child or tracking down the abuser. It was, in a word, frustrating.

The case had landed on the desk of Ross, an FBI special agent, in June 2009 after the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received images and videos from law enforcement of a child who appeared to be about 6 or 7 years old being molested by an adult Hispanic male. The center determined the abuse likely occurred in Utah because reviewers could see a Salt Lake City telephone directory in the background; they also traced a radio ad audible in the video to a West Valley City auto dealer.

The center sent the images to the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force in Salt Lake City, to which Ross is assigned. With help from the Intermountain West Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory, other clues about the images were uncovered.

Some abuse appeared to have taken place in a Las Vegas hotel room; in the background, propped on a night stand, was a photograph of the child taken at the Stratosphere. At first, it appeared the images showed other victims being abused, too, but the lab, using a Utah Jazz pennant pinned to a wall as a marker, "cemented the fact that it was the same kid, over several years in Utah and Nevada," Ross said.

And that made Ross more determined than ever to identify the man who had taken such advantage of a small child.

ICAC sent photos of the child to school resource officers throughout the state, hoping one might recognize the kid. Ross exhaustively reviewed Hispanics listed in the state's sex offender database, hoping to match one to the man in the images. ICAC also canvassed hotels along the Las Vegas Strip, trying to cross reference guests who visited from Utah during the time period the abuse occurred.

"It was a massive undertaking that led to absolutely nothing," Ross said. "It was frustrating. We didn't find anything."

But then the lucky breaks began.

The mentor • That October, FBI agents in Los Angeles were working what they'd dubbed the "Lost Boys case," which involved a ring of pedophiles who traded images of child pornography. Their investigation led to a Missouri man who posted a series of images and videos online, which happened to include images of the child Ross was desperately trying to locate.

When agents interviewed the man, they learned the name of the child victim, the city where the child lived — yes, it was in Utah — and even the name of the man who'd filmed himself abusing the child: it was Tony Cardenas. Last he'd heard, the man said, Cardenas was either living in Mexico or dead.

Within days, Ross met with law enforcement where the victim lived and showed officers the child's photo. Yes, they knew the child.

As it turned out, in 2008 the child had made a veiled disclosure to a school resource officer that Antonio "Tony" Cardenas, his mentor from the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Utah program, had shown him dirty movies on television. But in a formal interview, the child, then 11, recanted the earlier comments — something Ross said happens frequently.

"It is a humiliating experience for these kids," said Ross,who was a therapist for child victims of sexual abuse before joining the FBI.

The resource officer told Ross he'd also interviewed Cardenas, who denied everything.

But when Ross met with the victim, who was now 12, the real story spilled out.

The child was in first grade when Cardenas became his mentor. The molestation and rape had begun shortly after, the child said, and continued until early 2009 when Cardenas, apparently spooked by his conversation with the resource officer, fled to Mexico.

By then, Cardenas also knew the videos that he had given to a friend in Missouri to view and edit had, instead, been posted on the Internet, where they quickly became among the most popularly traded child pornography in the world. And he knew those videos showed his own face.

It did not surprise Ross that the child kept quiet all those years about what Cardenas was doing.

"Here is a kid who has no father figure," Ross said. "This guy comes in and fills that void. ... To them, the sexual abuse is a small price to pay for the attention they receive from these guys."

A boy also may be reluctant to disclose abuse for fear others will think he is homosexual. Both boys and girls may fool themselves into believing the abuse is their own fault, especially when the abuser is a family member or someone like Cardenas who has skillfully inserted himself or herself into the family.

Ross learned from the victim's mother that Cardenas had spent a lot of time with the family, joining them for all kinds of activities and on family camping trips. She trusted him so much she even allowed Cardenas to take the child on a trip to Las Vegas. And since returning to Mexico, Cardenas had kept in touch with the child by email and weekly telephone calls, the mother told Ross.

As Ross laid out what his investigation had uncovered, the mother was overwhelmed with rage and by a sense of betrayal. Understandably, she wanted to get on the phone and let Cardenas know she was on to himand so was the law; she wanted to cut off his contact with her child.

But Ross couldn't let her do any of that.

The trap • After months of work, Ross was finally closing in on Cardenas. But how to get him out of Mexico?

The agent told the victim's mother he needed her help. When Cardenas called, he wanted her to either make excuses for why her child couldn't take the call or, if that proved impossible, to monitor the calls. Most difficult of all, perhaps, he asked her to pretend she knew nothing about the abuse.

In November 2009, a federal grand jury in Utah indicted Cardenas as Ross continued to work on a way to get him back in the United States. He reached out to the victim's mother again, seeking any information or ideas she might have — and as it happened, she had a suggestion.

Her child's birthday was in early January. What if she told Cardenas she was planning a surprise birthday party and invited him to come back to Utah to help celebrate?

"She reached out to Tony and lucky enough for us, that's exactly what he did," Ross said. "We would still be dealing with all kinds of treaties, just trying to locate him and get him up here but we used the mom and she was awesome. We wouldn't have him in custody if it weren't for her."

Cardenas paid a "coyote" $2,500 to bring him back across the border and his family drove from West Valley City to Arizona to pick him up and bring him to Utah.

On the day set for the surprise party, a "small army" of agents and ICAC officers gathered at two locations: the victim's grandmother's home, where the party was supposed to be held, and at the home of Cardenas' family — where, after a long wait, a car finally pulled up. Seven people got out and Ross wasn't sure if Cardenas was among them. He asked the victim's mom to call Cardenas' cell phone and sure enough one of the men milling about the yard answered. Cardenas had lost a lot of weight and, after months in a more sunny climate, his skin was darker.

Shortly after, an officer pulled Cardenas over as he drove to pick up the victim, whom he believed he was taking to dinner while the family set up the party.

"At first I kept looking at him because I wasn't sure it was him — until he pulled out the drivers license we all had stapled to our desks," Ross said. "We pulled him from the car, handcuffed and interviewed him. That was it. We had him in custody thanks in large part to mom's ability to keep her cool and play this script we had written out."

Only, that wasn't quite the end of it.

A new discovery • About two months after Cardenas' arrest, Ross was invited to Lyon, France, to work with Interpol on some child pornography cases.

Ross had been there just a couple days when he was asked to look at a series of images and videos in the Interpol database believed to have been produced in North America. His task: Try to figure out where the images were made based on items and scenery in the background. The first images he viewed showed three young Hispanic boys being molested as they slept. The male abuser's face had been blacked out.

But as Ross stared at one of the photos, he kept thinking that the man's floppy ears and hairline looked familiar.

"I was wondering if it was Cardenas and another group of kids. But I can't believe that I'd be that lucky," he said, recalling the moment. "It was too uncanny to believe."

He pulled up the booking photo taken of Cardenas in Utah, lined it up with the other photos, taken several years before the Utah victim's abuse began, and called over a few Interpol agents. It was unanimous.

"It was the same guy," Ross said.

He then sent photos of the children to an officer in Utah and asked him to see if Cardenas' relatives — who had so far refused to believe the allegations against him — recognized the children. They did: They were Cardenas' nephews.

"Until that point [Cardenas] was going to go to trial and make us put this kid on the stand and talk about all [these] things," Ross said. "Once we showed the family photos of him molesting his own nephews, that's when he decided he wasn't going to fight this any longer."

In fact, Cardenas had told investigators he wasn't the one who had hurt his victim — the police were. According to Ross, during his interview Cardenas had said, "You guys hurt him when you talked to him about what happened."

Cardenas told investigators he belonged to a "community" that didn't see anything wrong with adults having sex with children. Members gained access to more "exclusive" parts of the porn community by contributing child pornography they'd produced, Cardenas said.

"That is kind of how these pictures go out on the Internet," Ross said. "He gave them to a friend and the friend used them to get into a more exclusive group of child pornography traders."

Once the images got on the Internet, they spread like wildfire. When Ross asked the national missing children's centerto send him incident reports involving the initial Utah victim, he received a report that was 641-pages long.

"This series of images has been in the hands of thousands upon thousands of people," he said.

Ross has and continues to receive requests from around the country to testify in child pornography trials involving individuals who have viewed those images.

On June 18, Ross sat in a Salt Lake City courtroom and watched as U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups sentenced Cardenas to 35 years in a federal prison. Cardenas will be 67 by the time he completes his sentence and, with treatment and time, hopefully no longer a threat to young children.

"The perseverance of law enforcement officers working on child exploitation cases makes all the difference in our efforts to help bring justice to the victims of this reprehensible conduct. This case is a graphic example of the skillful and dedicated work officers are doing around the state to protect children from predators," said Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Utah.

There is nothing Ross can do to recall copies of the images floating around cyberspace, nothing he can do to alter the fact that the five identified victims — and he believes there are more — will be dealing with what Cardenas did to them for the rest of their lives.

But with Cardenas behind bars, there is some satisfaction for Ross.

"Knowing that this kid isn't going to be hurt again by this guy is awesome," he said.

brooke@sltrib.com

What parents can do

Jeff Ross has worked hundreds of child pornography cases and if he has one bit of advice for parents about how to protect their children, it is this: Trust your instinct and follow it.

For him, that means being "incredibly suspicious of any males that have relationships with any of my children," Ross said.

It did not surprise Ross that the Utah child victim kept quiet all those years about what Antonio Cardenas was doing.

"Here is a kid who has no father figure," Ross said. "This guy comes in and fills that void. ... To them, the sexual abuse is a small price to pay for the attention they receive from these guys."

Cardenas, like many pedophiles, sought settings that gave him the opportunity to meet and interact with children, according to Ross. He had worked as a school bus driver, an after-school tutor, a Junior Jazz basketball coach and as a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Utah. Until his arrest, Cardenas had no criminal history or allegations of inappropriate behavior that might have triggered concern by employers or parents.

"I know people who are with Big Brothers Big Sisters — my sister was one — and they do outstanding work, but within that group there are going to be people" like Cardenas, Ross said.

Too often, a victim's parents will look back and say they were somewhat suspicious of this or that but dismissed it because the individual had been highly recommended by other parents or belonged to a well-regarded group.

"If your instinct or intuition is telling you something, don't dismiss it," Ross said. "You have to be careful with who your children are hanging out with."

Ross recommends the book The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect us from Violence by Galvin de Becker as a good resource for parents.