Sgt. Trish Taylor doesn’t look like a vulnerable teenager, but she plays one on the internet. Not long ago, she was ensnaring internet predators and child pornographers in her free time while pursing white-collar criminals. But new police Chief Greg Mullen has made predators Taylor’s sole responsibility. Meanwhile, recognizing that predators don’t adhere to municipal boundaries, Mt. Pleasant is training its own predator unit with Taylor’s help. Prior to that, Charleston was the only department south of Columbia involved in a state effort to actively pursue predators.
Taylor has spent 12 years working in different units, but she says her internet work has been the most rewarding.
“It’s just an opportunity to put myself in between a child and a predator,” she says.
While programs like America’s Most Wanted and Dateline‘s “To Catch a Predator” have shined a spotlight on internet predators, the attention comes with some setbacks.
“It shows the problem, but it almost trivializes it,” Taylor says.
While the “Predator” shows round up dozens of guys looking for sexual liaisons with minors, Taylor notes that her cases tend to take time to win the predator’s trust and seal the case. She spent months developing a relationship with Richard Holbrook, the 44-year-old Michigan man who was arrested after flying to Charleston from Boston to allegedly have sex with a 12-year-old girl, who turned out to be Taylor.
“They’re a lot less trusting,” she says. “But that urge to sexually offend doesn’t go away.”
Her patience has paid off. Every predator that Charleston police have apprehended has pled guilty when faced with the evidence in court.
Dateline and other shows also give away some secrets of the trade, Taylor says, as predators watch and adapt.
“They change, so we have to change,” she says. “There are always new avenues.”
While South Carolina’s Henry McMaster and other attorneys general are focusing on MySpace, Taylor says that ship has likely sailed for predators.
“All the criminals know we’re focusing on MySpace,” she says, as predators shuffle on to gaming sites or other internet communities like Facebook and Bebo. “You’d have to be a pretty dumb criminal to be on MySpace.”
Technology is also providing new avenues for reaching kids beyond the family PC, including cell phones.
“Once they meet online, they don’t have to stay online,” Taylor says.
But while guilty pleas haven’t been difficult, lax sentencing by some Lowcountry judges has frustrated Taylor.
“A lot of judges here see it as a victimless crime, and we’re seeing it in sentencing” she says.
While harsh sentences could serve as a deterrent for other predators, Taylor notes that some judges are sentencing predators to as little as weeks in jail with probation. The most notable local case was Elliot Kohn, who was sentenced in September to 20 years suspended upon five years probation, receiving no jail time.
They focus on the fact that an actual child wasn’t involved, ignoring the intent. These guys aren’t looking to hook up with a police officer pretending to be a vulnerable teenager, they are looking to hook up with a vulnerable teenager.
“When you read what the intentions were in the chat, it’s shocking,” Taylor says.
The maximum penalty for criminal solicitation of a minor is 10 years, says McMaster spokesman Mark Plowden.
“We feel like that’s appropriate for someone that has committed this crime,” he says, but he notes that sentences are left to the judge’s discretion and every case is different.
Taylor doesn’t just focus on sexual predators. She also works on child exploitation cases, including the solicitation or distribution of child pornography.
“Possession is a valid indicator of pedophilia,” she says, noting local agencies and regional FBI officials are developing a coalition to take on the kiddie porn problem.
It seems counter-intuitive, but many predators aren’t pedophiles. Internet predators could be anyone. They come from a variety of professions and backgrounds. None of the predators Charleston Police has apprehended have had a criminal background.
“Most internet predators don’t care who they have sex with,” Taylor says. “A child is just an easy mark.”
And so, if there is an M.O. for predators, it can be found among their victims. Not surprisingly, it’s typically unsupervised kids apt for risky behavior. They’ve usually suffered abuse or neglect at home, or they’re under some other kind of pressure. The victims are also almost always willing. Only 5 percent of internet predator cases involve violence, only 3 percent involve abductions, and only 4 percent of offenders conceal their age.
Taylor makes herself available to any adult group interested in ways to prevent internet predators.
“Ultimately, the responsibility rests on the parents to supervise their kids,” she says. “I’m just trying to arm them with information about what’s going on out there.”
Parents should teach their kids to practice internet etiquette. You don’t talk about sex with people you don’t know. You don’t talk about personal things with people you don’t know. And, just like you tell kids to come to you if a stranger approaches them on the street, you tell them to come to you if a stranger approaches them online. Few kids tell their parents when approached online, Taylor says.
While communication may be the enemy when it comes to online chatting, it’s the chats at home that may be the most important tool in Taylor’s job.