A Kansas state highway sign – a bold number 20 in the center of a golden-yellow sunflower – is one of the items on display at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) exhibit at the National Crime and Punishment Museum in Washington, D.C.
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, which is a good time to visit the ICE exhibit and see the highway sign that represents Operation Sunflower, a child exploitation case led by ICE's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). Operation Sunflower led to the identification of 123 child sexual exploitation victims. 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.
Operation Sunflower was launched in November 2012 and involved five and half weeks of intense searches, arrests and interviews in 47 states across the United States and in six countries overseas.
ICE has built on Operation Sunflower to rescue more children using victim identification strategies as a key investigative method. But the story behind the Kansas highway sign dates a year prior to Operation Sunflower.
In 2011, the Danish police sent ICE images and posts on an Internet chat board indicating that a teenage boy was planning to rape an 11-year-old girl. The suspect was soliciting advice on a pedophile board and posting pictures of the young girl – but didn't identify her or her location. One of the images, however, held a clue that proved invaluable. It was a blurry yellow image of a road sign taken from the window of a moving vehicle.
On close examination, HSI determined it was a highway sign unique to the state of Kansas. For days, HSI special agents drove in pairs along Kansas highways to find this exact sign. They eventually found the sign in rural Kansas, a discovery which in turn led them to a nearby pool that was in another one of the images the Danish police provided. Working with the local sheriff's office, HSI located the girl in a local town, intervening before the rape could occur. The teenager was prosecuted.
"We selected the Kansas state highway sign as part of the ICE exhibit," said Brian Hale, assistant director of ICE's Office of Public Affairs, "because it's highly symbolic of ICE's technological savvy, tenacity and dedication in preventing children from being victimized by child predators and rescuing those who are suffering from these monstrous criminal acts."
All items in the ICE exhibit have intricate and fascinating back stories that signify how this agency, under the Department of Homeland Security, is protecting the public and the nation.
ICE unveiled its exhibit on March 4, and it is scheduled to run through the summer.
The National Crime and Punishment Museum is located at 575 7th Street NW between E and F Streets in downtown Washington, D.C., at the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro (Arena exit).