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I-Team: Investigating the intersection of social media and child pornography

(WWMT)

It's a case that sickened even the most hardened criminal investigators. Two men and two women stand accused of conspiring online to kidnap a child at random from a West Michigan county fair, then rape, torture and kill that child.

Michigan State Police uncovered the plot last fall.

“The things that we read were very shocking to us," state police Detective Sgt. Gerald Yott said. "And we see a lot of stuff."

The evidence was found on cell phones and confiscated computers, the investigators said.

“My examiner went through all that with a fine-tooth comb and found just numerous people that they were engaged with," Yott said. "There were several images and videos of ... abuse against children. Some of them we suspected were their own children.”

In all, 11 people face criminal charges in connection with what police describe as a child porn ring. Four of them, Matthew Toole and his girlfriend Talia Furman, David Bailey and Jayme LaPointe, face the most serious charges — and many years in prison if convicted. They are expected to go to trial later this year.


Digital connections

State police detectives said they have amassed a mountain of digital evidence in the case. They also said the plan would probably have been carried out, had a friend of Toole's not come forward with information.

Investigators also said that some of the accused in the case found each other in the digital world, where chat sites and social media platforms can become a breeding ground for criminal pornography.

Pedophiles don't meet on the fringes of the dark web, Yott said. They often meet on popular websites, or over social media messaging apps, he said; and quite often their fantasies feed on each other.

"Fantasy, role play, domination, some of those kinds of things," Yott said. "And some of these people are out there trying to get others involved or engaged with them, and then taking that conversation one-on-one, away from the group and online."

Yott also said that he is not surprised that two women were involved.

“We’ve arrested, I think last year it was six women who were involved in child sexually abusive material," Yott said. The charges involved "either exploiting their own children or sharing, chats or dissemination of material, or molesting their own children.”

Life sentences

If convicted, the accused face decades in prison. But their victims might have been given a life sentence.

Cricket Leigh, a coordinator with the Community Healing Centers, where counselors interview and treat those who have suffered childhood sexual abuse, said there can be long-lasting mental, and even physical, effects of that abuse.

“When a child feels threatened or helpless," Leigh said, "it then becomes traumatic and it can linger in our cells, in our brains and in our behavior, for 50 years."

She said abuse creates different and permanent pathways in the brain, which leads to developmental and behavioral problems into adulthood.

“A sexual abuse victim, who it might have happened at 5, we know now that the brain is altered at that moment," Leigh said. “It’s extremes of one way or the other. Because they don’t feel safe. They don’t have a norm of what a boundary is – of what really, healthy attachment is. What intimacy is."

Those feelings can then lead to a lifetime of trouble in school, in careers and in relationships.

Years of therapy can help, the experts said; but preventing the sexual assault is also possible. That means teaching children to control who can reach them online.

Michigan State Police recommend that parents look into using applications that can monitor and limit a child's online activities, but also those that can deactivate a child’s accounts on several devices.


Follow Andy Dominianni on Facebook and on Twitter.

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