The recent arrest of a top Florida Department of Children and Families official was just the latest shocker in the world of child pornography.
Every week it seems an otherwise upstanding citizen — teacher, lawyer, preacher, police officer — gets caught with obscene pictures of innocent children.
"There is not a profile for these type of people,'' said John Shehan, deputy director of exploited children services at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va. "These individuals come from a variety of walks of life. They could be anyone.''
The arrest of DCF press secretary Al Zimmerman on Feb. 1 is a troubling reminder that child pornography no longer is the exclusive province of the dirty old man down the street. It also underscores the difficulty of fighting a crime that has become increasingly widespread and complex.
In 2000, 79 people were arrested on child pornography charges in Florida. Last year, it was 213, a 170 percent increase.
In 1998, 3,267 complaints of child pornography were made with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. By 2006, the number had grown to 62,480.
It's unclear whether the increase reflects a growing number of predators, more public awareness or a law enforcement crackdown.
Recent popular television programs such as Fox's America's Most Wanted and MSNBC's To Catch a Predator show adults who solicit children online being confronted and hauled away in handcuffs.
And now nearly every crime-fighting agency has at least one specialized investigator to handle child pornography cases.
Some investigators actively seek offenders in cyberspace, pretending to be children in online chats or fellow porn lovers looking to score a new collection.
"It's very easy to find,'' Michael Phillips, agent supervisor of FDLE's Computer Crimes Center, said of child porn. "If you're looking for it, it's very easy.''
The prevalence of images is one of the biggest problems for investigators. Once a photo hits the virtual world, it's nearly impossible to eradicate.
Investigators still find images from old child porn magazines like Lolita and Piccolo posted online.
"When they view child pornography, some people think of this as a victimless crime,'' said St. Lucie Sheriff's Office Detective Neil Spector, a member of the South Florida Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, one of three federally funded groups in Florida. "It's not just viewing the pictures. Some child somewhere was being sexually molested and someone is viewing them for their own sexual gratification.''
A native of Lakeland, Zimmerman, 40, is a former television journalist who worked in Georgia, Texas and Florida. For the past two years, he was the press spokesman for DCF, the state agency charged with protecting abused and neglected children.
He's now being held in the Hillsborough County jail on charges of producing child pornography, accused of paying two teenage boys, ages 16 and 17, to allow him to photograph them while masturbating and posing nude.
Investigators believe Zimmerman communicated with the boys in person and via e-mail, and encouraged them to send him photos on his cell phone. They also believe he was making the photos available to others online.
One of the boys was a foster child whom Zimmerman met through his DCF job.
Authorities say Zimmerman, who declined interview requests, has confessed to the crimes. In court, a prosecutor said Zimmerman is seeking counseling for obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Zimmerman's arrest was "a complete shock and disappointment,'' wrote Andie Ximenes, 42, of Los Angeles, in an e-mail. The two were friends for many years and worked together in San Antonio.
"It is reprehensible that anyone in a position of trust would violate that trust with a child.''
But FDLE Special Agent Al Danna, who helped establish the department's crimes against children unit and is sometimes referred to as the "sex guy'' by colleagues, has learned not to be surprised by the pedigrees of predators.
Spector, the St. Lucie County child porn investigator, called Florida one of the most aggressive states nationwide in fighting child pornography. Possession of child pornography is a third-degree felony and looking at even one photo online is considered a crime.
Distributing, producing and soliciting a child for child pornography is a second-degree felony in Florida.
Last year, the state strengthened its penalties against predators who communicate online with children, travel to meet their victims and collect multiple images.
And last week, state Attorney General Bill McCollum announced a bill that would allow victims of child pornography to sue people who download and transmit their images for at least $150,000 per photograph.
It's all part of an effort by crime-fighting agencies to stay ahead of the sex predators, who are becoming more technologically savvy.
In the 1960s and 1970s, most child porn came in the form of magazines or homemade Polaroids shared through the mail or from car trunk to car trunk.
"You had to have underground contacts to get the stuff,'' Danna said.
By the 1990s, the Internet changed that. "There have been pedophiles out there forever,'' said Roy Hudson with the Florida Sheriff's Association. "A lot of times they flew under the radar.
"The Internet, with its global reach, put these people out there in the public eye for the first time.''
Digital photography also has made producing child porn easier. "It's shared via e-mail. It's shared through instant messaging. It's on commercial Web sites,'' said Cpl. Kurt Romanosky with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
The crime often goes beyond the graphic images.
One study found that 40 percent of arrests made in 2000 and 2001 were of people who were dual offenders, meaning they had sexually victimized children as well as possessed child porn.
The FDLE's Danna believes that, given the opportunity, most child porn offenders would molest.
Pinellas County counselor Don Sweeney, co-owner of A Better Solution, has been counseling sex addicts for 25 years.
While he agrees child pornography is abhorrent, he wonders whether it allows users to satisfy themselves sexually without molesting or raping a child.
"It's a preoccupation that keeps them from acting out,'' he said. "Does it promote child abuse? Or does it keep them from acting out? I don't know."
Alfred University associate professor Pamela D. Schultz interviewed convicted child molesters for her book, Not Monsters: Analyzing the Stories of Child Molesters. She said many molesters, some of whom also were into pornography, often gravitated to jobs where they could be around children.
"You see offenders in the priesthood, ministry or educational system," said Schultz, a victim of childhood sexual abuse. "It's an extra power boost in having this well-respected position.''
Times researcher Angie Drobnic-Holan contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8813.