A Colorado man last year kidnapped young children from their parents in the middle of the night and took them to a hotel. He sexually abused them, took pictures and videos of the acts and shared them online with another sex offender in Ontario, Canada.
Like a puppeteer, the Canadian offender instructed the man in Colorado what to do with the children.
The good news: Together, the Colorado Springs Police Department and the Toronto Police Service were able to solve the case and stop the abuse in a matter of months thanks to new technology created by an FBI special agent in Salt Lake City.
Since the software was approved by the FBI last fall, it has helped save at least 45 children and led to 330 searches and more than 220 arrests, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. In May, the center gave FBI Special Agent Eric Zimmerman an award for his contributions in fighting child sex crimes.
After being tasked by the Utah Attorney General's office to create a basic triage tool, Zimmerman instead devised something much more advanced. During the past two years, he created 13 software tools that have changed the way child sex crimes are being investigated worldwide. Those search tools have been used by the Utah Attorney General Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force since 2010. Utah ICAC commander Jessica Farnsworth said Zimmerman's programs have cut in half the time needed to investigate the data on a computer hard drive.
"Eric has done more good for children nationwide than any other person. That is my personal belief," Farnsworth said.
The software has saved ICAC task forces thousands of dollars, Farnsworth said, because the program is offered to law enforcement agencies for free. Utah ICAC has been using Zimmerman's programs on every case since 2010, including that of the former University of Utah professor accused of viewing child porn on an airline flight to Boston.
"All the [61 national ICAC] commanders are talking about Eric's products," she said. "That is amazing that one man in his very short time here has built that kind of relationship and reputation with them."
Zimmerman's 13 software tools are being used by state, local, and federal authorities in the U.S. and 41 countries to help catch online sexual predators more quickly.
"I can honestly say it is one of the best tools that I have ever used since doing this line of work," said Toronto Police Service Detective Paul Krawczyk, who has worked in the child exploitation section of his agency for 10 years.
Searching a computer's guts • Zimmerman declined to discuss in detail how the tools work because they are used in active law enforcement investigations. Generally, the programs run on a thumb drive that searches deep inside the computer or interacts with a remote computer and searches it for evidence like an officer would at a physical crime scene.
In the past, agents would enter a home and seize all the computers then have to wait several months while a technician went through the laundry list of data on a room full of computers from other cases first, Zimmerman said.
His technology means investigators don't have to seize all electronics. "Our whole goal is to be minimally intrusive in everything we do," Zimmerman said.
The software has a forensic program that interprets evidence left in chat rooms and records of programs used by suspects. It boils down the computer gibberish to something an officer without a computer science degree can understand. The program alerts officers to what is found in real time.
Now, email alerts notify agents when a suspect is online. Before Zimmerman's software, investigators had to monitor chat rooms by logging in and waiting until the suspect logged in, too.
All leads, warrants and arrest information are compiled in the same system and are contributed and accessible by the 41 countries with contacts to each agency. Previously, FBI agents would organize evidence by placing all their information on a particular case into an inhouse spreadsheet.
"There was no way for you to find out [what agency] was involved in what," he said. "Now we can more effectively patrol our own back yards."
A search warrant or consent of the suspect is required to use the tools on an electronic device.
Utah ICAC shared the search programs with other task forces in the U.S. as they came into use in 2010.
"It is nice to see the tools make an organization more effective with limited resources," Zimmerman said.
In November 2011, the FBI officially validated the tools for use throughout its agency. They are now used as a standard when investigating child pornography crimes.
Zimmerman didn't take the traditional law enforcement route to the FBI. He earned a computer science degree at Roosevelt University in Chicago and had nine years of computer experience in the private sector before becoming a special agent for the FBI in Salt Lake City about five years ago. Krawczyk said Zimmerman's software automates so many things and saves so much time that they can investigate more cases and save more children.
"In the past, it would take weeks if not months to pull out this data," Zimmerman said. "I've known some investigators who save 10 to 15 hours a week with this."
In the Colorado case, a Colorado Springs man was arrested after a child porn investigation by the Colorado Springs ICAC and Homeland Security. During the investigation, agents discovered both men had several other child victims in both areas.
"It has helped us find someone quite far away and allowed use to help rescue children here as well," Krawczyk said.
While the technology is used mostly for child pornography cases, Zimmerman said it could be expanded in the future to investigate computer network hacking or financial fraud.
Want this technology in your town?
O Law enforcement agencies interested in FBI Special Agent Eric Zimmerman's technology may contact the Utah Attorney General's Office Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force at 801-281-1211 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.