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I-Team: Child pornography on the rise in North Carolina

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In 2016, North Carolina's cybercrimes hotline received more than 2,500 tips about potential crimes. Officials say it's something that everyone needs to be watching for. (WTVD)

This story started with a phone call.

The State Bureau of Investigation's Computer Crimes Unit wanted help spreading the word about the increasing problem of child pornography being shared on the Internet.

The Computer Crimes Unit has about 15 people in it and they'll all tell you that they're tasked with one of the most sacred responsibilities in all of the government: Protecting some of our most vulnerable children.

But it's a big job. Too big, they admit, for the unit to keep up with. That's why they reached out to the I-Team.

"I don't know that we're making a dent at this point," Kevin Roughton admitted from the group's headquarters in South Raleigh. "It's happening more than you would possibly imagine. Child pornography has always been around, but it was traded either personally or in pictures decades ago. With the Internet now, it's available in a matter of seconds. And it's available in such quantity. You could look for months and years and never see the same image again."

In 2016, the state's cybercrimes hotline received more than 2,500 tips about potential crimes. Roughton said it's something everyone needs to be watching for.

"It's a little overwhelming, some of the numbers that we see and knowing what is out there," Roughton said.

The bureau received these cybertips from 2010 to 2016.

Roughton has led the State Bureau of Investigation's (SBI) Computer Crime's Unit for 10 years.

Right now, he has two deputies and nine investigative agents. Roughton's budget allows for two more agents but he said finding qualified candidates is a heavy lift.

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"We're an investigative unit, not strictly a forensic unit," Roughton explained. "So, that means we initiate our own cases, we do the backgrounds (checks), we do the interviews, we do the search warrants; we are out on scene doing all those things and then the evidence we collect, we also forensically analyze to determine the contents of those, whether it's computers, phones, tablets, any of that type of thing."

Roughton's team is basically a wrecking ball for those who trade in child pornography.

He said their conviction rate is nearly 100 percent. The reason for that, he said, is largely due to the heavy surveillance the team does in the beginning.

The team connects to a special network used to share pictures and video of child pornography, and it allows them to see who's uploading and downloading illegal files in real time.

Roughton's unit partners with 150 police and sheriff's departments across the state, but still, he said manpower is an issue.

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Roughton shows how many offenders are in our area.

When asked if he thinks the state is adequately funding the fight against child pornography, Roughton said, "I would have to say no given the overwhelming problem that it is. Even with our partnerships of 150 agencies, I don't know that we're making a dent at this point. There are so many offenders and the product doesn't go away. I can take an offender off the street but the product and the problem are still there."

The shortage of money and manpower is compounded by the nature of the problem itself.

The way it often works, people download a special program that connects to an underground network of people looking for child pornography. Computers downloading files are often, by the design of the program used, also uploading files on their computers.

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People use underground programs to view and share child pornography.

The mechanics of it present a distinct challenge for investigators.

Because of how it works, many or most consumers are also dealers.

"With drugs, you have a tangible item that has to be dealt and is consumed," he said. "At that point, it's gone and you have to get more. With this, you have a dealer or distributor and you have a consumer but the product never gets consumed. And ultimately, most of the time what winds up happening is that those users, whether they intend to or not, become distributors."

What's more, SBI Special Agent Chad Barefoot said his job as a forensic investigator is getting harder every day.

"The level of sophistication and the level of computer skills we're encountering is obviously increasing exponentially," Barefoot said.

Barefoot said secrecy, from everyone else, is fundamental to offenders.

"You may look at your husband or wife's phone and see a calculator application," he said. "It's a calculator but if you key in a certain code, it opens you up to what could be potentially thousands of photographs or thousands of videos. There are other applications that may disguise the phone's pin code. You type in a certain pin on the phone, it unlocks the phone. You type in a certain other pin and it takes you to somewhere completely different."

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Roughton said offenders use disguised apps to hid their photos and images.

"A lot of times what they're most afraid of is not law enforcement," said Roughton.

"Many times, they're more afraid of their family finding out or they're more afraid of the public shame of the community because of the shame of the social implications that come along with something like child pornography. So, a lot of time, the sentence from the court, or the impact that law enforcement makes is not what they're fearing the most, it's the social ramifications of that. They're put in a position where they feel like life, as they know it, is over and at times, it can become a dangerous situation because of that."

At a recent bust in North Raleigh, Roughton's group took the I-Team along. Roughton said he got a full confession on the scene.

Forensic investigators analyzed the computer of 63-year-old David Kelly, a local father, and writer, and found files that Kelly admitted to trading.

"He said it's going to be a significant amount," Roughton said. "He couldn't quantify the numbers but he said it would be a large amount that we found."

Kelly's computers and digital devices went back to Roughton's team to be analyzed by an investigator.

"This is not just about trying to go after people who are downloading files off the internet," Barefoot said. "We're trying to actually get to and rescue children out there that need our help."

"Are there any real children that we need to be concerned about?" Roughton stressed. "Is there a chance he offended against a real child? Is there a real child that has been the victim somewhere that we can get help to. We'll continue our investigation to try to identify those types of things."

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Roughton said the bureau wants to catch the criminals and help the child who are being exploited.

In the North Raleigh neighborhood park where Roughton and his agents staged their bust, parents were taken aback.

"It does surprise me," said Luenna Ward, who was there with her young son. "It doesn't appear to be that type of environment around here."

But that's exactly the point Roughton wanted to drive home when he asked ABC11's I-Team to be part of this story.

"There's no demographic," he said. "We see it across a lot of age barriers where it can be teenagers or late teens, early 20s, all the way up to 60s and 70s. Socioeconomic status doesn't matter. We've been in some of the nastiest places where people are homeless and some of the nicest places in some of nicest, gated communities. And profession doesn't matter. We've had unemployed, we've had pastors, we've had coaches, we've had police officers. There's not a socio-economic demographic that fits."

"Wow," remarked Ward. "I would say, people are people everywhere and we've gotta be watchful at all times and at any place. Anything can be close to home and it's up to us as parents to still parent our kids and that's making sure that they're safe, and making sure we know who is the next adult that is around them. It's pretty scary because you can't identify that person, especially if you would have met that person and known they had a kid."

Travers Slone, who was also at the playground, had the same reaction.

"Knowing that there are possible pedophiles around viewing the kind of internet porn with children, that hurts me," he said. "The only thing I want to do is protect my children. And to hear that that's happening close to here in this area, it's actually scary."

Kelly is set to appear in Wake County court Tuesday morning.

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