Fontana PD’s Internet Crimes Against Children team is one of the most aggressive units of its kind in the nation
The unit is tasked with reviewing and investigating some of the most depraved crimes imaginable
Reprinted with permission from Behind the Badge
By Greg Hardesty
The detectives and their sergeant met in a park in the pre-dawn darkness to go over the operation: Serve a search warrant at the home of a person suspected of downloading and distributing child pornography over the Internet.
The team from the Fontana PD’s Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) unit, led by Sgt. Darren Robbins, is considered one of the most aggressive details of its kind in the nation.
With four full-time detectives and a full-time forensics technician, the Fontana PD’s ICAC unit in February 2020 alone wrote 51 search warrants, made seven arrests, investigated 29 cyber tips and reviewed and examined an incredible 5.8 terabytes of data.
What the Fontana PD’s ICAC team is tasked with reviewing and investigating are some of the most depraved crimes imaginable, including sexual abuse of infants.
At 4:30 a.m. on March 4, 2020, Robbins and his team met at Elmer Digneo Park in Loma Linda to review the operational plan for serving the warrant.
Such operations are exhaustively coordinated and have the potential of becoming very dangerous since traffickers in Internet child porn almost always hide their criminal activity. When the cops come calling and they realize life as they know it is over, many have an exit plan, including suicide by cop.
Just before 5 a.m., the team – assisted by other Fontana PD officers – swooped onto a 2-bedroom, 1-bath, 1,000-square-foot apartment in the 25200 block of Taylor Street in Loma Linda. They scoured the apartment and seized computers and other electronic devices.
Later that day, the ICAC team arrested Matthew Daniel Johnson, 30, a counselor at La Sierra Academy in Riverside, on suspicion of possession of 600 images of minors in sex acts as well as sending and selling obscene materials of minors, many of them prepubescent boys.
A follow-up search warrant at La Sierra Academy turned up a pin camera Johnson allegedly had installed in the boys’ restroom to film them going to the bathroom.
The ICAC detectives launched their investigation into what turned out to be Johnson last November after receiving a cyber tip from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
“The amount of child pornography and children that are being victimized in our society is devastatingly high,” says Det. Brad Guith, a corporal who oversees the other three ICAC detectives – Vanessa Waggoner, Heidi Kouroubacalis, and Justin Moyer.
Brandon Canary is the non-sworn forensic technician assigned full time to the ICAC team, which reports to Lt. Rob Moritz. Goose, a specially trained K9 who can sniff out electronics, also works with the team. His handler is Officer Mark Wyrick.
“Unfortunately, it’s that dark secret that we don’t talk enough about,” Guith says of child pornography. “There are so many people being victimized and there is so much child pornography being exchanged every single minute of every single day.
“And unfortunately, when (such crimes) come to light, it has absolutely devastating consequences on not only the victims, but the family members of the suspects.
“This is one of those things that people hide and do in their rooms with the door closed. They don’t want anyone else knowing because there is such a stigma associated with these types of crimes. So the families of these perpetrators are also tremendously devastated.”
Waggoner is the case agent on the Johnson case. April 2020 will mark her third year on the ICAC team.
Although formed in 2015 with fewer detectives, the Fontana PD’s ICAC became an official affiliate, in 2017, of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Program, a national network of 61 coordinated task forces representing over 4,500 federal, state, and local law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies.
The Fontana team is part of the Los Angeles PD-led task force, which is continually engaged in proactive and reactive investigations and prosecutions of persons involved in abuse and exploitation involving the Internet. In addition to San Bernardino County and L.A. County, the L.A. ICAC task force includes agencies in Ventura, Santa Barbara, and Orange counties.
Some studies have been done that say that 75% of people who look at child pornography will either have molested a child or will go on to molest a child, according to Waggoner.
Catching these people before that happens fuels the passion of members of the Fontana PD’s ICAC team.
“For a unit of our size, we’re probably the most active ICAC team you’ll find anywhere in the United States,” Guith said. “We picked the right people. They’re hard chargers and we’re really active. And we don’t have a lot of bureaucracy and red tape we have to deal with.”
Said Fontana PD Chief Billy Green: “I’m really proud of the amazing work this team does.”
The Fontana PD’s ICAC team will work cases within about a 30- to 35-mile range of the city.
Their cases evolve in one of two ways: cyber tips from NCMEC that initially are screened by the LAPD and assigned to an agency based on jurisdiction, or from proactive work done by the ICAC unit itself.
“Every entity that you can imagine that has a connection with the Internet such as Instagram, Facebook, every app you can think of on your phone, Google, Yahoo, all of these different apps are required by federal law to report to NCMEC if they become aware of sex trafficking or child pornography,” Guith explained.
In addition to receiving cyber tips, the Fontana PD ICAC detectives will tap into peer-to-peer networks — computer systems that are connected to each other via the Internet and that allow for files to be shared directly between systems on the network without the need of a central server.
Once inside a peer-to-peer network, the officers will be able to track IP addresses linked to child porn.
“We’ve got a computer program that allows us to get child porn directly from the bad guys, and they don’t even know they’re sharing it with us,” Robbins said.
Said Guith: “We are extremely aggressive with our approach to these investigations. We all take this very, very seriously. We want to get these guys off of the streets and make sure that they stop what they’re doing.”
Added Robbins: “I think the fact that we’re willing to work cases in surrounding cities is why we’re so busy. If we only focused on Fontana, I don’t think we’d be as nearly as busy.”
Robbins and Moritz give a lot of credit to the success of the Fontana PD’s ICAC unit to the work of Canary, a member of the agency’s professional staff who works out of a windowless office with several large computer screens.
Canary is tasked with finding child porn on electronic devices seized from suspects and their homes. In essence, his full-time job is to look for sickening and upsetting videos and images of children, some of them infants, being sexually abused.
“I can’t tell you how invaluable Brandon is,” Moritz said. “I cannot sing his praises and his skill level enough.”
The Fontana PD created the position for Canary in May 2019.
“He truly is outstanding, and we wouldn’t be able to do this job without him,” Guith said. “He’s amazing.”
Canary’s position is crucial considering that officers assigned to the ICAC unit eventually will rotate out of the unit.
“It takes tremendous skill to do the forensic side of our investigations,” Guith said.
“I love it,” Canary said of his job. “I love the hands-on aspect of it. And when we hit a house (of a suspect) and find material that can put a person in jail a long time, that’s very rewarding to me.”
In one case from October 2019, a suspect’s home in Upland was being searched when, after more than an hour, he suddenly darted into the kitchen, grabbed a knife, and started stabbing himself in the neck.
The man, who was being investigated for downloading child pornography, grabbed an even larger knife and went at it again.
The man, who was in his 30s and was going to school to be a child psychologist, died at the scene.
“We did what we could to get him to stop doing it,” said Waggoner, who is in charge of training new officers assigned to the ICAC team.
Moyer has been on ICAC for two years and said he loves it.
“I like the uniqueness, the niche of the assignment,” said Moyer, who also keeps track of the 320 or so sex registrants living in Fontana. “We have a lot of skills and resources that not a whole lot of other people even know exist.”
Kouroubacalis had a recent case involving a 10-year-old girl active on social media. A predator viewed some videos she shared on TikTok, a Beijing-based platform for short-form mobile videos. Because a Chinese company owns TikTok, Fontana PD detectives had to lure the suspect to a U.S.-based platform in order to secure search warrants.
“He started messaging this girl, trying to pick her up from school for the purpose of having sex,” Kouroubacalis said. “She told one of her best friends and her best friend said, ‘You need to tell your parents right now.’ And she said, ‘No, I can never do that. I would lose my iPhone forever.’”
The girl’s best friend told her parents, and her parents called the police.
“We were able to start chatting with him,” Kouroubacalis said of the suspect. “So I was able to get him to come into Snapchat, which is owned by a United States company, and write a search warrant for his IP address. We set up two dates to meet with him. He didn’t show up.
“We eventually were able to go to his house and serve search warrants. He’s now facing charges for rape of his cousin in Highland and molestation of his 4-year-old niece in Riverside.”
The Fontana PD’s ICAC team worked another case involving a Fontana man who spent years grooming his victims, some from out of state. He was a self-proclaimed freelance photographer who also worked as a bag checker at Disneyland.
Moyer was assigned to a cyber tip about the man, whom he recognized as a suspect in another case that fizzled a year earlier because of a lack of evidence.
“Since I already knew who this guy was,” Moyer said, “I knew as much as I could know about him already. We just immediately went over and served a search warrant on his house. And once we got into the house, we found a lot of things inside his room.”
It turned out that that man, Kenneth Smith, 42, allegedly had been molesting kids for about 10 years and had victimized at least eight children.
Following the Jan. 7, 2020 raid on Smith’s home, which was conducted with the assistance of the Fontana PD’s Fugitive Apprehension Team, police found in excess of 600 images.
Smith is facing 440 years to life in prison.
Because of the nature of their job, members of the Fontana PD’s ICAC team are required to undergo counseling every six months.
Having a sense of humor goes a long way in helping the team members cope.
So does conducting public outreach about the problem by visiting youth and telling them – and their parents – about the dangers of cruising naively down the Internet highway, clueless that bad guys (99% of child sexual predators are men) might be following their steps with the intent of victimizing them.
“Public outreach to schools is important for making kids aware of what is illegal and what is not (such as sharing nude photos to a boyfriend or girlfriend),” Guith said, “as well as to provide them the resources if they have been victimized.
“We try to go out and make our communities aware of what resources are available. Parents don’t want to think this could happen to their kids. They don’t want to think how prevalent this can be out there – but it is.”
The veteran detective had some advice for parents:
“Don’t be naïve. If something makes you uncomfortable, go with your gut.”
And make sure you have your kids’ social media and computer passwords and monitor them on social media, Guith urged.
The damage done to victims of sexual abuse and their families is profound, Moritz said. “They (victims) rarely get over it. They deal with it for the rest of their lives.”