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The Department of Justice and the Office of Justice Programs recognized extraordinary individuals and their outstanding work on behalf of missing and exploited children with awards presented yesterday at the annual ceremony for National Missing Children’s Day.
The awardees—a detective with a state-level task force; two firefighters; and multiple law enforcement officers in two separate jurisdictions—were recognized for getting three child pornographers behind bars; recovering a missing six-year-old; finding two abducted sisters; and bringing a long-time child predator to justice.
The ceremony was organized by OJP’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and held in Washington, DC.
Following opening remarks by Matt Dummermuth, OJP’s Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Ed O’Callaghan and OJJDP Administrator Caren Harp presented the following awards:
The Attorney General’s Special Commendation, to Detective Lorraine Szczepanik of the South Florida Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, or “ICAC,” and Broward Sheriff’s Office, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
In late 2017, based on two CyberTips, Detective Szczepanik located a child pornography suspect, knocked on his door and talked to him. When he admitted to accessing child pornography on his cell phone, the detective obtained a search warrant that uncovered thousands of images and videos of child pornography on his electronic devices. The pornography included victims as young as infants and toddlers. The State Attorney’s Office charged the man with 12 counts of possession of child pornography and one count of compiling child pornography.
As Detective Szczepanik combed through the suspect’s digital and online communications, she found three additional men with whom he was actively trading child pornography. She located two of them in South Florida. In collaboration with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI, the detective obtained search warrants for the two, who confessed and were arrested on the scene. They and the original suspect pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography and received long prison sentences followed by sex offender probation.
The Missing Children’s Law Enforcement Award, to Sergeant Darin Bayles; Detectives Bernardo Villegas, Robert Watts (retired) and Kevin Bender; Lieutenant Robert Drawbaugh; and Crime Scene Specialist Kerie McKown, all of the Round Rock, Texas, Police Department; Special Agents Sean Mullen, Jacob Baillie and Andrew Masters of the FBI’s San Antonio, Texas, Field Office; and Ranger Gary Phillips of the Texas Ranger Division, Texas Department of Public Safety.
Officers and agents from several agencies collaborated to find two abducted sisters. They worked day and night during a four-day manhunt to bring the 7- and 14-year-old girls home safely.
Phillips and Baillie found the girls’ mother murdered in her home in Round Rock on New Year’s Eve 2017. The mother’s roommate, who had stolen her car, quickly became a person of interest. They requested an AMBER Alert, and the Round Rock PD held press conferences, released images of the suspect and appeared on a national cable TV program to inform the public.
Investigators uncovered several pieces of evidence that led them to the suspect and the girls, who were unharmed, in Colorado. Authorities extradited the suspect to Texas, where he was indicted on federal kidnapping charges and remains a person of interest in the murder of the girls’ mother.
The Missing Children’s Citizen Award, to Firefighters Aaron Woods and Michael Webb of the Blount County Fire Department, Maryville, Tennessee. On April 23, 2018, at about 6 p.m., a 6-year-old boy wandered into the woods with his dog. The fire department immediately assembled a team of about 100 first responders from several agencies. They began to scour 2,000 acres of rugged, wooded terrain—on foot and by air—near where the child was last seen.
After 15 hours of searching, the department sent in a team of reinforcements led by Woods. Seven hours later, before the descent of another night of cool, and potentially deadly, temperatures, Woods and Webb found the boy, who was blue with cold. They wrapped him in several of the searchers’ jackets and carried him one-and-a-half miles to a medical unit that was standing by. A local hospital released the boy to his grateful family later that night.
The Missing Children’s Child Protection Award, to Detectives Christie Hirota, James Williams and Melinda Gobron of the Sacramento County, California, Sheriff’s Department; Special Agent Scott Schofield of the FBI’s Sacramento Field Office; Investigator George Vasiliou of the California Highway Patrol; and Detective Avis Beery of the Sacramento Police Department.
On March 1, 2018, a citizen reported receiving video footage of a partially clothed young boy from an acquaintance who was also a foster parent. Patrol officers forwarded the case to Detective Hirota of the 20-member Sacramento Valley High Tech Crimes Task Force. The investigation she led found a number of reports of the suspect’s troubling behavior toward young boys in the preceding seven years.
A search of the suspect’s residence uncovered hidden cameras that captured children in compromising positions. Through painstaking examination of seized devices, the task force recovered pornographic images of the suspect’s foster children and his possible abuse of them. Locating them through information in past reports, Detective Hirota interviewed children who said the suspect had sexually abused them. Within 48 hours of receiving the patrol officers’ report, she had the suspect’s current foster child removed from his care. Authorities charged the suspect with producing child pornography and with molesting four children. He faces a possible life sentence.
In addition to its support of National Missing Children’s Day, OJP protects children from abuse and victimization through several funding streams, training and technical assistance, and programs.
Key to these efforts are the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces, which battle technology-facilitated child exploitation nationwide. ICAC investigations have led to the arrests of more than 89,400 individuals—some 9,100 in the last year alone.
In addition, the AMBER Alert program helps recover abducted children—957 at last count. It works through a network of law enforcement and transportation agencies, state partners, and a growing secondary distribution system of Internet providers and wireless carriers. In partnership with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, OJP continues to make this vital public resource more effective and more capable of reaching every community, including those in Indian country.