Cybercrime unit gets tough

Team takes on any case with digital evidence, particularly child porn, sex crimes

By Paul Suarez, Columbian web producer

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A silver unmarked police car pulls into the parking lot of a two-story apartment complex off St. Johns Road late Wednesday afternoon, drawing attention of local residents. The three officers inside look for a burgundy four-door sedan in one of the complex’s garages.

It isn’t there. The officers will have to come back later.

It’s a typical situation for officers with the Digital Evidence Cybercrimes Unit, a group of civilian investigators and police officers with the Vancouver Police Department and Clark County Sheriff’s Office.

The group was looking to arrest the car’s owner without getting a warrant to enter his residence to save time. Unfortunately for them, the owner wasn’t home.

They stopped by the next morning and found the suspect getting into his car on his way to work.

Bingo.

Officers arrested Michael Basom, 57, Thursday on suspicion of 29 counts of dealing and 10 counts of possessing depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct, aka child pornography.

He will make his first court appearance Friday morning.

The unit helps with almost any case involving digital evidence, but it spends a lot of time investigating child pornography and sex-related crimes.

Basom was on the unit’s radar for allegedly dealing and possessing child pornography, but his case got kicked into overdrive after he allegedly confronted a boy in the bathroom of a local department store, said Sgt. John Chapman, who manages the unit.

“It’s one thing to distribute and possess,” he said. “Now we have a guy who attempts to go hands on with a child.”

It’s because of cases like this that the unit is stretched thin.

High-priority cases

The severity of the crimes the unit handles forces its members to pick and choose which battles they can fight with the resources they have. Crimes such as child pornography, child predation and sex trafficking are high-priority cases because they are extremely damaging, Chapman said.

“With computer forensics, 90 percent of the time is spent on child pornography now,” he said. The other 10 percent is spent helping with other cases, including suspicious deaths and the occasional fraud case.

The unit, which operates out of the old section of Vancouver Police’s west precinct along Northeast Stapleton Road, is responsible for everything from processing surveillance footage to investigating online fraud cases. It also deals with sex trafficking, sexting in schools and online bullying.

The team was brought together under one roof earlier this year. That means that three investigators (one from Clark County and two from the city), a federal agent, Chapman and two detectives work under one roof. Pooled resources allow the team to work more effectively on cases.

“It’s working pretty well,” Chapman.

Long investigations

On Wednesday, the unit arrested James Mehas, 47, of La Center on suspicion of communication with a minor for immoral purposes.

Mehas allegedly began a texting and phone relationship with a 14-year-old girl from Alaska, Chapman said. The girl’s father reported the case to police in Juneau. The department in Alaska got in touch with Chapman’s unit to investigate.

Earlier this month, officers with the unit arrested James J. Blunt, 46, on suspicion of 607 counts of possession of child pornography. He was also arrested on suspicion of three counts of alleged dealing in child pornography, police spokeswoman Kim Kapp said.

Before officers could make the arrest, they spent more than a year investigating.

“Every one of those investigations can be extremely time consuming,” Chapman said.

Typically, investigations start from tips and sometimes a sting. From there, a warrant is issued. Investigators don’t usually make an arrest at that point, Chapman said. Instead, they search the home for “every kind of storage medium” they can find and take them as evidence, he said.

Digital experts

Back at headquarters, civilian investigators make copies of the storage devices and sift through files to prepare a report for the detective on each case and evidence for court.

“We’re kind of jacks of all trades,” said Eric Thomas, a civilian investigator with the unit.

The unit gets involved in virtually any case where there is digital evidence, which can be “anything from arson to harassment,” he said. “If you think about it, almost every crime has a digital evidence component to it.”

Now that electronics are becoming more sophisticated, investigators find themselves analyzing files on cellphones too, Thomas said.

Sometimes they’ll download contacts, text messages, videos and GPS information when the phone supports it, he said.

Some of the latest features that make life more convenient for smartphone owners, especially GPS-tagged photos, also make investigations easier for the unit, Thomas said.

“Some of those features are turned on automatically,” he said. “It’s very nice to find out exactly where photos are taken on an iPhone or on a Droid.”

Challenging duty

In the case of child pornography, investigators must look at the images to see if they are in existing databases or are new files representing new cases of abuse, Thomas said.

It’s a high price the small team has to pay to put online criminals behind bars.

Chapman said looking at the images day after day takes a toll.

“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the people working for me,” he said. “It’s awful. That’s why I don’t let myself see them (the images).”

Investigators say seeing the abuse keeps them motivated.

“Yeah we’ve seen those images, and we know what those children have gone through,” Thomas said. “That motivates us more to get the person responsible.”

The unit is also responsible for keeping tabs on the 600 or so sex offenders who live in Vancouver city limits.

That means detectives must make random visits to addresses where sex offenders claim to live to see if they are actually there. Sometimes offenders are at work or just not home — as happened twice Wednesday afternoon.

Why don’t they call ahead of time?

If check-ins are scheduled, a sex offender could be at one address for the check-in and live somewhere else the rest of the time, Chapman said.

Education role

The unit also tries to help kids and people who work with kids learn how to prevent problems before they happen or to respond when they do.

“We can’t just go out into the public,” Chapman said. “I’d love to, but we don’t have the time.”

Instead, he meets with school counselors and administrators to help spread information. He also forged a partnership with a Christian nonprofit agency called AWARE that places speakers in local schools to talk about the sex trade, pornography and other things.

The unit hopes to solve part of its resource problem by hiring another civilian investigator in the near future with money from a two-year grant.

“That would make the turnarounds faster, which would be great,” Chapman said.

The extra body may help investigations take several weeks instead of several months, he said.

But for now, the group is continuing to do as much as it can with the resources it has.

“We’re putting ourselves between an abuser and a child,” investigator Thomas said. “When you do that you feel like, OK, it’s been a good day.”

Paul Suarez: 360-735-4522; Twitter: col_cops; paul.suarez@columbian.com.