Authorities describe her as nice, bright, studious; a fourteen-year-old daughter of two prosperous working parents in lower Fairfield County. Like many her age, she regularly visited the Internet to chat online with other teens about whatever’s going on. There, according to police, something happened last January that would alter her life and expose her to a world of pain: She met Phillip Palmieri.
A Milford man, Palmieri first encountered the girl in an online chat room, which allows complete strangers from around the world to come together, identified only by their screen names. The official police story, which remains the only one as of this writing as Palmieri himself declines to talk, has Palmieri drawing her into private conversation via instant messaging and telling her of things they had in common. That didn’t include age however; Palmieri had just turned thirty-three.
Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo Jr., the prosecutor in this and other like cases from Greenwich to Westport, sets the scene: “After a couple of conversations, they set up a meeting in a public place. They have something to eat. Then the conversation turns to sex.”
It’s a distressingly familiar scenario in the growing annals of Internet sex crimes. Uncomfortable by the table talk, but concerned that she was disappointing her new friend, the girl told Palmieri that she was a virgin and not interested. “Maybe you’ll think about it,” Palmieri allegedly replied. “We’ll see what you can do.”
That was in February. Before the month was over, according to police, Palmieri had sexual intercourse with her, after convincing her to get in his car and then driving her miles from her home to a hotel in Milford. A second rape is alleged to have occurred a week later, in March.
In 2001 a U.S. Department of Justice study revealed that one in five regular Internet users between the ages of ten and seventeen reported getting an unwanted sexual solicitation in the past year. One-fourth of these solicitations were described as very upsetting or worse. Nearly all solicitations came from strangers.
Sometimes in cyber-abuse cases such contact takes place entirely online, with the stranger, invariably an adult male, asking the young person about his or her interests, hobbies and friends. Inevitably the topic becomes sex. The perpetrator may seek gratification in the form of explicit talk over the Web or on the phone, various role-playing scenarios that might delicately be described as kinky, or using a computer-fitted webcam for a variation on the age-old game “show me yours and I’ll show you mine.”
It’s ugly, sinister behavior and, by all accounts, grievously underreported. But it pales next to another kind of online predation, the kind police say Palmieri practiced. It’s called cyberluring, and according to Parry Aftab, it’s becoming distressingly common.
“The number of kids meeting strangers offline is increasing outrageously,” says Aftab, a lawyer who runs wiredsafety.org, a New York-based organization dedicated to protecting and educating young Internet users. “I talk to 1,000 kids a month. I find 15 percent to 20 percent of the teens we poll, and girls do it far more often, meet people offline that they first met in cyberspace.”
The danger of this sort of activity came home to Fairfield County in a big way in May 2002 when the body of thirteen-year-old Christina Long was discovered in a Greenwich ditch. An eighth-grade altar girl from Danbury, she met a man on the Internet later identified as Saul Dos Rios, a twenty-five-year-old undocumented immigrant who had attended Greenwich High School and lived in Port Chester. After having sex with Christina in a car parked near the Danbury mall, Dos Rios strangled her to death, dumping her body miles away.
Such a horror story can be perversely comforting to some parents. Christina’s story is an extreme one, and not just because it is the rare cyberluring case that ended in murder. Christina sought out men she knew were older and interested in sex. Many parents may think that their child isn’t like that and they may be right, but it doesn’t matter as much as they may think it should.
“There are two kinds of kids,” Aftab explains. “Christina fell into the second category of a loner intentionally meeting adults. They may not appreciate how dangerously they’re living, but it’s with eyes open. Others are tricked. They may think they are meeting a fourteen-year-old. They have no idea it’s about sex.”
Aftab calls it the “Katie profile”— a child more innocent of motive, seeking love, acceptance, affection or just a sympathetic ear. Unfortunately, the most practiced predators are very good at playing along, telling children what they want to hear and luring them closer to a situation from which they can’t walk away.
The “Katie” Aftab refers to is Katherine Tarbox, who in early 1996 was a middle-school student in New Canaan. Katie was lured to a Dallas hotel room by a man she met on the Internet, a self-described twenty-three-year-old with sexy green eyes who went by the online nickname “VallleyGuy.” His real name was Francis Kufrovich and he was forty-one.
“Growing up in New Canaan, you never think it will happen to you,” Katherine says today. “It’s just this ideal place. I was a very good student. I swam. I had a great life. I felt nothing was going to happen to me.”
But Katie worried about her appearance, her weight and her social standing in a community, where, as she wrote in her frank book A Girl’s Life Online, casual conversation amongst her young peers about their sexual adventures was distressingly commonplace. Gentle words of solace from VallleyGuy telling Katie she was special filled a void. So when her swim team prepared for a meet in Texas and VallleyGuy said he wanted to see her there, Katie pushed aside her worries and doubts and decided to take a chance on her online pal.
It ended with the two in a locked hotel room, Kufrovich reaching for her waist and kissing her. Katie struggled, Kufrovich persisted, and then there was a knock on the door. Katie’s mother had traveled with the team and learned of her daughter’s whereabouts from a friend.
While no intercourse occurred, Kufrovich was eventually sentenced to eighteen months in prison for luring the underage girl to his room. Katie suffered as well, becoming so alienated in town as her story became known that she eventually opted for boarding-school exile. She never really returned. Today she talks about “the incident” as she terms it with polished, almost disengaged candor honed by years of television interviews and speaking engagements, yet the lingering hurt about New Canaan is palpable.
“Actually this is the thing that always got to me,” she says. “For five years I went all over the world for this book. I went to Japan. No one in my hometown asked me to speak to them.” It wasn’t until September 2004 that she was invited to speak at the Country Club of New Canaan, at an event sponsored by the Outback Teen Center. “I just feel people hide skeletons.”
Such discomfort is not unique to one town, however; it is often the cover behind which cyber-predators successfully hide. Children are embarrassed to tell parents about a lewd come-on from an Internet contact. Sometimes when sexual contact has taken place, parents have a similar problem with police.
“Police are often never contacted by the parents, who prefer to keep the matter private and spare their child the trauma of bringing such a perpetrator to justice,” Colangelo says. “But we’re getting more of these cases, because people are understanding more and getting braver about it.”
In the Palmieri case, matters came to a head when the girl went to a school counselor, fearing she might be pregnant. The counselor went to her parents, who in turn went to police. Palmieri has been charged with two counts of second-degree sexual assault, two counts of risk of injury to a minor and enticement over the Internet.
Palmieri’s court-appointed defender, Howard Ehring, declined to discuss the case itself but did say he is seeing more such cases of late. “More chat sites are opening up, and police officers are more cognizant,” he notes. “It’s absolutely more frequent.”
David Ferris has been seeing a lot of what’s out there. A sergeant and youth officer with the New Canaan Police Department, he has been schooled by experts in investigating online sex crimes and often visits chat rooms pretending to be a young boy or girl, aiming to catch a predator. The worst part, he says, is how children play into the hands of those who want to use them.
“I could go on the Internet right now and, probably in about two minutes, unsolicited, have a kid send me a picture of his genitalia,” Ferris sighs. “Easily.”
This is like blood in the water for cyber-sharks. Call it the twenty-first century equivalent of the fellow hanging around the playground wearing a trenchcoat, but now there are more of them.
A lot more.
“Twenty years ago, if you had a sexual interest in children, you’d have to take a risk,” explains Michelle Collins, director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Exploited Child Unit. “Now you can sit in a basement with Diet Dr. Pepper and Doritos. You don’t have to hide in the bushes. There’s tremendous anonymity. To be honest, they outnumber law enforcement. If you have five people at a police department investigating sexual exploitation of children, you have five busy people. If you have ten investigators, you have ten busy people. The more we look into it, the more we are uncovering.”
The going currency among these exploiters is cyberporn,—photographs and videos of naked children or children being victimized by adults. Aftab tells the story of a Tennessee girl who gave her phone number to one such predator thinking he was a twelve-year-old girl. He called and told her that if she didn’t expose herself to him on her webcam, he’d inform her parents. Then he started telling her to perform various acts on-camera, prompted by suggestions from his circle of friends.
One of Connecticut’s most robust collections of child porn fills three storage rooms in Meriden. Shelves are crammed with desktop computers, laptop computers, webcams and zip drives, each with tapes that mark them as evidence in ongoing cases and identified by case number and the town of origin.
As one of a number of regional satellite offices serving as part of the Internet Crimes against Children (ICAC) task force, the state police’s Computer Crimes and Electronic Evidence Unit is not solely concerned with sex crimes against children on the Internet. Still, tracking such cases comprises 70 percent of their work.
“We probably get five or six cybertips a day, just for Connecticut,” says Master Sgt. David Rice, who won’t detail the number of officers in his unit but says they have their hands full, between examining computers sent from municipal departments around the state and lurking online themselves to catch perpetrators.
To be effective officers must learn the lingo of online chat, an acronym-thick gumbo that seems intentionally designed to confuse adults .
“The solicitors are very clever, though,” Rice continues. “They know the jargon, so you have to know it too — terms like POS [parent over shoulder]. They know school holidays. They may ask an officer what they did last Friday, and then if the officer says he was in school, they say ‘But that was a school holiday.’ ”
Federal and state laws provide much leeway for investigators once they have identified a potential predator. They can subpoena a Web server for a suspect online name and then execute a search warrant to confiscate the suspect’s computer and examine it for evidence of illicit online activity.
“I’m still shocked,” says another unit leader, Sgt. Richard Alexandre, “both at the volume of cases and what they are about.”
The pair has seen images of fathers assaulting their own children, sometimes infants. In one major case in Hartford, they discovered a ring of predators filming their sexual assaults of two twelve-year-old girls, which broke when one of the videos turned up in Japan.
“The average person doesn’t have any idea how prevalent this is,” Alexandre says. “It’s an underground industry, and it’s evolving all the time. The laws they are breaking now weren’t even on the books three years ago.”
Not everyone charged with fighting sexual predation against the young sees the problem spiraling out of control. Frances Kompar, a specialist in media services for the Greenwich Board of Education who works primarily out of Eastern Middle School instructing youngsters on what to look out for online, is hopeful the tide is turning.
“I think kids are being safer,” she says. “They’re more aware. When I talk to them about Internet safety, quite a few say it’s a conversation they have with their parents.”
She estimates a third of her work is spent on this sort of education, and talking to parents is an important part of it.
“There are things parents need to do to keep the kids safe,” she explains. “Police say that it’s not a good idea to have a computer in the child’s room. It’s better to have it in a centralized location like the family room, where there’s supervision.”
Christine Hand, clinical director of the Sexual Assault Crisis and Education Center in Stamford, says Internet sex-abuse cases are not common at the center, though such abuse is “something we’re hearing more about.”
“A lot of people don’t realize you don’t have to touch a child to abuse them,” she says. “A lot of times the child may think he or she is at fault. I expect the number of cases we see will grow in the next couple of years, as attention grows.”
In New Canaan, public schools’ technology director Rob Miller is working on an Internet safety plan for students with the aid of an elementary and a high school instructor.
“It’s something we need to do,” he says. “And it needs to be done at different levels. What’s relevant for the twelfth grade isn’t relevant for the second grade.” Like Frances, he says the focus needs to be placed at home. “It’s very difficult to completely protect kids, so that’s why parents’ education is so important.”
Whether the message is getting through is an open question. Marsha Darmory, director of Norwalk’s Children’s Connection, an arm of the Human Services Council that helps police investigate sex-abuse cases involving children in Norwalk, Westport, Wilton, Weston and New Canaan, says a Realtor friend of hers in Wilton frequently visits homes where children have private computers.
“They’re always in the kids’ bedrooms, and there may be as many as four bedrooms, each child having his or her own computer,” she says. “Obviously the parent doesn’t have access to what’s going on.” Marsha recommends that parents consider software packages that keep track of where their children go online, not to mention a more centralized computer room.
“There’s no substitute for a trusting relationship,” says Maureen Gilfeather, a volunteer with Children’s Connection. “I think if parents want to know, they have to sit with the children, ask them what they are doing. ‘What does this mean? What does that mean?’ They have to get information that way.”
Maureen herself has visited chat rooms and come away with her head spinning. Not only is the jargon difficult to decipher, but communication flows fast among children who, as Frances notes, “were born with a mouse in their hands.”
There are warning signs when a child’s online activities spiral out of control. “If a child is at the computer at the same time every day — and won’t do something else they enjoy but seem compelled to be at the computer instead — it’s because they are meeting somebody and they’re afraid to let that person down,” Maureen says.
Kids can also help ensure they don’t get tangled on the Web. James Dey, a technology coordinator at Wilton public schools, talks about needing to be streetwise. “If a student gets an uh-oh feeling about an Internet contact, they need to report it.”
“I tell kids all the time, don’t fill out their online profiles,” Sgt. Ferris says. “Don’t forward e-mail without deleting the names in the headers above. Don’t fill out those surveys that get passed around. Predators send out surveys for a reason, to get information. Screen names should have nothing in them to identify the user. If you put ‘Dave08,’ for example, I’ve got the name. ‘08’ could be the year you graduate, or your birth month, or a number on a sports team. They go through yearbooks, sports pages in the local newspaper. They find that number and now they have a picture.”
Mostly he counsels awareness of how the Internet can erase the boundaries children think protect them from outsiders: “You have that false sense of security because you are in your home.”
Youth, hormones and innocent curiosity can be a formidable combination. Dey notes that kids often will say things in a chat room they never would say face-to-face, unaware that the anonymity of their chosen vehicle of expression can be a double-edged sword. He mentions the classic at-risk profile of a quiet child who says little, has few friends and is struggling with self-image.
“These predators aren’t going to get a strong-minded person, like the quarterback or the head cheerleader,” Colangelo says. “They want the people in the background, whom no one notices. You ask, ‘Why don’t they know better?’ But they’re having a conversation with someone who’s friendly, who’s interested in them, who shares the same interests. They think, ‘This is great!’ A lot of times I’ve seen these cases snowball out of control, and kids don’t know how to get out of it.”