HARRISONBURG — Tucked away in an office in an undisclosed location in Harrisonburg, Special Agent Chad Morris logs onto chat rooms posing as a 13-year-old boy or girl.
On some days, it takes only a few minutes before an adult strikes up a conversation with the undercover investigator with the Virginia State Police.
Almost always, he said, the suspect will take the conversation in a sexual direction. Soon, the suspects will ask the “child” to send lewd pictures, perform live sexual acts via webcam or meet for sex.
“A lot of things they say are disturbing, but I’d rather have them directed at me than a child,” said Morris, who works cases as part of the Northern Virginia-Washington, D.C., Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
The concept is similar to the reality television show, “To Catch a Predator,” which aired in the mid-2000s.
Three Dozen Arrests
Morris, a state trooper since 2001, has been a member of the ICAC for the last two years. His time is divided between training, conducting undercover operations and testifying in court.
During the two years he’s worked with the task force, Morris has made 37 arrests. He said about 80 percent are from the Rockingham County area, but some are from as far away as Texas.
All have been men.
In addition to proactive cases, he also handles cases when a parent or teacher reports that a child has been solicited online.
“If that child is being solicited, chances are there are hundreds being solicited [by the same predator],” Morris said.
When handling a proactive case, he first secures the conversation needed to make an arrest. Typically the offender will ask for a nude picture from the “child.”
“We’re never the aggressor,” he said. “We let the offender bring up the subject of sex.”
He then works to try to figure out who the suspect is by obtaining search warrants for email accounts and billing information from Internet services providers.
Once that information is traced to its source, a search warrant is obtained and, often, the suspect arrested.
Typically, investigators obtain a confession from the suspect right away.
“They’ll usually try to minimize their guilt by the child’s behavior or blame things that have happened to them in the past,” Morris said.
Morris and another special agent are responsible for 13 counties and the cities within, which include Harrisonburg, Winchester and Fredericksburg.
He works out of Harrisonburg partly because of the support he receives from the Rockingham County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. Anyone Morris catches while he is operating out of Harrisonburg is prosecuted locally.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Clark Ritchie said the efforts of Morris and other online cops are more important than ever.
“His role is vital in a world when perpetrators have a much more direct avenue to our children,” said Ritchie, adding he supports Morris’ efforts in prosecuting pedophiles from out of the area. “To bring a person that preys [on] our children, I would extradite from just about anywhere.”
In the most recent case to head to court on Sept. 17, Rockingham County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Albertson convicted Harrisonburg resident Sean Passarelli, 33, of felony using a computer with the attempt to solicit a minor for sex.
Morris, posing as a 13-year-old girl, began chatting with Passarelli on Aug. 31, 2011, when Passarelli unknowingly contacted the undercover trooper.
During the next few days, Morris testified at trial, Passarelli became more aggressive and suggested the 13-year-old girl he thought he was talking to perform sex acts.
Investigators later traced the computer’s IP address to Passarelli’s home, and police arrested him there on Sept. 21, 2011.
Passarelli is awaiting sentencing.
Defending cases resulting from online stings can be tricky, defense attorneys say.
Attorney Bill Eldridge, who has represented defendants caught in these investigations, said attorneys must pressure the government to prove the person charged was in fact the person chatting with the undercover agent.
Assuming the defendant hasn’t confessed, he said, it can be difficult to reach that threshold.
He said it’s especially true when computers are seized from apartments or homes that have multiple people living in them.
“Electronic devices can be used by multiple people,” Eldridge said.
Contact Pete DeLea at 574-6278 or firstname.lastname@example.org