Maine's CSI: The Unit (Discretion Advised)
An elite group of Maine State Police investigators has earned national acclaim for cracking the most disturbing computer crimes
- By: Cynthia Anderson
- Photography by: Benjamin Magro
[Photo caption: The cyber-sleuthing professionals of the Maine State Police Computer Crimes Unit have solved cases far beyond the state line. The unit is composed of Saregeant Glenn Lang, Special Agent Manning Jeter, Detective Laurie Northrup, analyst Chip Howe, Office Manager Tina Plourde, analyst Andrea Donovan, and analyst Dawn Ego.]
The FBI flyer arrived on May 23, 2008. The Bureau needed assistance in locating a girl who was being victimized in a notorious Internet child pornography case known as the Tara Series. Videos and photographs suggested the abuse had grown increasingly violent over time. The most recent images showed the child, who looked to be about nine years old, with a knife pressed to her neck and genitals. The situation was urgent, the FBI noted. It had taken the unusual step of sending the flyer to Internet Crimes Against Children units across the nation in hopes of finding her before it was too late.
In the upstairs quarters of an old stone mansion in Vassalboro, members of the eight-person Maine State Police Computer Crimes Unit (CCU) zeroed in on a dozen photographs that showed the girl in various settings. Some of the images appeared to have been taken in a home. Unit leader Sergeant Glenn Lang noted a ribbon on the wall in one of them. What did the others make of that? Computer forensics analyst Dawn Ego observed that it looked like a birth announcement of the sort available in hospital gift shops.
At her spartan desk in the corner of the CCU, Ego — whom Lang affectionately likens to a pit bull: “Obsessive. We harness her insanity” — pored over the photograph with a magnifier and began making calls. By the next day she had found the maker of the ribbon and, in determining which hospitals sold it, narrowed the location of the home to one of seventeen mostly southeastern states.
It was a start. The complete file arrived a few days later. Ego and other members of the CCU began to examine the 1,800 still photos and video images that other law enforcers — including Interpol and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, in addition to the FBI — had scoured mostly in vain for clues to the identities of the perpetrator or his victim. The fact that the case had eluded so many high-powered agencies did not daunt the CCU. In the ten years since the unit had grown from a regional computer crimes task force linking police in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont to a federally funded nationwide resource, it had cracked other tough cases, albeit none as high-profile as this one.
In terms of group charisma, the Maine CCU could vie with CSI or NCIS as a TV network crime show — with the tough-yet-tender Lang and the quietly intense, elfin Ego in starring roles. Yet, despite photographs on the unit’s walls that highlight dramatic arrests (some with an armed U.S. Secret Service agent in tow), its success stems far less from style than from substance — from the scores of hours the analysts spend at computer monitors to extract the electronic evidence often required to crack a case.
“The work [the CCU does] is invaluable,” says Carlos Diaz, assistant attorney general for the state of Maine, who prosecuted cases based on CCU forensics from 1999 to 2008. “Without them we would be unable to preserve, recover, and introduce digital evidence in court.”
The need is pressing: The ubiquity of computers and access to the Internet means that almost every crime now leaves digital tracks. In 2007 the CCU provided analysis in more than three hundred cases, about two-thirds of which involved child exploitation. That work is by far the unit’s biggest contribution to law enforcement, says Diaz: “They’ve been responsible for rescuing children who otherwise would continue to be raped today or would be dead.”
Once the ribbon was identified, the next break in the Tara investigation came when, after a couple of false leads, Ego began to analyze the bedding in a video that
appeared to have been filmed in a motel room. A week had passed, and Ego was feeling increasingly pressed. She’d suspended her noontime six-mile runs, although Lang sometimes made her go out just to take a break. Others in the unit were experiencing a similar strain, one that was all too familiar. “Sometimes you have trouble sleeping at night,” says Detective Laurie Northrup. “You worry that somebody’s going to keep getting hurt because you can’t get to them fast enough.”
In the Tara case, Ego knew they were dealing with a savvy perpetrator. The online pornography ring through which he distributed his materials was highly organized and sophisticated. It employed advanced security measures including password protection, encryption, and file-extension swapping. Members adhered to a hierarchy and observed strictly enforced rules of access after first passing an exam designed to test their knowledge of child pornography — moves implemented to filter out law enforcement agents.
But Ego and other CCU analysts — Tina Plourde, Inez Dudley, and Charles Howe — had sophisticated measures of their own. Each had undergone hundreds of hours of
forensics training, so they knew, for instance, to examine the images’ metadata, encoded digital information about the circumstances under which they’d been made. And
although the abuser only appeared on camera with a mask or with his facial features pixelated and had worked to render his crime scenes nondescript, a few specifics had been unpacked. There were links to an orange Pontiac Aztek and a white van, for example, and a painting in one of the images suggested locations in Georgia. Still, the investigation was slow going. To identify the bedding visible in a video, Ego called dozens of hotels before finally finding a person who knew materials and was able to lead her to the company that had made the fabric. From there she had to locate the manufacturer that had used the fabric to make bedding, as well as its distributors and customer list.
Taken together, the clues began to point to a particular Jameson Inn in Carrollton, Georgia, as the site where the July 2007 video had been filmed. After Ego electronically sent a redacted image to the motel, an employee confirmed that the room was indeed one of theirs. Ego pressed forward. Could the employee locate registrations for July 21 and check for an orange Pontiac Atzek? There were none. What about a white van? The woman sifted through the listings — there was one of those, she said. Ego asked if the woman could locate the materials that had accompanied the registration. She said she would try. A few minutes later she called back. In the motel attic she’d found a copy of the registrant’s driver’s license. His name was James Bartholomew Huskey. He was thirty-eight, a resident of LaFayette, Georgia. She would fax a copy of the license to Ego.
It was all adding up. The face on the license resembled that of the perpetrator in the Tara series images. And a check of Georgia motor vehicle records showed that an orange Aztek was registered to a woman with the same last name and address as Huskey.
When Ego arrived in Maine from New Jersey in 1996, she was a twenty-two-year-old graduate of Rutgers University who thought she was coming north to earn a master’s degree in social work. En route to that degree she attended a twelve-week session at the police academy in Vassalboro and then took a part-time job as a police officer in Oakland. After graduation she began investigating computer and sex crimes for the Oakland Police Department and running groups for sex offenders at the Maine State Prison as well as counseling offenders after their release. Her perspective on rehabilitation merged her education in psychology and sociology with her training in law enforcement: “My view was that you treat people as human beings while still holding them accountable,” she says.
Over time, Ego’s interest in counseling sex offenders flagged. Part of the reason, she says, is that she wanted to be “more proactive” in stemming abuse. She is, she says, deeply committed to the CCU and — despite the often wrenching nature of what she does — looks forward to coming to work each day.
The place does have warmth. In the kitchen, a plate of homemade cookies sits on a table beside a bowl of fruit. Lang is brewing coffee. Who wants some, he asks, or rather, who needs some? In many ways, Lang sets the tone for the unit. He is a man of contrasts: a self-described cross between a nerd and a jock, easygoing yet resolute, a political conservative with a soft heart who keeps photographs he took of hummingbirds and the family’s Siamese cat alongside his Hillary Clinton nutcracker. He is also a man who engenders loyalty in those who work for him. Northrup, for instance, has been a colleague for almost twenty years, and the two have the rapport of people who fully know each other’s ways.
The CCU’s camaraderie is noted throughout the law enforcement community in Maine. “I love going there,” says Gail Malone, an assistant U.S. Attorney and child exploitation and obscenity coordinator within the federal system who works often with the unit.
“The energy in the place is contagious. They take the work they do very seriously, but they don’t take themselves seriously. They’re like family to me.”
More than Lang’s presence binds the CCU, says Diaz. The collaborative feel also results from the analysts’ shared abhorrence of the crimes they’re investigating. And there’s the fact that everyone who comes onboard is hand-picked. “The unit is very selective,” Diaz says. “They invest so much in training their investigators, they need to make sure they have the right people. Initially the question was: ‘Are you better off starting with a computer geek and turning him into a cop, or taking a dedicated cop who’s committed to saving children and training him or her in the technology?’ They decided on the latter, and it was the right approach. The people [in the CCU] are there for a reason. And it’s the right reason.”
When the call finally came from Lang, who’d been waiting to hear from FBI agents executing the warrant for Huskey’s arrest, Ego got it on the first ring. “I was still up,” she says, even though it was almost midnight.
“It’s her,” Lang told Ego. “She’s been rescued, she’s safe, and they’ve arrested him.”
Ego tried to absorb the details: Huskey had been found at his residence. He’d given agents consent to search his house and admitted to having sexually molested the girl since she was six years old. He admitted, too, that a red digital camera found in his bedroom had been used to record the abuse, and that the images had been posted on the Internet user group identified by the FBI. Later the CCU team would also learn that Huskey was a tennis pro who was giving lessons to local youths on city-owned courts.
The unit’s involvement in the arrest of Huskey and the rescue of his victim was “just exhilarating,” Lang would recall. “It felt like the pinnacle of my career. I was just so proud of everyone [in the unit]. To know you’ve had that kind of impact . . . I remember thinking, ‘Life doesn’t get any better than this.’ ”
Ego, in her understated way, describes the CCU’s involvement in the resolution of the case as “pretty amazing.”
In November Huskey pled guilty before a federal judge to raping a minor and recording the images to distribute them online. In March he was sentenced to seventy years in prison and a $750,000 fine. His two children have been removed from the home. The nine-year-old girl is receiving counseling.
At the Maine CCU, the work goes on. Since last June, the team has continued to help locate and rescue victims of child pornography, including a girl and her sister in another Internet series. The unit’s commitment to identifying children is “very bold,” says Gail Malone. “They take the initiative. They seek out cases others would turn away.”
Recent investigations also have included possession of child pornography by a high-ranking state official and the use of computers at the University of Maine at Farmington to access child pornography online. Forensics performed by the unit resulted in the arrest of a Brownfield man who responded to a Craigslist Internet posting for work by asking the poster if he would hire out his twelve-year-old daughter for sexual acts.
There are frustrations.
“It’s a let-down when you pursue a lead for a week and nothing comes of it,” says Ego. “You know you’ll find a new one, but it’s still hard.” Frustrating, too, are the cases in which the CCU is all but certain of an offender’s identity, but no arrest ensues because of procedure or logistics, or — even more unsettling — a seeming lack of urgency on the part of law enforcement officials where the case resides. Sometimes the response when the CCU unearths evidence is “ ‘Okay, we’ll look into it soon,’ ” says Lang. “You want to say, ‘No, not soon. Now.’ ”
Then, too, there’s the sheer volume of the work. Two CCU evidence rooms packed floor to ceiling with laptops and desktops provide testament to the unit’s sixty-case backlog.
On a recent afternoon, Lang combs the e-mails that arrive each day from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children with information about individuals who are accessing child pornography on the Internet. The volume of entries means Lang must focus on only the most frequent and egregious of the users to determine which he will investigate. Across the room, Northrup is fielding calls about evidence to be pulled from a desktop seized a couple of days ago in the aftermath of a domestic-violence homicide in Belfast. They’ll use the unit’s computers — “overworked, they endure a lot of wear and tear,” says Lang — to analyze the suspect’s hard drive to see what’s on it that might relate to the crime.
In the adjacent room, Ego sits at her computer working to identify another child. She peers at a redacted image of the girl, shown holding a fake million-dollar bill to her hip. The key, Ego figures, is the information contained in that bill. She zeroes in on it. One of the words is legible, but not the others. Ego magnifies the image further, squints. Nothing.
Outside, a magnificent sunset is forming in the west. Fog shrouds the Kennebec River valley in the foreground as the horizon turns various shades of gold and red. Lang watches the scene build. At its peak, he rises from his desk. “We need pictures of that,” he says.
Up on the roof, the cold settles in as Lang aims his digital camera, shoots, and shoots again until he is satisfied. Darkness descends. Although the CCU shares quarters with the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, which occupies most of the turreted building, the usually bustling grounds are still. The day has been stormy, and many people stayed home. Most of those who did come in have left.
Back down in the unit, Ego is still staring at her monitor. Lang walks by, nods. When he reaches the wall, he switches on a light.
She’ll figure it out, he knows. All she needs is time.
- By: Cynthia Anderson
- Photography by: Benjamin Magro