WASHINGTON — One hundred twenty-three victims of child sexual exploitation were identified by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agents during an international operation aimed at rescuing victims and targeting individuals who own, trade and produce images of child pornography. Of that number, 44 children were directly rescued from their abusers and 79 were identified as either being exploited by others outside of their home or are now adults who were victimized as children.
HSI launched Operation Sunflower in November 2012 to commemorate the one-year anniversary in which the identification of a sunflower-shaped highway road sign led to the rescue of an 11-year-old girl in Kansas. Operation Sunflower was executed through the first week of December 2012, but victim identification and rescue efforts continue under HSI's Operation Predator.
"The sexual abuse of young children, often at the hands of people they trust, is a particular wrong," said ICE Director John Morton. "Whenever our investigations reveal the production and distribution of new child pornography online, we will do everything we can to rescue the victim and prosecute the abuser even if takes us years or around the world to do it. A relentless fight against child exploitation is the only answer."
HSI and partner law enforcement agencies arrested 245 individuals during the operation, which took place Nov. 1 to Dec. 7. Of the 123 victims, 110 were identified in 19 U.S. states.
Of the 123 victims identified during Operation Sunflower: five were under the age of 3, nine were ages 4 to 6; 21 were ages 7 to 9; 11 were ages 10 to 12; 38 were ages 13 to 15; and 15 were ages 16 to 17. Twenty-four of the victims identified are now adults who were victimized as children. Seventy were female and 53 were male.
HSI victim assistance specialists, located in offices around the country, provide direct assistance to victims and families, and work with both child and adult victims to provide referrals for services and resources in their area. The specialists remain involved during the investigation and often beyond the sentencing of the perpetrator.
Focusing on Victim Identification
In 2012, HSI special agents, working closely with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), partially identified multiple individuals across the country who were sexually abusing young children and taking photos or videos of the acts. Special agents worked with the Department of Justice and its Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section to issue national Jane and John Doe warrants to arrest these perpetrators and rescue their victims. The most recent case was solved two weeks ago in Florida.
Now, the public's help is being sought with any leads that can help provide clues in several cases and rescue more victims.
"We applaud our partners at ICE for their worldwide work in identifying these victims of child sexual exploitation and for helping to remove these children from extremely dangerous situations," said NCMEC CEO John Ryan. "We know that there's more work to be done. Anyone could know these victims, not knowing that they're being harmed. They could be your neighbors' children, your child's classmate, or even your own child. We thank Director Morton and everyone at ICE for their strong commitment to rescuing the most vulnerable of victims."
Seeking 'Jane and John Doe' and Two Other Unknown Suspects
On Monday, HSI special agents in Los Angeles obtained a Jane and John Doe warrant based on a longstanding, unsolved case involving a widely distributed series of child pornography images. The photographs, which authorities believe were taken about 11 years ago, depict a male and female adult sexually molesting a girl who looks to be about 13 years old at the time. Although the male suspect's face has been purposely obscured by an unknown person, the female suspect's face can be seen in a number of the images. John Doe appears to be a white male, 40 to 50 years old; Jane Doe appears to be a white female, 35 to 45 years old. The suspects would now be approximately 11 years older. The female suspect has several tattoos, including: a black tattoo on her right hip resembling a butterfly; a tattoo on her right shoulder blade depicting the outline of a curled up cat; a tattoo with words across the top of her left wrist; and a tattoo of unknown design on the upper portion of her left breast.
Based upon detailed forensic analysis, investigators suspect the abuse depicted in the images may have occurred in Los Angeles, possibly in the San Fernando Valley-area. HSI special agents in Los Angeles have interviewed dozens of individuals seeking further leads in the case, but they have yet to confirm the suspects' or victim's identities. Although the victim is likely an adult now, HSI continues to investigate the case in the hope that the perpetrators can be located and prosecuted, preventing the abuse of future victims.
The sexual abuse images in this case were first discovered by HSI special agents in Chicago in 2007 in an unrelated child pornography investigation. The material was submitted to NCMEC's Child Victim Identification Program, which determined the victim had not yet been identified and could be in danger of ongoing sexual exploitation. After determining there was probable cause to believe that the abuse occurred in California in approximately 2001, NCMEC referred the case to HSI Los Angeles for further investigation.
The images of two other unknown suspects, wanted for questioning in other unsolved child pornography investigations, are also being publicized. Anyone with information or tips that can assist in these investigations is encouraged to call 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or visit www.ICE.gov/webform/hsi-tip-form. Tips may be reported anonymously.
The identity and whereabouts of the victims and the perpetrators in these cases remain unknown.
The Sunflower Case
Operation Sunflower is named after the first case conducted one year ago under the agency's newly created Victim Identification Program. Operation Sunflower commemorates the one-year anniversary of this first successful rescue under the new program.
The Sunflower case began in November 2011 when Danish law enforcement officials shared with HSI their discovery of material and posts on a chat board indicating that a 16-year-old boy was planning to rape an 11-year-old girl. The suspect was soliciting advice on a pedophile board and posting images of the girl. One image held a clue that proved to be invaluable to investigators: a yellow road sign visible from the window of a moving vehicle. The road sign depicted a sunflower graphic that was unique to the State of Kansas.
For days, HSI special agents drove in pairs along Kansas highways, seeking a comparison between the images in the photos and the actual locations. Just 13 days after receiving the material, and by combining sophisticated photo forensics with traditional law enforcement methods, special agents located the residence in a small Kansas town. These efforts made it possible for law enforcement to intervene and rescue the girl before she was further victimized.
Additional Statistics and Information
In fiscal year 2012, 292 victims were identified or rescued as a direct result of HSI child pornography investigations. Fiscal year 2012 is the first year in which HSI tracked the number of victims rescued as part of its child sexual exploitation investigations. This number does not include the hundreds of victims rescued overseas by foreign law enforcement agencies as a result of HSI cases and leads.
Also in fiscal year 2012, a record number of child predators – 1,655 – were arrested on criminal charges related to these types of investigations. Since 2003, HSI has initiated more than 24,000 cases and arrested 8,720 individuals for these types of crimes. HSI arrested 1,335 predators in 2011 and 912 in 2010.
Operation Sunflower was conducted as part of Operation Predator, a nationwide HSI initiative to protect children from sexual predators, including those who travel overseas for sex with minors, Internet child pornographers, criminal alien sex offenders and child sex traffickers. HSI encourages the public to report suspected child predators and any suspicious activity through its toll-free hotline at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or by completing its online tip form. Both are staffed around the clock by investigators.
Suspected child sexual exploitation or missing children may be reported to NCMEC, an Operation Predator partner, via its toll-free 24-hour hotline, 1-800-THE-LOST.
HSI is a founding member and chair of the Virtual Global Taskforce, an international alliance of law enforcement agencies and private industry sector partners working together to prevent and deter online child sexual abuse. NCMEC is also a member of the VGT.
Learn more about Operation Sunflower's Significant Cases and Unsolved Cases.
Note to Editors: HD video and still images of this operation may be downloaded from the following website, after completing a brief registration process: http://www.dvidshub.net/unit/ICE.