Caught in the Kid Porn Crusade
The United States of America v. Adam Vaughn
He was a stand-up Marine, a beloved cop, and a local hero until
the government branded him part of the largest kid porn ring in
Inside Operation Candyman, the FBI's crusade to sweep the Net clean of
By Steve Silberman
On October 1, 2001, a caravan of police cars drove north out of
Madison, Alabama, in the middle of the night. At the wheel of the town
paddy wagon was Adam Vaughn, a 34-year-old patrolman who joined the
force after 12 years in the Marine Corps. Responding to a national
plea for assistance from the NYPD after the attacks on the World Trade
Center, the volunteers made the 800-mile journey in less than a day.
Their first assignment was to guard the Empire State Building. Over
the next week, Vaughn and the other Madison officers stood watch in
Times Square, at the United Nations, and at the Immigration and
Naturalization Service, where suspected terrorists were detained. When
they returned to Alabama, their photo ran on the front page of the
Madison County Record under the headline "HEROES COME HOME." Cards
from schoolchildren poured in to police headquarters, and the officers
received commendations from the governor and the state House of
Representatives. Vaughn and his wife, Rebecca, added the citations to
what they jokingly called their Wall of Shame: a display of the medals
and certificates of achievement Vaughn had earned in uniform.
The next time Vaughn's name appeared in the news, however, he was not
a hero. Last spring, he and 88 others were arrested in a child
pornography dragnet called Operation Candyman, named after one of
three Yahoo! groups that had been the focus of an FBI investigation.
The people in these groups, the bureau reported, were members of "an
international ring of pedophiles and predators devoted to trading and
propagating pornographic images of children over the Internet."
At a press conference on March 18, attorney general John Ashcroft
brandished a pointer in front of a map marked with badges where FBI
field offices had made arrests. The badges stretched from coast to
coast. "A new marketplace for child pornography has emerged in the
dark corners of cyberspace," he said. "There, hidden in the vastness
of the Internet, innocent boys and girls have been targeted by
offenders who view them as sexual objects." With the bureau under
increasing heat in the aftermath of 9/11, the smashing of "the largest
child porn ring in history" made headlines as far away as Iceland and
The Candyman site offered everything from "soft pics" to hardcore
Vaughn's arrest sent shock waves through the town of Madison, a
closely knit bedroom community for the nearby city of Huntsville.
"This was a surprise to us," Madison chief of police Dan Busken told
reporters. "Adam Vaughn was well liked, trusted, and respected by his
peers." The footage of the baby-faced officer returning from New York
was re-aired, but this time it took on a sinister aura. Overnight,
Vaughn changed from a beloved neighborhood cop into a pariah.
For a young agent in Texas named Geoff Binney, that press conference
marked the public debut of a yearlong investigation. Binney's father,
David, is a legend at the FBI; the former deputy director, he was a
lead investigator in cases that are still the stuff of bureau lore,
such as the Pizza Connection heroin busts in the 1980s. Geoff, a
charismatic, ambitious 33-year-old who wanted to follow in his
father's footsteps since he was 4, was the Houston case agent for the
FBI's task force known as Innocent Images.
Since its launch in 1995, Innocent Images which is devoted to
tracking down those who use the Net to sexually exploit children and
teenagers has grown into a $10 million-a-year operation, with
agents in every field office in the country. Most investigations focus
on so-called traveler cases. Agents pose as minors in sexually
oriented chat rooms; if a suspect sets up an offline meeting with an
agent and crosses state lines for the explicit purpose of having sex,
an arrest is made at the rendezvous. As the father of three young
boys, Binney was frustrated that traveler stings do little to protect
those kids who are too young to be chatting online. "It takes a lot of
time to cultivate someone in a chat room," he explains. "We wanted to
To snare predators who were going after younger kids, Binney conceived
of a strategy, he says, to "cast a wider net." He became an avid
reader of an online newsletter called Lolita News, where pedophiles
listed pointers to images on other sites. On January 2, 2001, he
followed a link to the Candyman. "This is a site for people who love
kids," read the welcome message on the page for joining the group.
"You can post any type of message you like to or any type of pics and
vids you like to. P.S. If we all work together we will have the best
group on the Net."
Like many online groups, the Candyman offered a polls section, where
the group's moderator asked members such questions as whether they
preferred "more actions [sic]" or "more soft pics." There was also a
page of links to other sites, and a file area, where images uploaded
by members were stored. Each time a new image was added, a notice was
generated and sent out to those who had opted to receive Candyman
Binney scrutinized the "pics and vids" on the site. Though some of
them fell into the category of child erotica voyeuristic "soft
pics" of kids on the beach and on the playground others were
10-year-old girls giving oral sex to middle-aged men, 9-year-old boys
touching themselves, and toddlers being penetrated by adults. Binney
recognized many of these photographs from previous investigations.
Some 30-year-old collections from Denmark and Sweden have made the
rounds for years. But he also saw a number of new, high-quality
digital images on the site. Unlike most child-porn servers, which are
based in other countries, the Candyman and two related groups,
Shangri-la and Girls 12 to 16, sat on a server under US jurisdiction,
which made them ideal targets for Binney and his team.
In mid-January, the Houston office faxed a grand jury subpoena to
Yahoo! requesting information about those who had joined the groups.
In response, the Yahoo! legal team provided a list of email addresses
for Candyman members. Binney also asked that the groups be kept open
as new suspects poured in. On February 6, however, Yahoo!'s customer
care department shut down the Candyman for violating Yahoo!'s terms of
service, which prohibit the posting of illegal material.
Over the next several months, the Houston office sent a flurry of
subpoenas and court orders to Yahoo!, requesting more detailed
information about each member's activity on the site. Binney's team
compiled a roster of approximately 6,700 members in all three groups,
including several thousand who lived in the US. Then the team
subpoenaed 1,400 ISPs and gathered information on hundreds of
individuals, sending out leads to field offices from Anchorage to
Some ISPs, Binney says, were slow to cooperate. And after September
11, the investigations were hampered by the fact that bureau resources
were diverted to chasing leads on terrorism. But at the beginning of
this year, there was "pressure from above," Binney recalls, to
expedite the national takedown and give Operation Candyman its star
turn in Washington.
The Houston squad sent out affidavits to obtain warrants to search the
homes of more than 200 Candyman members. To support probable cause
that investigators would be likely to find illegal images on each
member's home computer, the bureau provided a statement from Binney:
"Every email sent to the group was distributed to every member
automatically. Therefore, when an individual transmitted child
pornography to the Candyman via email, those images were transmitted
to every one of the group's members."
In fact, however, most members had opted not to receive email. Binney
claims that, in his investigation of the site, he never saw the
numerous hyperlinks that would have led him to a list of email
options. The one such link he tried didn't work on the day he joined
the site, he says. A document produced by Yahoo! in January, in
response to an FBI court order, indicated that various email options
were available to Candyman members, but this detail was overlooked by
the Houston team.
In the spring, FBI agents executed searches in 231 homes and made 89
arrests. By July, an additional 281 searches some with
warrants, some with consent from the suspects under investigation
had been conducted, yielding 14 more arrests.
"One click, you're guilty," says an FBI agent. "A federal offense is
"If you had every agent in the bureau working these cases there would
always be more," Binney observes. "So we tried to identify those
individuals in positions of trust." On the member list were
firefighters, paramedics, priests, teachers aides, Little League
coaches, hospital workers, and several police officers, including one
in Alabama Adam Vaughn.
Vaughn grew up in an Idaho logging town called Post Falls, where his
parents worked for a company that made computer keyboards. The family
didn't have much money; one of their rare extravagances was the
purchase of a Magnavox Odyssey², a videogame console with a
keyboard that allowed players to code their own games in Basic. As a
geeky kid who learned to read by immersing himself in comic books,
Vaughn instantly felt at home in virtual space. He created hybrid
versions of games, grafting the tank from Conquest of the World into
the universe of K. C. Munchkin.
The late '70s was also the golden age of arcade games. When his
parents dragged him to the local bowling alley, Vaughn recalls,
"They'd get sauced, hand me a fistful of quarters, and say, 'Go knock
yourself out.'" His father may have been an early adopter, but he was
also taciturn and abusive to Vaughn. At 15, Vaughn walked to a
friend's house and never returned home. A year later, in 1984, his
parents signed a recruitment form, and he enlisted in the Navy.
"I was ecstatic about joining the military," he told me. "I was so
bored at school. What my teachers taught in a month, I learned in two
I wanted to get away from everything and do something challenging."
In 1986, he transferred to the Marines. The Corps offered what he'd
been seeking in military life: "The spit and polish, the brotherhood,
the strong ties, the sense of belonging." His first section leader
required that his infantrymen spend an hour a day absorbing books like
Sun Tzu's The Art of War. But Vaughn's favorite reading in the
curriculum was Orson Scott Card's novel Ender's Game, about a gifted
boy named Ender Wiggin who is recruited by the military to play
war-game simulations. At the end of the book, Ender realizes that the
games are real, and that his agile mind is being employed as a weapon
in a war against an enemy race.
Vaughn worked his way up through the ranks to become a lance corporal.
He shipped out to Korea and Japan, and he served on special-operations
squads in Central America. By 1989, he had earned a post as an
instructor on the base at Quantico, the crossroads of the Marine
world. There, he led classes of 200 senior officers in small-unit
tactics, leadership skills, and Marine history and tradition. To
supplement his $12,000 annual salary, he picked up jobs on the side.
He met his wife-to-be at a mall in Virginia where he was working as a
A tall, sassy, green-eyed Army lieutenant colonel's daughter, Rebecca
Coffin was tickled by the way Vaughn's mind seemed eager to absorb
everything, like the endless stream of facts he gleaned from nature
shows on TV. "Adam had somehow retained that thing inside that keeps
you fresh," she recalls. They were married in 1991.
After a physical exam determined that he had suffered hearing loss on
the shooting range, Vaughn became an information systems administrator
for the Corps' enormous personnel database. To relax, he jammed on
Jane's flight simulators such as Longbow, which came with manuals of
authentic military history. When jarhead coders wrote their own
version of Doom II, putting players in landscapes that resembled the
Iraqi desert and other likely theaters of battle, Vaughn played it day
and night. Once, a sergeant gave him a guided tour of adult chat rooms
on AOL. Within minutes, pictures were arriving in the officer's inbox.
"I realized I wouldn't have to buy Playboy anymore," Vaughn says.
Three years after being transferred to Redstone Arsenal in Alabama,
Vaughn, who was by then a sergeant, was honorably discharged from the
Marines for "high year tenure" in the aggressive quota system
of the Corps, he hadn't been promoted fast enough. A Marine colonel
told him that the town of Madison was hiring cops and offered to write
a recommendation. Ten days later, Vaughn signed up at the police
academy and put on a new uniform.
At 5'6", Vaughn made a compact and boyish-looking officer, but his
years in the Corps were still visible in his level temperament and
steady gaze. He was assigned to work the third shift, which began at
10 pm. He patrolled the neighborhoods, responded to domestic-violence
calls, worked undercover, and got to know the rhythms of traffic on
the roads. Every night when he arrived at the Waffle House to meet a
fellow officer for "lunch" at 1:30 am, their coffees would be waiting
in the back booth.
Vaughn plunged into the spirit of community policing with the same
enthusiasm he had embraced semper fidelis. At Quantico, he had taught
classes in the law of war. In his new job, the syllabus was the Bill
of Rights. He persuaded a waitress at the Waffle House to go to law
school. "If you wanted to turn yourself around, Adam was there. If you
wanted to straighten up, he'd help you," one felon he arrested told
me. On his off nights, he brought candy and smokes to the 911 crew.
Rebecca began to notice a change in her husband. His old armor was
softening. "He had finally found his niche. He met people he was
comfortable with. He was making friends." She sewed the S from a
Superman T-shirt onto his bulletproof vest.
At the end of his shift, Vaughn's patrol car would pull into the
driveway as Rebecca was getting dressed to go to work as a contract
specialist for the Army Corps of Engineers. When she left, he read
science fiction and watched cartoons. Then he logged on. With the
Madison police band on his radio and the Huntsville band streaming in
on RealPlayer, he checked out the latest anime, participated in
discussion forums on cop sites, downloaded new codes for his
GameShark, and hunted for rare comic books on eBay.
It was as if he had been training his whole life to surf the Web. When
he was online, he says, he felt like he was flying.
For decades, the federal government's war on child pornography focused
on arresting the manufacturers and traffickers of the images. The
target was alleged molesters like those accused by the Customs
Service in August of exploiting their own children and photographing
the abuse not people who simply possessed pictures at home.
That emphasis changed in 1990, when the Supreme Court wrote in Osborne
v. Ohio that "much of the child pornography market has been driven
underground; as a result, it is now difficult, if not impossible, to
solve the child pornography problem by only attacking production and
distribution." To eradicate it required eliminating not just the
existing supply of images but also the demand for new ones. A ban on
private possession, the justices reasoned, would reduce demand and
also encourage those who held on to the few illegal images still in
circulation to destroy them. At the time of the ruling, practically
the only publishers of child-porn magazines left in the US were law
enforcement agencies, who used them as bait in sting operations.
What the high court did not foresee was that a shift in the
underground would soon transform the child-porn world. In the
mid-'80s, porn collectors had started using dialup bulletin boards as
a way to store and exchange images without risking capture by customs
agents and postal inspectors. As the technology evolved, these BBSes
became the axis of a sophisticated global distribution network. Zipped
and encrypted caches of illegal porn were posted to Usenet newsgroups
like alt.binaries.pictures.erotica.pre-teen, often containing
thousands of still and video images. Pointers to these collections and
to sites containing passwords for unlocking the encrypted files were
posted on the BBSes. Photographs taken in the Czech Republic might be
uploaded onto a server in Africa, downloaded in London, and displayed
with a password fetched from the South Pacific.
When the Web took off in the mid-'90s, illegal material that had been
contained within this small, highly secretive, and tech-savvy
subculture suddenly radiated far and wide. Images that once were
accessible to only a self-selecting few were now a search engine away
from any casual netsurfer. The bogus network addresses and strong
encryption were replaced by a torrent of spam and pop-up ads from
offshore servers, proffering "teen lolitas" and "hardcore XXX child
pics." Thousands of illegal sites that might have lasted an hour or a
week flourished on free homepage networks like Angelfire and
GeoCities. Those who would never have ventured into a sleazy shop for
under-the-counter contraband like Children Love and Bambina Sex could
view the same images at home, under a perceived cloak of anonymity. As
one FBI agent put it, "Even my friends can't believe there's a federal
offense that's so easy to commit. One click, you're guilty."
Possession of child porn is a strict-liability offense, like
possession of cocaine. Possessing it, though, does not only mean you
have intentionally downloaded and stored the images on your hard
drive. Under Title 18 of the US Code, the felony is committed the
first time sexually explicit images of minors defined as anyone
under 18 appear on your screen. If your computer is searched,
even files that have been dragged to the trash or cached by your
browser software are counted as evidence. Some offenders have been
sent to jail for "possessing" images that only a computer-forensics
technician can see.
One striking characteristic of the Candyman members was their apparent
carelessness compared with those who traded images a decade ago behind
redundant layers of anonymity. Many joined the group with
standard-issue webmail addresses that contained their names, dates of
birth, or clues to their location such as the "rsa" in Vaughn's
address, which stood for Redstone Arsenal. These netsurfers may have
comprised the largest "international ring of predators and pedophiles"
ever discovered, but they were also among the least cautious. They
practically emailed themselves to prison.
The first-time offender was denied bail the order came from
"much higher up."
In the Marines, Vaughn learned to divide his life into two parts: on
duty and off duty. "Home was his shelter, his sanctuary, his place to
be something other than a Marine," Rebecca told me. "At work, he was
Officer Vaughn. When he was home, he was Adam."
Like his namesake in the Old Testament, Adam was curious. His
inquisitiveness ranged widely, from fast cars, to marine biology, to
model building, to sex. He used search engines to explore free porn
sites that served up every kind of sexual imagery he could think of
amateur, barely legal, gay, voyeur, and sites for sexy seniors.
There were thousands of these on Yahoo!, which inherited them in
August 2000 after acquiring a company called eGroups. On the sign-up
pages for these sites, there was often only a vague indication of what
was to be found inside, and no images displayed. To see what was
behind the door, you had to type in your email address and join the
"One link would lead to another, and then another, and then another,"
Vaughn recalls. "In my mind, I would say, 'You know this is wrong. You
know you're not supposed to be doing this.' But I wasn't soliciting
anyone. I wasn't uploading anything. I knew it was really bad, but I
didn't know it was really, really, really bad." Like Ender Wiggin in
Orson Scott Card's novel, he thought he was playing a kind of game
not real war.
He would open dozens of windows at once, drinking it all in:
right-click, Save As, right-click, Save As. Then he would sift the
downloaded files into different folders to look at later, sending the
ones that didn't interest him to the trash. One of the many folders on
his hard drive was called Too Young.
And at 7:37 am PST on January 26, 2001, a Yahoo! server logged his
email address firstname.lastname@example.org
as he signed in to a
group called the Candyman.
Just as gaining access to illegal porn has become easier in the online
era, so has hunting down those who access it. A decade ago,
infiltrating a ring of porn traders would have required months of
undercover work. Often, even the members of these groups did not know
one another's real names.
Most offenders were apprehended in "controlled delivery" stings. A
suspect would either solicit porn from an undercover agent or answer
an ad placed by the US Postal Inspection Service frequently in
gay publications like The Advocate for magazines or VHS tapes
by mail. When the package was delivered, the suspect was arrested.
Investigators routinely gave priority to suspects with a history of
sex offenses, targeting them with direct-mail ads for child porn or
for fictitious organizations devoted to the repeal of age-of-consent
laws. In a significant number of cases, illegal material was
discovered when an offender's home was searched during the
investigation of another sex crime.
The online version of a controlled delivery sting can be as simple as
posting an invitation on a Web site. Last December, state police in
New Jersey busted the owner of one child-porn site, took it over, and
made a special offer to its visitors: "Greetings! I have been having
major financial and, unfortunately, technical difficulties in
maintaining the site much of my great content has been lost or
destroyed." Those who sent in more "content" were promised free
subscriptions. The digital images came streaming in. Operation Web
Sweep netted nearly 200 offenders in 29 states and 16 countries. In an
"Ask the FBI" webchat last year, special agent Pete Gulotta observed,
"It's like fishing in a pond full of hungry fish. You throw lines in
with bait. You really don't know how many fish are in the pond until
you stop catching them."
As a result, the number of investigations is increasing. In the past
three years, the FBI has boosted resources for hunting down child porn
by tenfold. A spokesperson for EarthLink says the ISP receives at
least 15 subpoenas a week related to child porn. According to the
Justice Department, prosecutors' offices across America handled more
Net porn cases last year than any other computer-related crime. The US
is not alone. The police in Northern Ireland have announced that they
work 15 such cases a day. In Britain, Operation Magenta recently
nailed a 15-year-old for possessing "paedophilic" images, while
Operation Appal busted six boys under the age of 17 in dawn raids. In
evidence rooms all over the world, hard drives, Zip disks, and CD-ROMs
containing illegal images are piling up faster than forensics experts
can examine them.
Compared with those snared in previous eras, a high proportion of
suspects apprehended in Net sweeps are first-time offenders. "The vast
majority of people who have been arrested as part of Innocent Images
are people who have never been charged with or even suspected of
crimes against children," says Gulotta.
In the Candyman cases, the suspects' naïveté about the legal system
expedited the process of investigating them. Two defendants in Houston
Christopher Tinney and Stephen Johnston, both 21
confessed the moment agents arrived at the door to having downloaded
illegal porn. Neither had uploaded a single file to the Candyman site,
but both were charged with conspiracy to distribute child porn in
addition to possession. Denied bail after being pronounced dangers to
the community by a US magistrate, they spent the past year in jail
while their lawyers negotiated plea bargains. Tinney's attorney, Paul
Mewis, was told that the order to deny bail had come from "much higher
up." In July, they pleaded guilty to reduced charges simple
possession but not conspiracy and are facing sentences of up to
five years in prison.
Very few child-porn cases ever go to trial. Defense attorneys know
that few jurors will stomach looking at more than an image or two
before pronouncing a defendant guilty. Threatened with a separate
felony conviction for each illegal file found on their computers,
nearly all suspects in these cases plead to simple possession or
possession plus trafficking, drawing jail terms of sometimes five
years or more. There is no parole in the federal prison system. Time
sentenced is time served.
Because so many of these cases end in plea bargains, the investigative
process is not subject to the same level of scrutiny as when a
defendant goes to trial, and the body of existing case law is scant.
In the Candyman operation, the fact that the search warrants contained
the erroneous assumption that all members received email from the
group did not come to light until this summer, after many defendants
had already pleaded guilty.
With most Candyman members opting not to receive email, the bureau's
probable cause for search in most cases rested on an email address
which anyone on the Net could have entered and the IP
address of the computer used at the time the alleged member joined the
group. Because Yahoo! did not keep logs of individual visits to the
Web site, there was no way to know, before a search, if a suspect had
ever gone back to look at the site after becoming a member. And even
those who quickly unsubscribed from the group were searched.
The enabling technology behind these crimes is so new that Net porn
cases often hinge on geeky details like email options and
network addressing that are beyond the computer expertise of
many defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges. At the bail hearing
for Johnston, Tinney, and three other defendants in Houston, the FBI's
Kristen Sheldon, who succeeded Binney as the case agent for the
ongoing investigation, testified that an IP address is, "in very
simple terms, a Social Security number. Only one person at one
specific time can have that number." In fact, an IP address identifies
a computer, rather than a person, and may not even consistently map to
a particular machine in networks that use dynamic IP addressing.
Midway through the hearing, the presiding US magistrate asked, "What
are GIF files?"
While these offenses have become easier to commit and to prosecute,
the stigma around all crimes of exploitation against children has
exerted a chilling effect on public discourse. In Beyond Tolerance:
Child Pornography on the Internet, Philip Jenkins writes, "Most
academic or journalistic American accounts of child pornography were
researched and written in the late 1970s and early 1980s... The
ferocious legal prohibitions on viewing child porn images have had the
effect of virtually banning research."
Binney mounted his assault on the Candyman by mapping a four-tier
hierarchy of offenders. Tier fours were those who looked at child
pornography; tier threes were those who circulated it; tier twos
manufactured it; and tier ones were active abusers in close proximity
to potential victims.
A small number of people arrested seemed to match the tier-one
profile. When Robert Froman was taken into custody in Houston, he
confessed to molesting his 13-year-old daughter. The Candyman
33-year-old named Mark Bates, had two prior convictions (one as a
juvenile) for offenses against children. He pleaded guilty in July.
At the original press conference in March, the Department of Justice
announced that 27 members of the Candyman had confessed to
molestation. By July, after another couple of hundred searches and
more arrests, FBI spokesperson Angela Bell put the number at 41. But
the same day I spoke with Bell, agent Sheldon told me, "That number is
wrong." Of the 104 arrested, the actual tally of confessed abusers,
Sheldon said, is 14. She also said that none of the images on the
Candyman had been linked with these crimes, which happened, in some
cases, many years ago.
And although the attorney general declared in May that Operation
Candyman had "uncovered over 7,200 child pornographers who trafficked
their obscenity through a single Internet group," Sheldon says only "a
very small number, a very small percentage" of members had ever
uploaded images to the Candyman. The vast majority of those arrested,
like Johnston and Tinney, seem to have been tier fours: people who
looked at child pornography but were not engaged in its production or
circulation, or in acts of molestation. In the lexicon of the online
world, they were lurkers.
These numbers call into question one of the core tenets behind law
enforcement actions against child-porn surfers that those who
are "just looking" are on the road to molestation. In the wake of the
Candyman arrests, Westchester County DA Jeanine Pirro told CNN, "The
truth is that 20 to 40 to 50 percent of those who possess child
pornography have actually admitted to molesting children. So there is
a correlation." Outside of law enforcement press releases, however,
the notion that viewing porn is a gateway to molestation as
marijuana was once considered a gateway to heroin is very
difficult to prove.
The most widely cited evidence of a correlation comes from Ray Smith
at the US Postal Inspection Service. Since the passage of the Child
Protection Act in 1984, inspectors from the "silent service" have
arrested more than 3,600 alleged pornographers and child molesters. In
the past five years, Smith says, 36 percent of those arrested by his
agency were identified as actual abusers.
That 36 percent figure has taken on a life of its own, often cited as
pertaining to images viewed online. "In the US, 36 percent of men
convicted of downloading child pornography have subsequently been
convicted of sexually abusing children," an academic in Europe
confidently told the press last spring. Postal inspector Mike Bain
claims that his agency's experience suggests that "normally" an
interest in child porn leads to molestation. "If they're in it long
enough," he says,
"they gradually work their way toward molesting children." Since the
stings conducted by the Postal Inspection Service frequently target
those with prior convictions for sex offenses, however, it is perhaps
not surprising that a high proportion of repeat offenders who mail or
solicit illegal images and videos are involved in abuse. What is
unclear, however, is how closely this 36 percent maps to those with no
previous offenses who look at porn on the Net.
If viewing child porn online acted as a gateway to molestation, an
explosion of it on the Web should have triggered rising rates of child
sexual abuse. And it has in the impoverished countries where
most of the illegal material is manufactured these days, such as
Thailand, South America, and Eastern Europe. In the US, however, where
the contraband images have their largest audience, rates of sex crimes
against children are falling sharply.
Last year, the Crimes Against Children Research Center, funded in part
by the Department of Justice, completed a study that revealed that
rates of reported child sex abuse in the US have dropped by 30 percent
in the past 10 years. The center's director, David Finkelhor,
attributes this to effective public education, a general improvement
in such child-welfare indicators as teen pregnancy and child poverty,
and aggressive prosecution and treatment of those who abuse. Although
he expresses concern that in certain people easy access to child porn
might help develop the proclivity to abuse, or reduce the inhibitions
against acting on those impulses, he says flatly, "There is no
evidence that the Internet is fueling an explosion of child sexual
abuse." He adds that "pornography is not one of the major causal
factors" in the abuse of kids.
According to the Department of Justice, in 86 percent of reported
cases of child sexual abuse, the offenders didn't need a computer to
gain access to their victims. The abusers were the victims' parents,
siblings, other relatives, or neighbors.
The fall of Adam Vaughn began with a phone call on March 20.
"This is Special Agent Straub from the FBI.
I need to talk to you about something."
Vaughn thought the agent might be contacting him about a case
involving a stolen vehicle driven across state lines. He put on his
badge and headed downtown. He was surprised to see an officer from
Madison already sitting in the agent's office. Straub handed Vaughn a
news article about Operation Candyman. Then he held up a thick manila
envelope, saying, "I have a package from Birmingham on you. We have
you logged on this site for a week. It was an FBI sting operation."
Vaughn's head began to swim. He had joined hundreds of sites. He told
the agent that he didn't remember joining the group. "We'd like to
have a look at your home computer," Straub said. Vaughn asked him if
he had a warrant. "We're just asking for consent," the agent
responded. Vaughn consented.
Straub told Vaughn to drive home and that he would follow. On the way,
Vaughn tried frantically to reach his wife on her cell phone at work,
but her battery had run down. Straub and the other officer arrived
minutes later and confiscated Vaughn's computer.
When Rebecca finally got home, there were 50 voice and text messages
from her husband. Vaughn told her what had happened. The next day, the
captain of the department, Danny Moore, told Vaughn he was suspended
with pay pending the outcome of the examination of his computer. He
turned in his badge, gun, and patrol car. For weeks, he and his wife
waited for a call or a knock at the door.
The Feds admitted an "apparent" mistake. By summer, the FBI net began
In late March, Vaughn's hard drive and scanner were taken to the FBI's
Computer Analysis and Response Team lab in Huntsville. An agent there
found traces of more than 300 sexually explicit images of minors on
Vaughn's hard drive, from teens to young children, "all the way down
to diapers," as the agent later testified. Of these, 60 were in
Vaughn's temporary browser cache, and 230 had been downloaded and
On April 2, Moore called and told Vaughn that he needed to come down
to the station. "Am I being fired or arrested?" he asked. Moore told
him he'd rather talk about it in person. When he arrived, Straub and
two other agents were standing in Moore's office. They led Vaughn out
through the station in handcuffs.
At the FBI headquarters in Huntsville, he was Mirandized,
fingerprinted, and locked in shackles and a waist chain. Then he was
brought before a judge, who released him on $5,000 bond pending trial.
Rebecca and a friend were waiting for him in the hall, and there was a
crowd of TV cameras outside. Minutes after the Vaughns got home,
officers from the parole board went through their apartment, ordering
them to get rid of all their computer equipment, including Rebecca's,
as a condition of Vaughn's release on bond. She carried their hardware
out to a dumpster.
When Rebecca returned, she was holding a letter that had been taped to
the door. It was an eviction notice informing the Vaughns that, "due
to the circumstances which took place this morning," they would have
to vacate the apartment in two weeks.
As a supervisory special agent at the FBI's Behavioral Research Unit,
Kenneth Lanning has probed the minds of child-porn collectors in more
depth than anyone in the history of the bureau. In a series of
influential essays, Lanning provided the analytical framework behind
many of our existing laws against child pornography.
Salty and streetwise, he served as a dispeller of myths for more than
two decades at the FBI before retiring in 2000. He officially debunked
the "satanic ritual abuse" hoax in the late '80s that landed dozens of
day-care providers in prison. He was also one of the first in law
enforcement to predict the impact the Internet would have on the
His most significant contribution was to direct the dialog about child
porn away from debates over its allegedly corrupting effects on adults
and focus it squarely on the harm inflicted on the victims. "Child
pornography, by itself, represents an act of sexual abuse or
exploitation of a child and, by itself, does harm to that child,"
Lanning wrote in Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis.
"The strongest argument you can make in court against child
pornography," Lanning told me in June, "is what it does to the person
in it. We don't know what percentage of people become molesters, but
we know that looking fuels demand. Every time you download an image,
there is an implicit message left behind: 'I like this. I want to see
more of it. And when I come back, there had better be something new.'"
When thousands of
GIFs and MPEGs can be duplicated and transmitted globally with the
sweep of a mouse, the abuse of the original victims can be magnified
exponentially by thousands of netsurfers at a comfortable distance
from the scenes of the crimes.
Lanning's focus on the victims has made him skeptical of what he calls
"zealotry" at the extremes of the child-porn issue the
free-speech libertarians who insist that just looking at images does
little harm, and those who insist that the legal definition of child
pornography must be made more and more broad, even to the point of
banning images that do not, in fact, depict minors.
Last spring, the Justice Department criticized the Supreme Court's
decision to exempt morphed or purely synthetic digital images of what
only appear to be sexually explicit acts by minors from the class of
illegal porn. The government testified that pedophiles could use such
"virtual" child porn to whet their own desires and lower the
inhibitions of potential victims. The court, however, drew the line at
banning images that are not themselves evidence of abuse. "The
government cannot constitutionally premise legislation on the
desirability of controlling a person's private thoughts," wrote
Justice Anthony Kennedy, speaking for the court in Ashcroft v. Free
When the Justice Department marshaled support in Congress to route
around the court's decision with a new law called the Child Obscenity
and Pornography Prevention Act, Lanning was asked to provide testimony
on the side of the attorney general. He politely declined.
Criminalizing purely fabricated images is "taking the 'child' out of
'child pornography,'" he says. "Playboy, toys, lollipops, and trips to
Disneyland are used by pedophiles to lower kids' inhibitions, too. Are
we going to make them all illegal?"
Lanning agreed with the court's decision that the job of law
enforcement is to police crimes, not to patrol "private thoughts."
Online, however, the distinctions between public and private are
blurred. Our intimate secrets can be put under surveillance, and our
most private acts can exert effects halfway around the world. In that
hazy zone, Vaughn walked right into Binney's net.
Psychologist Frankie Preston examined Vaughn for the prosecution after
his arrest, subjecting him to a battery of forensic tests. These
included an Abel assessment, employed to uncover inappropriate levels
of fixation on children in sex crime cases where the subject may be
attempting to deceive the examiner. He concluded that Vaughn is not a
"This is a guy," Preston says, "who served in special ops, volunteered
for 9/11, drives a Corvette, watches action-packed thrillers, and went
to many places where the average person would dare not go.
High-stimulus seekers like Adam get into situations where it feels
right to have all their sensory inputs going at once. They're risk
takers who often don't think about the danger to themselves until the
experience is over.
"Which is not necessarily a bad quality," he added, "in a Marine or a
A Saturn V rocket juts into the sky above Huntsville, the birthplace
of the American space program. In the final months of World War II,
110 German scientists were brought to the Redstone Arsenal to design
the engines that powered the first US satellites into orbit. Aerospace
research is still booming here. Ten years ago, the field where Madison
City Hall stands was planted with cotton. Now freshly paved streets
with names like Intergraph Road and Jetplex Circle carry engineers to
jobs at Boeing and Raytheon.
It's still the South. The air is thick and close, the tea is cold and
sweet, and a sign on a roadside church advises, DUSTY BIBLES LEAD TO
DIRTY LIVES. A pastor recently persuaded shop owners to cover up such
salacious publications as Cosmopolitan magazine.
Three weeks after his arrest, Vaughn met me at the door in a T-shirt
and jeans with a wireless monitor strapped to his ankle. He looked
paler and thinner than he had in the Madison County Record he
had lost 30 pounds, and his medicine cabinet had filled up with
prescriptions to treat insomnia, depression, and cluster headaches. A
box connected to the device on his ankle transmitted information to a
parole officer with bursts of clicks at random intervals, a recurring
reminder of his captivity. Police chief Busken had issued a memo that
no one in the department was to talk to him, and as a condition of his
release on bond, he was prohibited from speaking with any member of
law enforcement not involved in his case. He lost contact with most of
his friends overnight.
This being the South, however, others jumped in to create a support
system for Vaughn and his wife. Two brothers in town, Sam and Simon
Vernon, rented a U-Haul and helped them move after the eviction. A
police chaplain petitioned his church council to provide the couple
with food when their money ran out and offered to give them Communion
Mostly, Vaughn passed the hours chain-smoking and playing videogames
on the couch, which Rebecca christened "Adam's command center." Kenny
Tincknell, a drill instructor in the Army, dropped in every couple of
weeks to give him a Marine-style buzz cut in the kitchen a
familiar ritual that reassured him that the rhythms of ordinary life
were going on outside the confines of his smoky apartment. Tincknell's
wife, Susan, once considered applying to become a cop, and Vaughn had
coached her on radio calls and taken her on ride-alongs. After the
officers returned from Ground Zero, the Tincknells' son carried the
newspaper article around in his pocket for three months.
"I know Adam," Susan told me. "I've seen him in his most unguarded
moments, in the best and worst of times. Adam and Rebecca are two of
the only people I would trust around my kids."
Vaughn hired two local attorneys, Steve Aldridge and Andy Segal. Like
Geoff Binney, Aldridge grew up in law enforcement. His first memories
are of riding in a patrol car with his father, the town sheriff.
Burly, loquacious, and fiercely practical, Aldridge has worked both
sides of the courtroom. He was the chief prosecutor for sex crimes in
Madison County for seven years. He also served as the head of the
investigations team for the National Children's Advocacy Center in
Huntsville, which has been instrumental in restructuring the
investigative process in sex crime cases worldwide to minimize the
trauma for young victims.
In late April, assistant US attorney Dierdra Brown met with the
lawyers and threatened to charge Vaughn with a felony for each image
on his hard drive, including the cached and deleted files. That would
yield a term of 25 years or more in federal prison a death
sentence for a sex offender and former cop. She also charged Vaughn
with obstruction of justice for telling Straub that he didn't remember
joining the Candyman group. Then she warned Vaughn's lawyers that she
would make his client "the national poster boy for child pornography"
if they took his case to trial. On days when Vaughn went to court, a
local newscaster told me, Brown tipped off reporters herself. She has
since left her post and has not returned phone calls about the case.
Aldridge and Segal negotiated a deal for Vaughn to plead to simple
possession, with the obstruction charge dropped. Under the federal
sentencing guidelines, his crime will yield a maximum five-year
sentence, with leeway for a downward departure by the sentencing
judge. On the basis of Vaughn's excellent record in the military and
as a police officer, the prosecutor agreed to request a downward
departure. The judge will also make a recommendation to send Vaughn to
either a federal prison or a psychiatric correctional facility. As
part of the plea agreement, Vaughn waived his right to appeal the
sentence. He also arranged to enroll in a group treatment program
after his incarceration. Under Megan's law, he will be a registered
sex offender for the rest of his life.
On June 11, Vaughn and his wife drove to the Hugo L. Black Courthouse
in Birmingham. US District Court judge Inge Johnson read through the
charges, pausing to ask Vaughn if he understood them, and explained
his constitutional rights. Vaughn pleaded guilty to possession of
child pornography and officially forfeited his confiscated hard drive
to the US government. Sentencing was set for early September.
I asked Vaughn how he felt after making his plea. "Fear, shame,
disgrace, sorrow, and suicidal thoughts hitting me all at once," he
said. "But now I have to take responsibility for my actions and allow
the legal system to do its job. I've destroyed my own life and
Rebecca's life, and affected the lives of my friends. If I knew a year
ago what was going to happen, I would have taken my computer and
thrown it in the trash."
All across the country this year, other Candyman defendants were also
pleading guilty, disappearing into prison as the bureau prepared
warrants for its next wave of arrests.
By summer, however, Binney's net was starting to unravel. US attorney
Michael Wynne sent out a letter to Candyman defense attorneys on July
15 acknowledging "an apparent factual inaccuracy" in the original
affidavits the bureau's claim that all Candyman members had
received email containing the illegal images. The letter also
disclosed that the moderator of the group, Mark Bates, told the FBI
about the email options in March, but "[agent] Sheldon concluded that
Bates was mistaken." Wynne wrote that while the government "is
concerned" about the inaccuracy, "it does not believe it either
invalidates the search warrants or gives rise to a basis for
suppression of evidence."
For D. Toni Byrd, an assistant federal public defender in
Pennsylvania, the letter raised troubling questions about the
integrity of the investigation. Defense attorneys across the country,
she says, are considering challenging the constitutionality of the
warrants and withdrawing their clients' guilty pleas. Several have
delayed their clients' sentencing until the issue is resolved.
In August, Aldridge spoke with Vaughn, and they decided the risks of
retracting his plea were too great. "In the old days, the laws against
illegal search and seizure were interpreted much more strictly,"
Aldridge says, "but as this technology develops, the definition of
probable cause will most likely be expanded. I've advised Adam to stay
Rebecca received word from the Army Corps of Engineers that she was
not to appear with her husband in media coverage of the sentencing.
"You see somebody on the news walking into court alone," she told me,
"and you say, where is their family? Where is their wife? Where is
their support? I will walk beside Adam that day."
Contributing editor Steve Silberman (email@example.com
Oliver Sacks in Wired 10.04.
Copyright (C) 1993-99 The Conde Nast Publications Inc. All rights