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Photo illustration by Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic
Photo illustration by Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic

Technology seen as force in sex-crime wave

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news Mitchell, 57301

Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

A wave of alleged sex crimes against children has people concerned about what’s going on behind closed doors — and on computer screens and mobile devices — in the Mitchell area.

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Within a month-long period covering parts of October and November, at least nine men were arrested and charged with sex crimes against children.

Among the most alarming accusations are those against Joshua James Lee Bullis, 31, of Mitchell.

Bullis is accused of abusing a young child and is charged with first-degree rape, sexual contact with a child younger than 16 and possession or manufacture of child pornography. He allegedly abused a child while video chatting live on the Internet during the abuse.

Other charges filed around the same time against other men include sexual contact with a child younger than 16; sexual exploitation of a minor (for allegedly using a cell phone to shoot video of a teenage girl in a shower); and fourth-degree rape, which means the victim was between 13 and 16 years old and the suspect was more than three years older than the victim.

“It’s probably a coincidence that there was this many right in a row,” said Mitchell Chief of Public Safety Lyndon Overweg. “We’ve always had these and will always have them.”

Statistics show sex-crime allegations were up last year in Mitchell, when 28 reports were filed. There were 14 reports in 2011, 15 in 2010, 21 in 2009 and 33 in 2008.

Statewide statistics are on a similar path. Sex-crime reports rose to 639 in 2012. They were 596 in 2011, 575 in 2010, 708 in 2009 and 673 in 2008.

Overweg said technology, particularly the Internet and social media, are involved in many cases. Roswitha Konz, clinical director at Dakota Counseling Institute in Mitchell, said technology’s influence on sex crimes is increasing.

“It used to be you buy a Hustler magazine or Playboy,” she said. “Now it’s as simple as opening a cell phone or opening an Internet browser.”

Law change sought

The state’s top law enforcement official is working to amend a federal law that he says is hindering efforts to prosecute Internet-related sex crimes.

In July, South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley helped co-author a letter to members of Congress asking for help in fighting sex trafficking at the state and local levels.

The Communications Decency Act of 1996 was originally implemented to protect children from accessing indecent material on the Internet. Courts have held the act only allows for federal — not state or local — agencies to prosecute companies like backpage.com that advertise children for sex.

Jackley, with Chris Koster, Missouri attorney general, is asking Congress to amend the language in the act to allow state agencies to prosecute companies that facilitate sex crimes against children committed over the Internet.

“As online advertising of child prostitution goes unchecked, sex traffickers are able to expand their businesses, magnifying the scope of the problem,” Jackley and Koster wrote.

They gave examples of offenders who were caught trafficking children over the Internet in 2013:

  • A 13-year-old girl in Florida advertised on backpage.com for sex services whose eyelids were tattooed with the man’s name who “owned” her;
  • Two men were arrested in Fairfax County, Va., for prostituting four minors on backpage.com;
  • In St. Paul, Minn., four men and one woman were arrested for operating a prostitution ring of eight girls and women ranging from 15 to 40.

“Federal enforcement alone has proven insufficient to stem the growth of Internet-facilitated child sex trafficking,” Jackley and Koster wrote. “Those on the front lines of the battle against the sexual exploitation of children — state and local law enforcement — must be granted the authority to investigate and prosecute those who facilitate these horrible crimes.”

Jackley said since the attorneys general sent the letter to Congress, positive discussions have occurred.

“We gave one possible solution, but the hope is these positive discussions will result in some solution to allow the states to enforce our criminal laws against these companies,” Jackley said.

In some of the recent Mitchell-area cases, social media was involved. Local law enforcement said one underage girl met adult perpetrators on Facebook and arranged to meet them where allegedly consensual, yet illegal, sexual activity occurred. That led law enforcement to discover the victim was a runaway.

“Pay attention to what’s going on with that child,” said Detective Lt. Don Everson, of the Mitchell Police Division. “You can’t always prevent this kind of thing, but you can identify if activity is going on.”

He said parents should be on the lookout for unusual interactions between their child and others. According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, sex offenders against children are typically male adults younger than 30 and are either acquainted with or related to the victim. Child victims are often female, are from lower-income families and have already suffered some form of abuse.

Offenders

Roswitha Konz has been a therapist for 25 years, including 20 at Dakota Counseling, which does not provide initial treatment to sex offenders but does provide aftercare for them.

Typically, people convicted of sex crimes in Davison County are sent to Sioux Falls for initial treatment, which includes identifying their triggers to commit sex crimes.

Aftercare includes weekly visits with a therapist, who reminds a sex offender of those triggers and how to stay away from them.

In particular, for pedophiles, their triggers might include swimming pools or kids playing on a playground, Konz said.

“We help design their behavior to stay away from those triggers,” she said.

Konz said pedophiles are people attracted to prepubescent children, whose body types are not gender specific yet or haven’t developed yet. Typically, people who become pedophiles were sexually abused as children.

“That doesn’t mean that everyone who was sexually abused grows up to become a pedophile,” she said. “But there has to be abuse and the environment around them was so not nurturing that they didn’t get the love, attention, food, shelter, things they needed. So the environment was abusive, too.”

Konz said that for people to even think of sexually abusing a child, it may be necessary for them to block out what happened to them during their own childhood.

“They must have totally split off from their own memory the feeling, so there’s no kind of connection to what it was like to be 4 or 5,” she said.

She said for treatment to be successful for a person who has sexually abused a child, the offender will have to get to the point of remembering being a child and being sexually abused.

“If they don’t get to that point, there is a limited chance of treatment being successful,” Konz said.

In the case of fourth-degree, or statutory, rape, Konz said a person is typically seeking control over a sexual partner. Often, it’s adult-age men who target young females.

There are four pending local cases of statutory rape from October and November. One case involves a 27-year-old male who is accused of raping a 14-year-old girl. The other three deal with 19-year-old males having sex with 14-year-old girls. In each case, court documents say the sexual intercourse was consensual, yet illegal because of the girls’ ages.

Task force

The South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation heads up an Internet Crimes Against Children Task force, or ICAC, in conjunction with federal and local officials.

Much of what the investigators do is held in highest secrecy. In fact, The Daily Republic was barred from speaking to the DCI about the subject.

“We’re always cautious to not give away too many strategies,” said Jackley, South Dakota’s attorney general. “I can talk in generalities, but I don’t want to put an investigator in a position where we disclose his techniques. They do a lot of undercover work and we want to protect their identities.”

ICAC investigators often do surveillance work to identify and stop crimes against children, Jackley said. He gave the example of investigators finding advertisements selling children for sex on websites like CraigsList.com and backpage.com.

In a preventive effort, DCI might create a controlled-buy operation in which it places an ad on a website to bait sex offenders.

“Often times, they begin a chat or discussion, sometimes a bidding discussion,” he said. “Sometimes they want more information about the child.”

Ultimately, the DCI sets up a meeting with the person who wants to have inappropriate sexual relations with the child. He said the goal is for that person to meet a law enforcement officer instead.

He gave examples of recent stings in Watertown, Rapid City and Sturgis. He said the Watertown sting produced no arrests, “which is successful in that it shows it isn’t as prevalent as in other places.”

In Rapid City, a sting operation netted two arrests and during this year’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, seven people were arrested in a sex crimes sting.

People are reporting sex crimes more than in the past, Jackley said, and the perpetrators are getting caught.

“When sex crimes happen, there are effects of that,” he said. “People are noticing what those effects are, so questions are being asked.

“We’re doing a better job of addressing it.”

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